Property and political order in Africa

I recently finished Cathy Boone’s excellent new book, Property and Political Order in Africa: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics. She’s motivated by the observation that, while disagremeents over access to land are endemic in Africa, some areas see the issue become highly politicized or spill over into violent conflict, while others end up with low-level disagreements that never escalate.  In seeking to answer this, she looks at the way that different types of land tenure systems created by the colonial and post-colonial state tend to “bottle up” land conflict at the local level, or encourage it to escalate to the national political realm.

A very brief rendering of her argument is that land tenure systems in which chiefs or lineage heads are given the right to allocate land (often along ethnic lines) tend to keep conflict local, because no one above this level of regional governance has the right to challenge the chief’s allocation of land.  Thus, people who are unhappy with their access to land can’t make claims about it within the national political system.  Examples of this type of system include western and central Ghana, northern Cameroon, and western Kenya.

A chiefly or lineage-based land tenure regime contrasts with statist systems of land allocation, where the government directly assigns land to farmers, often for the purpose of raising cash crops (and frequently involving the importation of labor from elsewhere in the country).  Because access to land isn’t mediated by any type of local government, people with complaints about their allocation take the issue directly to the national government.  Examples of this type of system include southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya’s Rift Valley, eastern DRC, and southeastern Rwanda.

I found this analysis very useful in understanding some of the persistent conflict dynamics of the Great Lakes.  In both the DRC and Rwanda, government policies led directly to the displacement of thousands of people from the colonial period onwards.  This seems to have created lasting grievances in both countries that have played off each other in very harmful ways, from cycles of ethnic violence in Rwanda to the way that persistent insecurity of land tenure in eastern Congo has led to the creation of an endless array of militias.  In Ghana, by comparison, chiefly land tenure systems prevailed, relatively few people were forced off their land, and land allocation does not seem to be a highly salient national political issue today.  To be clear, Boone is not claiming that land tenure regimes are the only or even the primary explanatory variable for violent conflict, but her analysis of the ways that land tenure arrangements can mute or amplify tensions within a political system is insightful in ways that simple claims about ethnic rivalries are not.

Coercion and violence in Rwanda

Danny Hirschel-Burns had a great post earlier this month on whether people are violent by nature over at The Widening Lens.  He reviews a number of seminal works on this issue (Stanley Milgram, Christoper Browning, Dave Grossman and Randall Collins) and concludes that while most people are “inherently adverse” to killing others, violent coercion and social sanctioning can lead people to kill.  Notably, he estimates that intergroup coercion is probably more effective in this regard than either authority or ideology.

This fits very well with Scott Straus’ findings about adult men’s participation in the Rwandan genocide.  In his 2006 book The Order of Genocide, he interviews convicted genocidaires* about their actions, and found that the two most common reasons for killing others were “intra-Hutu coercion” and “wartime fear and combativeness” (p. 136). In his telling, the invasion of the Tutsi-led RPF rebels from Uganda in 1990 deeply unsettled ethnic relations, made violence less unthinkable in daily life, and made people more receptive to genocidal political propaganda.  When the genocide began in 1994, however, ideology and fear alone were not enough to convince most men to kill.  Genocidaires were provided with material incentives, like claiming the houses and cattle of their victims, but were also violently threatened by other Hutus if they didn’t participate.

*Straus notes that because his respondents had already been convicted, they should not have felt it necessary to downplay any anti-Tutsi ideology which motivated them, since they presumably couldn’t be punished again.  I think this misses the possibility that prisoners who continued to be openly anti-Tutsi might be socially sanctioned in other ways within the prison system.  However, in general I don’t think this detracts from the plausibility of his overall argument.

What interests you about development? (Part 2)

If you’re feeling confused about how to navigate the thicket of development organizations I mentioned in my last post, don’t worry overmuch: identifying the topics and regions that interest you will help you narrow down the list of potential employers.  I write this not to patronize, but because I’ve received a lot of applications for IPA positions from people who didn’t seem very clear about the countries IPA worked in or the types of issues we typically focused on.  While life in general is richer if you’re broadly interested in the world, saying that you’re “willing to work anywhere” or “interested in everything” doesn’t provide an employer with much information about what you’ll be good at doing.

