"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
Following up on my earlier post on Patrick Chabal’s, “The Politics of Suffering and Smiling”, I now want to comment on another part of the book, “Striving”. This part of the book focuses more on the “politics of economic activity”, from the perspective of people and communities. (Chabal rightly comments that the perspective on African economics is often from a global / macro perspective). Chabal approaches the question from three angles: labour, trade and rent. I will focus on the last one, in part because of my development cooperation background and, as Chabal states, “… African economies are largely based on rent.” (p. 108)
The other two sections (labour and trade) do have some observations that are important to keep in mind in the African context. For example, the importance of work in the informal sector, the importance of reciprocity versus the market per se and that (thus), “… economic rationality requires the cultivation of ‘traditional’ networks and values, which economists see as impediment to the development of a market economy.” (p. 112). If I see the importance of connections (in particular family and ethnic) in the careers of my family back in Guinea I can only support this argument. In contexts with weekly-enforced (frankly non-existent) contract and labour laws and where you never know if your next salary will be paid (or, with inflation, what it will be worth), it is clear that people need networks and ‘flanking’ strategies to survive. Chabal’s comments on trade are also interesting, in particular the widespread nature of it. Spend some time in West-Africa, and you quickly have the feeling that everyone is either a civil servant or ‘un commercant’. There is minimal movement up the value chain. Chabal then highlights a range of reasons why this is the case, but the important thing to take away from all this is that it has deep roots (and political science should understand this) but is not necessarily static.
With regards to rent, Chabal starts by placing the concept (not specifically African) in context. He does this by looking at the links between status and rent, explores its collective aspects and finally looks at it in the post-colonial era – in particular through aid. To start with the first link, status, it is clear that the role of traditional chiefs has always included an important dimension of sharing out rent and that this was (and is) linked to status. Linked to the second linked, it is also clear that it follows a collective pattern – family, village, and / or ethnic group. The colonial period complicated this by introducing another dimension of accountability (upwards, to the colonial authority). It also created space for new power ‘entrepreneurs’(colonial administrators) and, “… it is well to point out that there had occurred a dangerous breach between power and accountability, which had fateful political consequences after the end of colonial rule”. (p. 124).
In the post-colonial period, aid was introduced which potentially has become a distortion and a boost to rent-seeking. Chabal says that the distortion was by, (1) putting the countries at the mercy of donors, (2) encouraged keeping trade before industry, (3) provided funding to keep the bureaucracy in a way that was not sustainable, and (4) created a situation in which elites were (more) accountable to external actors than their own populations. “Amplifying what had happened under colonial rule, the relationship between political elites and outside donors made possible an ever-closer convergence between power and rent. Divorced from its moral and ethical base, power offered virtually unlimited opportunities for politicians, who could in this way accumulate vast resources without having to account directly to the population.” To get or maintain legitimacy, politicians could either use coercion or rent, reactivating the “traditional” politics of reciprocity. (p. 125)
Looking at the four points, they are interesting, but I’m not sure I fully agree. The 1st point is a simplification of the situation. Not all African countries were at the mercy of donors – and definitely not all the time. Aid-recipients played donors against each other (most evident during the Cold War, but event today) and some aid programs, while maybe interesting for rent-seeking at local or project level are clearly not sufficient to move the political elites. The incapacity of European countries (and the Commission) to ‘buy’ cooperation on migration issues is a good example of how limited this influence is. Of course, this does not mean that sometimes policy was blamed on donors or if donors cut funding in specific sectors that the states did not pick up the slack.
The second point is linked to the one above. I’m not sure the focus on trade – or lack of industrial investment – is because of aid. Aid may not have (sufficiently) encouraged it and possibly in some cases have had a ‘Dutch-disease’ type effect. But surely the lack of investment (local, by state or private sector) and foreigners is at the core of this and not aid? I would argue that at the very least aid probably – in certain countries- supported it a little bit (through policy reforms, critical studies, infrastructure that could be used to support industrial development such as electricity or roads, etc…)
The third point is in the same way debatable. Could the bureaucracy that aid has supported have been better and more efficient? Surely, even most in the sector would agree with that. But to argue that the problem in African countries is too much functioning bureaucracy is surely not true (unless maybe through a crowding-out argument).
The fourth point is, in my opinion, the most valid one. It is clear that being able to communicate to donors and the international community has become a vital skill for African elites. And it could be that this comes at the cost of local accountability and real legitimacy. In particular when combined with the point on the effect on rent of aid. The difficult in creating a political space for downward accountability in African governance and politics has been evident. Whether it is move the electoral agenda beyond ethnic and patrimonial politics to real policy arguments or the weak role of parliaments and civil society, this is a fundamental issue and it seems likely that the role of donors is important in this. The amount of time some ministers spend in meetings with donors (in-country or outside) is sometimes shocking (in particular when compared to the time they spend in parliament).
Niamey, Niger, 23.04.2018