On Wednesday, October 8th 2014, I was among the audience of the Wincott Lecture (hosted by the eponymous Foundation at Local Government House in London) given by Professor Sir Paul Collier, author of “The Bottom Billion – Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it“. The topic was (sub-Saharan) Africa, its recent successes and future challenges.
The lecture was extremely pleasant and insightful. Although I have not yet read the book upon which the lecture was based, given the summary we were given in the lecture, I would recommend it. I will definitely try to read it when the time comes. My impression is that it illustrates the arguments it makes with examples of real life successes in African leadership.
The speaker was keen to highlight that Africa has succeeded in many respects but that for the sake of expediency he would be focusing on the failures of Africa and the remaining challenges to the continent. Due to the (quasi-)continental coverage of his review, his comments were necessarily general and focused on those shared elements. It was fairly high level but he focused on more qualitative dimensions.
If memory serves me well, Mr Collier highlighted three main common areas of past failure and present concern for the future of Africa:
- Management of energetic resources: How are the resources priced? How are revenues used? – Are African countries doomed to suffer from natural resource curse and the Dutch disease?
- Management of urbanisation – Public infrastructure in Africa is very poor. Urbanisation is limited with the continent still possessing the largest level of rural population in the world. Economic growth, achieved with rising levels of productivity requires urbanisation, for the development of manufacturing and services industries where value added is higher.
- The lack of a strategy for the future – Where are the countries going? What are their strategies? Is the focus on exploiting natural resources in order to consume now or is there a consensus that development requires public investment, the requisite for which is postponed consumption, potentially by one generation to the benefit of the next?
These are the questions that will shape the future of the continent as it continues to hope to develop. Are countries going to follow the failed consumerist path of Ghana or the stoic example of Botswana?
A different perspective on the sociological causes of African Failures
Having identified the challenges facing Africa, Collier considered a template for considering the dimensions shaping the likelihood of success going forward.
Identity-power (mis)match – Mr Collier makes the point that while most African countries are rather culturally fractionalised into several ethnicities, politically they are very centralised. Thus power is enforced from a level that does not overlap with anyone’s identity and preferences. At its least bad, it creates a one measure fits all approach to policy that is unfit for heterogeneous polities. At its worst is provides a forum for predation where whatever sectarian group gains power can exploit the country’s resources and distribute its benefits to its own members rather than benefiting the country as a whole.
Narratives of distrust of the state – This mismatch of identity and politics facilitates a narrative of distrust of the state, which is perceived as rapacious and a predator on individuals, a leviathan of predation along the lines of libertarian fears. The state takes but gives nothing in return. It just feeds itself and the pockets of those at its top; a sort of reverse Robin Hood.
Private-over-public interest norms – When the state is seen as a hurdle to individuals, the system becomes rigged against the little guy, who is financially oppressed. A failed state cannot be counted on to provide any sort of useful guidance so (discreet/private) disobedience is for the best. This creates a channel to legitimise corruption as a way to correct the evils perpetrated by the state. If a judge isn’t paid enough money, then auctioning a verdict will correct the evil. If a tax inspector struggles to feed his family, a bribe will correct the state’s greed. No one could be expected to do any differently and even if they did, they wouldn’t last long in those systems, because eventually they would starve. Nevertheless, the state stops functioning, not withstanding wonderful-looking institutions on paper (like competitive elections).
Perhaps in a slightly sceptical manner, I find it hard to believe that the author came up with this type of analysis, mainly because such concepts are more commonly found in political science and sociology than the lecturer’s natural economic habitat. Having looked around a bit I’ve come up with a number of culprits, none of which I find to completely satisfy his analytical framework. As far as identity is concerned, my first whiff of the topic came from my own field of economics, through the intermediary of Akerloff. One such theory is Narrative Identity. However, it seems more focused on the story telling of identity than on how identity and narrative interact. With regards to Norms, one interesting approach, which probably can be very useful in the analysis of corruption, is the Return Potential Model. These topics also seem to rise out of Paul Collier’s latest book on migration, “Exodus: How Migration is Changing our World“, which seems to have made some extrapolations people in the business of studying migration found inaccurate. However, and this might be a gap of my readings, I have never before seen these three dimensions so cleverly integrated into one cohesive analytical framework.
2 types of comments come to mind at this stage.
Misconception, Disengenious Arguments and the Broader Picture
The first type has to do with the narrow scope of the elements he chose to highlight in his talk and a specific remark that struck me as somewhat naive: I doubt that the speaker genuinely believes that those three sociological dimensions are what is necessary for Africa. Perhaps in my own exercise of confirmation bias, I chose to believe that as myself, and despite his criticism of the exaggerated focus that has recently been made on institutional economics, its diagnosis, prognosis and advice, the speaker would not recommend that reform in Africa (or anywhere for that sake) should focus on the above three dimensions at the detriment of institutional and macroeconomic variables. Clearly, growth requires investment in human capital and infrastructure, contextualised in an accountable and transparent structure of power with checks and balances and a legitimate orderly process of succession. His comments about identities, narratives and norms clearly play a role, and these insights are not insignificant. I agree that they are necessary. However, and much like the insights of institutional and those of macroeconomics, these sociological insights are not sufficient. I don’t believe that Mr Collier meant to imply his insights were sufficient, but his emphasis and exclusive focus was such that the audience could have been excused for believing otherwise.