The solution is to start reading, extensively, long before you ever apply for a job or even do an informational interview.  If you’re very broadly interested in development, I would recommend the three books which caused huge debate in the US-based development community in the mid-2000s.  The End of Poverty, by Jeff Sachs, essentially argues that aid can eliminate poverty.  The White Man’s Burden is Bill Easterly’s response to Sachs, critiquing donations and advocating for market-based solutions.  And Poor Economics, by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, sidesteps this debate by promoting more rigorous evaluation of both traditional development aid and market-based programs.  Pay attention to your reactions to these arguments.  Which points did you find compelling, or questionable?  Did you really disagree with any of them?  Which new ideas excited you?  I think all three approaches can be useful in different contexts, and there are still organizations doing the types of work that all three sets of authors advocate.

Once you have a sense of several topics which interest you – say public health, or market-based approaches like microfinance – educate yourself about the state of the field.  This is important even if you’ve got experience in a related sector in a developed country, because infrastructure, regulatory environments, and the population affected by a given issue are often very different in the developing world.  The World Bank’s list of publications by topic could be a useful starting point.  More informally, check out the links to development blogs on my home page, and then check out their links as well.  Finally, when you can name one or two topics which clearly seem more interesting than others, do an Amazon search and buy some of the top-rated or popular books in those fields.  Look for those which cover the history of the field and current debates within it.  It’s useful for employers to know that you’re not just uncritically excited about a topic, but have also given some thought to the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches.

The same advice applies to the regions that interest you.  If you already have a strong interest in a particular area, be it South Asia, Africa or Latin America, then pick up a history of the region.  If this seems dry, you might try starting with travelogues, which are generally more entertaining but won’t give you a clear overview of the political, economic and social dynamics of an area in the same way that a more academic text will.  The history of West Africa might initially seem unrelated to your interest in public health, but “development” occurs in places with specific historical contexts, not in a vacuum.  In this example, it’s useful to know that some countries are politically stable and enjoying steady economic growth (Ghana) while others are still working to recover from civil wars (Sierra Leone, Liberia).  Their policy needs are likely to vary accordingly.

If you’re interested in several separate regions, it will be helpful to focus on just one as you’re trying to start your development career.   It’s time-intensive to familiarize yourself with a single area, let alone several, and having a clear regional focus is a useful signal to employers that you’re not just dabbling.  Language skills are a key consideration.  If you’re conversational in Spanish, French or Hindi, build on that and focus on regions where they’re spoken, even if you feel passionately about some other place as well.  Building a professional proficiency in a language takes quite a while, so the midst of switching careers is not the time to drop your years of Spanish classes in favor of Swahili.  Finally, if you only speak English, pick a region where English was the colonial language, as it’s likely to still be used in professional settings.  (Bad for local linguistic autonomy, useful for business in a globalized world.)

The next posts in the series will cover building relevant skills and experience once you’ve selected a topic and region of interest to you.

Recently acquired books

Along the lines of Adam Elkus’ shared reading lists, here’s what I’ve picked up recently, along with their Amazon summaries:

  • Catherine Boone, Political Topographies of the African State. “Examines political regionalism in Africa and how it affects forms of government, and prospects for democracy and development. Boone’s study is set within the context of larger theories of political development in agrarian societies. It features a series of compelling case studies that focus on regions within Senegal, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire and ranges from 1930 to the present.”
  • Danny Hoffman, The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  “Considers how young men are made available for violent labor both on the battlefields and in the diamond mines, rubber plantations, and other unregulated industries of West Africa. Based on his ethnographic research with militia groups in Sierra Leone and Liberia during those countries’ recent civil wars, Hoffman traces the path of young fighters who moved from grassroots community-defense organizations in Sierra Leone during the mid-1990s into a large pool of mercenary labor. Hoffman argues that in contemporary West Africa, space, sociality, and life itself are organized around making young men available for all manner of dangerous work. Drawing on his ethnographic research over the past nine years, as well as the anthropology of violence, interdisciplinary security studies, and contemporary critical theory, he maintains that the mobilization of West African men exemplifies a global trend in the outsourcing of warfare and security operations. A similar dynamic underlies the political economy of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a growing number of postcolonial spaces.”
  • Peter Little, Somalia: Economy Without State.  “In the wake of the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, a “second” or “informal” economy based on trans-border trade and smuggling is thriving. While focusing primarily on pastoral and agricultural markets, Peter D. Little demonstrates that the Somalis are resilient and opportunistic and that they use their limited resources effectively. While it is true that many Somalis live in the shadow of brutal warlords and lack access to basic health care and education, Little focuses on those who have managed to carve out a productive means of making ends meet under difficult conditions and emphasizes the role of civic culture even when government no longer exists. Exploring questions such as, Does statelessness necessarily mean anarchy and disorder? Do money, international trade, and investment survive without a state? Do pastoralists care about development and social improvement? This book describes the complexity of the Somali situation in the light of international terrorism.”
  • Richard Reid, Warfare in African History.  “Examines the role of war in shaping the African state, society, and economy. Richard J. Reid helps students understand different patterns of military organization through Africa’s history; the evolution of weaponry, tactics, and strategy; and the increasing prevalence of warfare and militarism in African political and economic systems. He traces shifts in the culture and practice of war from the first millennium into the era of the external slave trades, and then into the nineteenth century, when a military revolution unfolded across much of Africa. The repercussions of that revolution, as well as the impact of colonial rule, continue to this day. The frequency of coups d’états and civil war in Africa’s recent past is interpreted in terms of the continent’s deeper past.”
  • Thomas Risse (ed.), Governance Without a State?  “For readers who think the world is steadily moving toward the Westphalian ideal of a universal system of sovereign states, this book will be a revelation. For readers who despair at the chronic problem of weak and failing states, this book contains intriguing ideas about alternative forms of stable governance.”

