Additional thoughts on African protests

Some thoughtful responses to the post on why more Africans don’t protest bad governments:

  • Cyrus Samii says that protests occur too infrequently for surveys like Afrobarometer to have much value, and suggests a case-control study design for people who do protest.
  • Jay Ulfelder notes that urbanization is “almost a precondition for movements,” and points out that Africa was only ~39% urbanized in 2008, whilst Latin America was ~66%.
  • @coldtusker wonders about the role of ethnic politics, whilst @nairobinotes isn’t sure that ethnic politics is the best explanation for lack of protest in Zimbabwe.
  • One of my classmates, who’s originally from Zimbabwe, added that the country is quiet precisely because its Central Intelligence Organization is so widespread and so ruthless.  Stories abound in Harare of people who made a single anti-government comment and were never seen again.
  • The Monkey Cage has linked to an interesting new database on social conflict in Africa.

Other ideas?

Why don’t Africans protest?

Thus asks Lisa Mueller, a PhD student at UCLA, in a paper presented at a meeting of the Working Group in African Political Economy last year.  She notes that theories of deprivation and protest clearly predict that the poor, who are worse off in absolute terms, should protest their living conditions more often.  However, Africans on average protest no more than Latin Americans, who are approximately 5 times as wealthy.

As Mueller points out,”people rise up (1) because they want to and (2) because they can” (p. 4).  Addressing the first part of this statement, theories of relative deprivation suggest that people might want to rise up when they feel that they are currently worse off than other groups in society.  Similarly, theories of the prospect of upward mobility predict that people might protest when they feel that their standards of living will not rise in the future. Using Afrobatometer data, Mueller finds that Africans who are either absolutely or relatively deprived are no more likely to rise up than people who are not.  (However, she does find that people whose standards of living have absolutely declined in recent years, rather than remaining stable at a low level, are somewhat more likely to protest.)  She also reports that people who believe their prospect of upward mobility to be low are about 2% more likely to protest than those who believe their prospects are better.

One reason why more impoverished Africans do not protest may be the difficulty of organizing collective action in remote rural areas, where poverty tends to be worst.  Mueller finds that people who have reported attending community meetings are approximately 3 times more likely to protest than those who have not – a much more substantive effect than found for either relative deprivation or upward mobility.  However, she doesn’t address the probability of attending a community meeting conditional on urban or rural residency, so this doesn’t do much to tease out the predictors of protest in different locales.  She does note that urban Africans are no more likely to protest than rural, but drops this interesting finding rather quickly with a comment about fear of police reprisals.

All in all, it’s a very interesting paper on a timely topic.  However, I do question the conclusion she draws: “Africans seem to be refraining from protest because they anticipate changes in their living conditions” (p. 17).  This sits a bit oddly with the fact that “65 percent of respondents in the most recent round of surveys said they believe that government economic policies have hurt most people and benefited only a few” (p. 18).  A discussion of the role of government reprisal would slot in extremely neatly here.

That said, this also put me in mind of a recent post by one of IPA’s staffers in Uganda.  He wrote of Museveni’s re-election that “there are too many people who lived through the terror and who are thus easily enough appeased by ‘peace and stability’ campaign platforms. Change, to the generation(s) that lived through the bad, is synonymous with ‘danger.'”  The welfare improvements of stability might outweigh the problems of bad policy in some cases.

James Ferguson on seeing what isn’t there

Over at the wonderful Theory Talks, James Ferguson, the Stanford anthropologist, responds to the question of the “biggest challenge in global studies”:

One of the things that bothers me about a lot of what I read the in social sciences that’s, as you say, ‘globally oriented’, is that it seems to start with a bunch of certainties, a bunch of assumptions – a kind of Western liberal common sense – that we know how countries ought to be organized. They ought to be democracies; they ought to respect human rights; they ought to guarantee the rule of law; they ought to be at peace with their neighbors. And then you look at, say, a country in Africa and all you’re able to see is a series of lacks – of things that should be there but aren’t. And you end up constructing huge parts of the world as just sort of empty spaces where things ought to be there but aren’t. And it leads to a kind of impoverished understanding, I think, because you don’t really understand what is going on here. How do people conduct their affairs? How is legitimate authority exercised? How are rules made and enforced? You know, all the kinds of questions that ought to be the starting place tend to disappear or recede into the background. So, I think the real challenge is to approach this whole question with a sense of openness, a willingness to be surprised and learn something new and not to be so deductive.

I certainly believe that there are a number of Western development practitioners who have taken this perspective – of the limits of their own understanding – to heart, in useful ways.  And it’s also quite clear to me that any number of practitioners persist in seeing low income countries as a series of gaps and lacks, filled with people who are not inherently passive, but are still incapable of generating substance and meaning on their own.  When you look at a dirt road, and immediately wonder why it isn’t paved, rather than pondering the ways that people use it and the spaces it connects, your normative vision of the world is likely standing between you and a more proximately accurate understanding.

Shoe vendor, Kinshasa

I remember having this instinctive reaction myself when I took the above photo in Kinshasa (on my BlackBerry, apologies for the poor quality).  Ha, a Congolese shoe store!  That’s not the right way to move beyond bricks-and-mortar retail… I didn’t notice the creative display (maximum visibility of shoes in a minimal space, compared to piling them on a table).  I didn’t think about the processes by which sending Western cast-offs to low income countries, to be purchased by the bale by clothing merchants, had become a normal and even admired aspect of globalization.  It didn’t even occur to me that this particular vendor had thoughtfully specialized in white trainers.  I only saw what wasn’t there.  It’s the steady challenge of life, and especially work, in a globalized world, to learn to focus on what is there.

