Seeing like the Somali state

Crumbling colonial-era forts sit on the edge of a bright blue bay filled with small blue fishing boats

Image of Mogadishu via NPR

Jesse Driscoll recently wrote a fantastic post for Political Violence at a Glance reflecting on survey work as statebuilding in Somalia.  This was drawn from his experience doing one of the country’s first representative surveys in decades for this paper.  One important point is that survey work is never positionally neutral — and this lack of neutrality is amplified in a conflict zone:

Our discouraging conclusion, after a 5-year study, was that practically any kind of intervention that touched the lives of Somali’s most vulnerable would invite skepticism about researcher motives—and perhaps rightly so. To the extent we were neutral observers we could be accused of engaging in virtual poverty tourism. To the extent we were something other than neutral observers, however, we were aspirational partisans. One of our Somali enumerators once asked, point blank, if we were being funded by the US military to put together a predator drone list. We weren’t, of course, but his concern was valid. Some of the most productive research programs in political science over the last decade produce knowledge that is explicitly (and unapologetically) seek-and-destroy.

Census knowledge in particular is not a public good, in the economic sense of the term:

An inaugural survey of a landed population after a civil war is not a pure public good, but more akin to club goods for politically powerful social groups (who stand to benefit most from counting and will, predictably, design survey/census categories to benefit them). Residents inclined towards distrust of political centralization may wish to remain invisible.

(The title here, if you didn’t catch the reference, is a play on statebuilding scholar James Scott’s most famous work.)