Largely purchased from The Strand in NYC and Moe’s Books in Berkeley – both very well curated bookstores which amply reward browsing.

African urbanisation

A couple of quick hits around African urbanisation:

  • Via Matt Jones of Moved 2 Monrovia, I found this graph from October’s Economist on GDP and urbanisation in Africa.  Does Liberia reflect the impact of the civil war?  I don’t have strong priors on whether war might increase or decrease urbanization rates, and a quick Google Scholar search didn’t turn up any recent research.  Then again, Zimbabwe and Madagascar see the same direction of change, and their political conflicts have been much less violent than Liberia’s.

  • A list of 2013′s initiatives on urbanisation trends in Africa.
  • Lagos, already sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city, will overtake Cairo as the largest city on the entire continent this year.  (Kinshasa is currently #3, with nearly ten million people.)
  • Finally, I must recommend one of my favorite works of recent anthropology: Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt, by Stanford anthropologist James Ferguson. Ferguson did his fieldwork for this book in Zambia in the last 1980s, when the gaps between post-independence hopes of immediate development and the realities of economic stagnation were dismayingly obvious.  He writes deftly of the range of strategies urban copperworkers used to deal with the uncertainty of the period, exploring an interesting disjunct between workers whose plans revolved around maintaining ties with rural associates and planning for a return to the land after retirement, and those who cast their lot more fully with the city, creating new urban subcultures along the way.

New metric of democratization

From Rysazrd Kapuscinski in The Shadow of the Sun, a collection of his travel writing on Africa:

Even if you are far from the capital and, moreover, have not been listening to the radio…the behavior of the policemen and soldiers on guard [at a roadblock] will tell you a lot about the situation within the country.  If, the minute you have come to a stop, and without so much as asking you a single question, they begin shouting and punching, it means that the country is under a dictatorship, or that there is war, but if they walk up to you, smile, extend their hands, and politely say ‘You probably know that we earn very little,’ it means that you are driving through a stable, democratic country, in which elections are free and human rights are observed (p. 156).

Kapuscinski has an eye for official intrigue, and the political articles in Shadow retain their interest, from portraits of Ghana’s post-independence leaders in 1958 to a blow-by-blow account of Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi’s 1966 coup in Nigeria to the Liberian civil war in the early 1990s.  He does less well at social commentary, producing some cringe-worthy statements like “Everything [about the African environment] appears in an inflated, unbridled, hysterically exaggerated form…  From birth till death, the African is on the front line, sparring with his continent’s exceptionally hostile nature, and the mere fact that he is alive…is his greatest triumph” (p. 317).  Skip the sweeping generalizations and it’s worth a read.

Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City

I came back to Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City more than a year after I first picked it up and ended up admiring all the images rather than reading it.  Kinshasa takes its title from Italo Calvino’s great paean to architecture and the human imagination, Invisible Cities.  Specifically it is taken from the tale of Valdrada, a city on a lakeshore whose every building and happening is mirrored by the city reflected in the water.  As Calvino writes, “The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them.”  Author Filip De Boeck and photographer Marie-Francoise Plissart use this as a starting point for their exploration of the connections between Kinshasa and a number of mirror realities: the city and the forest, Africa and Europe, the waking world and the world of spirits.