On Paul Collier, and whether statistical research should be taken seriously

I received an email from my friend Jon Stever sometime ago recounting an exchange he had with Paul Collier at a conference:

I went to see Paul Collier speak at the LSE about his penultimate book…[and] asked him to explain the usefulness of his methodology to his critics (like me) who think his results fall into one of two categories: 1. obvious tautologies or near-tautologies. or 2. those that lend themselves to potentially dangerous extrapolation (or both).

I gave two examples from his lecture that night. Here is one: He said last night that he had found that the statistical relationship between individual leadership characteristics and economic growth didn’t hold when you controlled for the fairness of elections. Moreover, he discovered that individual leadership characteristics effected growth rates only when elections were ‘dirty’ and that individual leadership characteristics did not effect growth rates when elections were ‘clean’. This is a ‘sexy’ finding and sounds interesting. But, you can rephrase this same statement into a simple tautology: leaders are not stronger than institutions (ie. leaders do not have a greater impact than institutions on growth) when institutions are stronger than leaders (ie. when institutions prevent leaders from cheating elections). Vice versa: leaders are stronger than institutions when institutions are not as strong as leaders.

Unfortunately, he completely skirted my broader invitation to explain the usefulness of his methodology. Instead he focused on the one point about leadership and muddled through an answer; he said that he thought it was an interesting finding and that he didn’t know what the data would tell him in advance etc.  I wasn’t convinced by [this response]…

[It raises] several interesting questions, in my mind, about Collier’s style and methodology:

1. Would some of Collier’s more unpalatable findings–such as that democracy doesn’t work in poorer countries–be more (or less) widely accepted if numbers were not telling the story?
2. How should the results of randomized testing be used to develop policy interventions? More specifically, would an indication of success through randomized testing in country X imply that such a policy would be useful in country Z?
3. As a public intellectual is it necessary to take extreme, contentious, or overly simplistic views? Should we, therefore, apply a massive public intellectual discount to people like Collier’s statements?

I found the first two questions especially interesting in light of the recent Microfinance Impact & Innovation conference, where a number of the same questions of narrative context and cross-country generalizability were raised.  (Tim Ogden has a thorough round-up of blog reactions to the conference here.)  Part of the ceteris paribus condition between control & treatment groups in an RCT is inevitably the broader country environment in which the experiment is taking place – and once you start making cross-country observations, well, the ceteris is no longer paribus.  Of course, Collier-style observational studies of governance at the national level can only be cross-country, and you can’t ever statistically control for all sources of variation between two countries.

It makes me wonder if there’s a certain level of complexity up to which either randomized or observational studies can in fact be generalized outside of their original contexts.  IPA folks talk a lot about the Kenya school deworming study, which showed that giving inexpensive deworming medication to schoolchildren improved educational outcomes, and I think it’s become a popular example in part because it’s so obviously generalizable to non-Kenyan contexts.  It’s rooted in biological fact.  At a slightly higher level of complexity, Erica Field had a good paper at the MII conference showing that modifying the design of Indian microfinance contracts to allow longer grace periods before repayment increased both profits & defaults among participating clients.  Assuming equivalent oversight, there seems little reason to assume that the psychological & financial aspects of a grace period might not produce similar results if implemented in Latin America or Africa.  But a country is a unit of observation that’s orders of magnitude larger and more complex than a single borrower, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that the observed nature of governance across countries is too variable, too path-dependent, to allow such cleanly identifiable relationships to exist.

Fun with the World Governance Indicators

I attended a good lecture last week by Daniel Kaufmann, who showed up at SAIS to speak about the new version of the World Governance Indicators approximately an hour after they’d been released to the public.  His central point invoked the utility of triangulating governance data from multiple sources, and emphasized the need to keep data use transparent by including margins of error:

All measures of governance and the investment climate are unavoidably imprecise.  The WGI capture this imprecision by showing margins of error with countries scores that capture the statistically-likely range of values of governance.  These margins of error reflect the extent of agreement among the underlying data sources:  when data sources tend to agree, the margins of error are smaller, and when they disagree, margins of error are larger.   (source)

That said?  Playing with the indicators online is even more interesting than hearing about how they were compiled.  Check out the differences in the quality of regulations in the 10 largest economies in sub-Saharan Africa:


Also interesting are cross-country comparisons on all six main indicators, such as this interesting graph of governance in Rwanda and Burundi.  (You know you’re doing badly on the voice & accountability side when even Burundi beats you.)

Go have fun playing with the indicators – and check out Kaufmann’s blog, the Kaufmann Governance Post, while you’re at it.

The state of tertiary education in Africa

It’s not looking so good, according to this graph showing gross spending* on higher ed in PPP terms, from Understanding Society:

It puts me in mind of a chapter from Easterly’s Elusive Quest for Growth, wherein he asks if it’s the case that African investment is low because there’s insufficient skilled labor on the continent – or whether Africans see few incentives for education when their job prospects on the other end are dim.  The obvious vote is for both.  See also Iyinoluwa Aboyeji on why the development industry should be funding universities in Africa rather than additional Centers for the Study of Development at Western universities, and Marginal Revolution for some interesting general thoughts on incentives for education in low-income countries.

*Thanks to Alison Cummins for pointing out that this is gross expenditure and not per capita!