This takes me to the specific example that stayed with me for how naive it struck me as. Bear in mind I am not part of the elite of any African country and have never met any of its members to this day. All I’m using is my judgement of the likelihood that events would unfold in the manner the speaker described it. As such, and armed with these very limited tools, a comment he made about informal checks and balances struck me as disengenuous. The specific example described the stoic exemplary lifestyle of a local president (I admit I don’t remember which) and how his personal lifestyle of simplicity and sacrifice inspired his countrymen, along the lines of what is happening in Uruguay with José Mujica. He went on to argue that if this president should he have decided to shift towards a more indulgent, ostentatious exercise of power as a despotic cleptocrat the internal pressure that would have been imposed would have been equivalent to that of a working judiciary as a check on government action. The idea is that he would have been removed from power at best or killed for his sins, in the worst case scenario. The argument was supported by the collective agenda adopted by the country’s elites and the stake of his supporters.
I find this comment disingenuous and prone to leaving the audience with the impression that the author believes all it really takes is a good leader and all is sorted, which is not true.Clearly a cleptocrat could easily buy off his less ethical opponents and eliminate those more staunchly opposed, particularly one as charismatic as this one appears to be. Moreover, the process would have been disorderly because the informality of such an institutional arrangement would have likely resulted in sectarian killings. Not that the situation could not have devolved into chaos in other countries, but a lack of checks and balances and blind trust that the elites will be enlightened to pursue the common wealth of the population even when faced with temptations is disingenuous.
I accept that I’m focusing too much on one example and this is not fair to the speaker, so I repeat that I agree with him and that I’m using this example as a case study on “how not to interpret” his argument. As a matter of fact, having looked for other talks of his, and found the following TedTalk lecture, it is apparent that my assumption is not wrong, even if his thinking on the topic has evolved to include these sociological elements when before he either ignored them in favour of institutions, of which he now seemed less keen to focus on.
To conclude this remark, I do find the three sociological dimensions described by Mr Collier to be extremely interesting. However, if I should use them to discuss development, I should look at them as the Societal Paradigm, the first of three pillars, the other two being Macroeconomic and Industrial Policy Political Institutions.
With the “right” societal paradigm, are the right political institutions more likely to emerge, thus leading to better macroeconomic policies? – I don’t know. Most likely the whole thing is endogenous, but clearly if you tick all these boxes you are likely to be doing well. Whether the arrows should be there to show that one leads to another is not something I’m entirely confident of. (PS: for those of you unfamiliar with the concept of subsidiarity, it is the economic equivalent to identity-power match, except that it matches power with economic internalisation. If a policy has externalities, so that its (positive or negative) effects spillover onto its neighbours, the avoidance of free-riding from one to the other and the appropriate pricing of the costs or benefits of the policy might suggest pooling of sovereignty between the two regions. Thus human activity should be managed at its lowest level of political aggregation.)
From Africa to Europe – What implications for the EU?
Returning to praise, and this is the second type of opinion that the lecture left me with, I definitely found the relationship between identity-power mismatch, distrustful narratives and the prevalence of private-over-public interest norms appealing dimensions and logics for those looking for a new way to consider public attitudes to the EU. I would question the validity of the last leg regarding the private-over-public interest norms to this specific case, but I might be wrong. Supranational integration at the European level is not sufficiently high to offer similarly conspicuous opportunities for corruption to civil servants who are also extremely well paid, contrarily to the tax officials in DRC or judges in Ghana (I think it was Ghana).
Nevertheless, it is still interesting to apply these tools to the EU. What comes out? – Clearly there has been a shift over time from power being allocated at the national level to transfers of power to the supranational sphere. How they are perceived is very interesting. In the periphery, this is resented as appearing to limit national sovereignty, even when de facto sovereignty was already perceived to be below its idealised de jure level. This is a sentiment that is often expressed by countries when the European Commission makes recommendations on desirable economic policy reforms, most recently by France’s Hollande. So perhaps there is an issue of mismatch between identity and power in the EU. Certainly, the resurgence of right-wing Eurosceptic nationalism is consistent with the theory that when the above type of mismatch occurs an anti-establishment narrative emerges. Like I said, whether such narratives have spilled into uncivic norms strikes me as more unlikely. Nevertheless, one interesting thing that I’m taking from this post as I get to its conclusion is that there might just be an underlying struggle between this cultural subsidiarity that requires identity to match power, and policy subsidiarity that requires the scope of a sector to be matched by the appropriate economic management and resources.
To me, Europe makes economic and geopolitical sense and no one has been able to give me a proper explanation against it. But it may not appear to make cultural sense (a criticism often levied against the project). In the USA, the war of independence helped set the ground for such a common past and a fitting narrative, but the economic differences between the North and the South still required national identity to be consolidated through civil war. In Europe, all we’ve got are 2000 chaotic years of war leading to a consensus for cooperation. But we don’t really have a common narrative. We don’t really have a common identity. As integration continues driven as it is by subsidiarity and the management of externalities, will the shifting balance between cultural subsidiarity and economic policy subsidiarity begin to cause a rift in the fabric of the project? – I like economics because it tends to use tools that are useful to tractably think about the world, among them well-defined variables and mathematical logic. I like that you can make a statement and then pick it apart, looking at the required steps necessary to get to the described effect. Not only does it make it empirically relevant, in that you can test your hypothesis, but before that it is possible to work through the stages and make sense of things. My amateurism when it comes to sociology and the chaos that I perceive therein always made me suspicious of it and what I’ve perceived to be its focus on unquantifiable variables. Aside from Social Network Analysis, I never really saw a way to connect economics and politics with the stuff of sociology, like identities, narratives and norms. This is the first time I’ve found a way to think about the interaction of economics, politics and sociology that makes sense.
This has helped me make sense of how such a process of progressive failure might come to pass based exclusively on non-economic issues. Shielded as I was behind my absolute conviction of the inevitable merits of European integration, and because I still believe in the costs of going the other way, I’m a little spooked by the fact that I now can see how things could unfold the other way. It’s not a pleasant thought, but thank you Mr Collier.