De Boeck and Plissart collected the stories and photos that compromise this book in 2001 and 2002, during the last days of the second war, and it’s influenced as well by the time which De Boeck spent doing anthropological research in eastern and southern Congo in the late 1980s and 1990s.  I kept thinking of this in reading the tales of Kinois working to support themselves, find security, and manage their social relations – that most of the people interviewed had grown up amid the slow-motion collapse of Mobutu’s state, and had more recently lived through the violent social and political upheavals of the wars.

What strikes me most about these stories is their pervasive sense of longing.  In the face of systemic poverty and insecurity, mythologies of comfort and ease spring up in various ways.   Migration is one of the more obvious tropes in this vein. As De Boeck writes, “Europe is malili, cool, whereas Africa is moto, hot, full of suffering.  For most, the ideal of [the West] conjures up a world without responsibilities.  ‘Something is broke?  …  Bring it to the white man and he will fix it’ sang [popular singer] Pepe Kalle” (p. 47).   The spirit world also offers the promise of riches, with De Boeck relating the story of a man who claimed to be able to enter the spirit world at will in order to take on wealthy female spirits as lovers, and to control a python which vomited money.  Even street children, cast out of their homes as witches amid accusations that they engaged in cannibalism, inverted this condemnation by developing stories of the ways in which the human body can be converted to material riches.  As a twelve-year old accused of witchcraft explained, “In the human body, everything is useful.  The blood is fuel, diesel … and red wine…  The backbone is a radio, a satellite telephone; … the head is a cooking pot; … the eyes are mirrors, a television, a telescope” (p. 183).  De Boeck neither asserts nor challenges the factual accuracy of this story, but lets it stand on its own as an example of the “witchcraft idiom of … immediate access to the fruits of modernity” (p. 183).

These mythologies are not uncomplicated, however.  Even as Europe is acknowledged as a place of ease, the struggles of Congolese migrants to find well-paying jobs and suitable housing are placed in contrast to this narrative.  The money vomited by the spirit python eventually kills the people who handle it, as no one can care about wealth that much without being poisoned by it.  And the witch-children’s stories of effortless accumulation of modern technologies stand in poignant contrast to the powerlessness of these street children, some as young as five, in daily life.

Montage of Kinshasa from the book’s frontispiece

For that matter, Kinshasa itself is not depicted as a place of endless grinding struggle, but of struggle interspersed with solidarity and diversion – a boxing match, a church service, old American Westerns showing at a cinema.  Plissart’s photos do a wonderful job of capturing the diversity of enterprises and social structures which populate the city.  This is the real strength of Kinshasa: its authors’ ability to step away from the lenses of poverty and corruption through which it is so often viewed, and take its inhabitants’ lives seriously on their own terms.

Book review: More Than Good Intentions

Only eight months after I finished the book, I thought I’d finally review More Than Good Intentions, by Dean Karlan* and Jacob Appel.  What I particularly appreciated about the book was its clear explanation of how academic research in behavioral economics can lead to solutions for real problems of social policy in the developing world.  Given the level of popular discontent with neoclassical economics, fairly or unfairly, after the financial crisis, works like this go a long way towards demonstrating that the economist’s conceptual toolbox can contribute to making the world a better place.

More Than Good Intentions opens with a short review of the Easterly-vs.-Sachs saga, and essentially sidesteps the debate about whether aid ever works with a call for more evaluation of extant aid programs.  Their chosen tool is the randomized controlled trial.  Of course, there are any number of development problems that are not amenable to randomized evaluation.  Questions about the ethnicized distribution of government resources or the transnational funding networks of rebel groups really call out for other epistemological approaches.  What RCTs can do well is evaluate program-based aid in contexts where funding shortages mean that some potential beneficiaries can’t be included, and this is precisely the approach taken by the research projects summarized in the book.

The rest of the book is thematically structured around financial activities (borrowing, saving, consumption) and non-financial activities (agriculture, healthcare, education).  The financial sections of the book are the best non-technical introduction to the topic that I’ve seen. Dean’s interests tend towards microfinance and decision-making, and these chapters give a thorough overview of contemporary Western narratives around microfinance and the many reasons why the financial needs of the poor are more varied than simply “getting a loan.”  For instance, whilst an RCT conducted in South Africa showed that randomly extending microfinance loans to people who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten one did raise those clients’ incomes, qualitative data from the Philippines also showed that the rigid structure of microfinance products drives many people back to the neighborhood moneylender.  (The takeaway here isn’t that moneylenders are evil, but that microfinance banks might take a lesson in customizable loan repayments from them.)  Another RCT in Peru used list randomization [PDF] to show that nearly a third of microfinance clients use their loans for household consumption instead of business needs – technically a violation of their loan agreements, but a more accurate reflection of their current financial needs.

