How are effective states going to emerge in Africa?

February 19, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

[Sorry to anyone who got a premature alert yesterday – hit the wrong button!]

There’s nothing like a visit to Africa – in this case ten days of book promo and financial crisis impact interviews in South Africa and Zambia, to get you thinking about the role of the state. In Southern Africa, as on earlier launches in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, discussions invariably turn to leaders – is it inevitable that even good politicians will betray us when they come to power? Where will the next Mandela come from? It brought to mind a quote from American Revolutionary Patrick Henry on the purpose of the US Constitution: “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” A good constitution is designed not for good leaders, but for bad ones. State building is about the long dull slog of building institutions – perhaps in some ways Mandiba did Africa a disservice by encouraging its endlessly frustrating search for the providential leader.

So I went back to my friend Matthew Lockwood’s great book, ‘The State They’re In’, where he quotes a depressing survey in Uganda that found that 59 per cent of respondents think that ‘people are like children and the government should take care of them like children’. Matthew’s book searches for answers to that critical question – what can turn fragile and ineffective states into effective ones?

Building on his arguments, here are some of the routes to effectiveness:

1. Leadership is indeed important, witness Botswana’s astonishing development since independence, or the wonders of the US constitution.

2. Conflicts can be a trigger for a major transformation in state effectiveness, provided there is either a clear winner (Rwanda) or a genuine peace agreement involving all parties (El Salvador) or the old order is swept away (Uganda, Ethiopia, Somaliland, South Korea). Fudged agreements like that in the DRC just seem to prolong the agony. Economic crises (Sweden, US New Deal) or civil unrest (Malaysia) can also provide the catalyst for a sudden leap in the role of the state.

3. But Matthew argues that there is another, more gradualist (and less bloody) route – the Ghana option (Ghana has just seen elections in which the ruling party – shock, horror – conceded defeat without violence in a knife edge election). In Ghana and elsewhere, the steady spread of civil society organizations, along with other checks and balances on state power such as an independent media curbs spoils politics, is paving the way for a transition towards a more accountable and effective state. Urbanization across the developing world will increase their prominence, since both are largely urban phenomena.

Matthew concludes on a note of hope: ‘if civil society and concepts of citizenship radically strengthen in the next few years, Africa may see the emergence of more cases like Ghana. These will not be developmental states along the lines of East Asia, and are unlikely to mirror their exceptional growth, industrialization and poverty reduction. Their developmental path is likely to be slower and more meandering as the state is pulled in different directions by different interest groups. The state may indeed become ‘captured’ by dominant groups that do not have a developmental agenda (in Ghana perhaps the extractive resources industry, for example). However, regardless of which interest groups come to predominate, the argument is that politics will have been transformed from its current clientelist basis, and in democratic politics, it will actually be possible for different interest groups with coherent sets of policies to fight for control of a functioning state.’

February 19, 2009
Duncan Green