The non-financial chapters are also consistently interesting, although they tend towards summarizing notable research and policy innovations rather than placing the results within a global context.  They’re like the greatest hits of development research.  For instance, the agriculture chapter doesn’t provide an overview of agricultural modernization attempts in Africa, but it does shed light on why Kenyan farmers don’t purchase fertilizer when they need it (it’s hard for them to save money after the harvest), and how Ghanaian pineapple farmers spread information about new agricultural technologies.  Similarly, the education chapter doesn’t go into great depth about the history of universal primary education, but it does demonstrate that programs as simple as providing uniforms or cash grants to poor students can dramatically improve attendance.  One of the most remarkable studies of recent years showed that treating Kenyan students for intestinal worms with a twenty-cent pill reduced absence rates by up to 25%.  This result was so spectacular that the researchers started an NGO, Deworm the World, dedicated to reproducing this success.

All in all, More Than Good Intentions makes a strong case for the relevance of behavioral economics to development policy.  It’s also an excellent popular introduction to some of the fundamental questions of foreign aid and development economics.  I gave a copy to my parents to answer their perennial question of “so what exactly do you do in development work again?”  So far it seems to be working.

*Dean is the founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, where I work.  He generously sent me a copy of the book for free.

What to read on Burundi

Burundi is a fascinating place.  It’s one of the few nations that survived the transition from pre-colonial polity to Westphalian state with its original territory mostly intact, which could be a history lesson all by itself; its pattern of ethnicized access to resources and resultant political violence is just as heartbreaking as Rwanda’s; it’s utterly beautiful.  (Check out the second photo here.) And it’s an excellent case study in the ways in which our Western gaze towards Africa is pulled towards the topics we find it easy to understand: natural resources & wildlife, unusually large-scale or savage violence, apartheid, piracy.  Lacking much by the way of resources and unique fauna, its civil war somehow deemed less interesting than the Rwandan genocide, and (happily) free of “whites only” signs and pirates, Burundi is turned into a blank spot on our imagined map of Africa.

This came through quite clearly when I was researching post-conflict ethnic reconciliation in Burundi for my independent study last semester.  There’s nowhere near the richness of the literature on Congo or Rwanda, although it seems that there’s a promising crop of young researchers like Cara Jones, Meghan Lynch & Cyrus Samii who have ongoing projects in the country.  That said, there are still a few good books to start with.

  • I haven’t read this yet, but The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History by Jean-Pierre Chretien looks like it contains a great overview of pre-colonial Burundi.
  • Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide, by Rene Lemarchand.  Published in 1996, it covers the period from colonization to Melchior Ndadaye’s death in 1993, at the start of the civil war.  Lemarchand is one of the foremost Burundi scholars around, and it’s a lucid take on the way in which the country’s ethnic divide grew steadily deeper and more violent over the course of the 20th century.
  • The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa, also by Lemarchand, collects several of the author’s recent essays on Burundi.  Not nearly as thorough as his earlier book, but useful for getting up to speed on Burundian politics through the 2005 elections.
  • I relied heavily on two articles in writing my paper: “Ethnicity and Political Violence: The Challenge to the Burundi State” [PDF] by Patricia Daley, and “Making Peace after Genocide: Anatomy of the Burundi Process” [PDF] by Howard Wolpe.  The former is a readable overview of the Burundian civil war, whilst the latter analyzes the drawn-out peace negotiations that finally ended the war in 2005.
  • Life After Violence: A People’s Story of Burundi, by Peter Uvin, is my favorite book on the country.  After the war’s end, Uvin interviewed several hundred ordinary citizens about daily life in contemporary Burundi.  He’s a thoughtful chronicler, and it’s great to see the opinions of average Burundians taken seriously.  [Update as of 30 March 2012: I've heard more recently that other Burundi scholars have doubts about the representativeness of Uvin's sample and the quality of his questionnaires.  So now I'm not sure what to make of his conclusions.]
  • Burundi: Biography of a Small African Country, by Nigel Watt, offers up a less academic take on the country’s history, also peppered with extensive quotes from Watt’s Burundian friends.

What to read on the Congo

In the spirit of my recent post about what to read on Rwanda, here’s my take on the DRC:

Other recommendations?