Drezner on the academic/policy divide

As someone who plans to straddle the academic/policy divide I found Drezner’s (over at FP) recent post quite interesting. Here is an excerpt:

I think the academic/policy divide has been wildly overblown, but here’s my modest suggestion on how to bridge it even further.  First, wonks should flip through at recent issues of APSR and ISQ — and hey, peruse International Organization, International Security, and World Politics while you’re at it.  You’d find a lot of good, trenchant, policy-adjacent stuff.  Second, might I suggest that authors at these journals be allowed to write a second abstract — and abstract for policymakers, if you will?  Even the most jargonesed academic should be able to pull off one paragraph of clean prose.  Finally, wonks should not be frightened by statistics.  That is by far the dominant “technical” barrier separating these articles from general interest reader. 

More on this here.

For a slightly different view of social science and its relevance check out this piece by Clarke and Primo over at the Times.

Beating the drum for Ngozi

The Economist has joined a string of internet commentators in endorsing Nigerian Minister of Finance to become the next president of the World Bank. Contrasted against the resume of Obama’s choice for the Bank, Ngozi wins. By miles.

According to the Economist:

The World Bank is the world’s premier development institution. Its boss needs experience in government, in economics and in finance (it is a bank, after all). He or she should have a broad record in development, too. Ms Okonjo-Iweala has all these attributes, and Colombia’s José Antonio Ocampo has a couple. By contrast Jim Yong Kim, the American public-health professor whom Barack Obama wants to impose on the bank, has at most one.

However, it is interesting that in all the debate no one has talked about HOW Ngozi will change the Bank’s operations, besides insinuations that she has hands on experience in transforming Nigeria’s public finances, coupled with her previous experience at the Bank.

More importantly, what would be the cost to Nigeria if they lose Ngozi? Is this important at all?

Ngozi leading the bank will probably make a difference. However, I think that support for her candidacy has thus far been too one-sided. Nigeria, like much of the developing world, does not have much influence on the Bank’s board. Nigeria also stands to lose one of its ablest technocrats just when it is striving to reform its public finances. These considerations should matter too, I think.

Just for the record, I am one of those who think that it would be really cool to have Ngozi lead the Bank (despite the fact that she probably will not).


Update: I just came across some interesting thoughts on Ngozi’s nomination over at Africa is A Country (H/T Chad).

Spring break reading list

I just finished reading Daniel Branch’s Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya. It is an excellent blend of an academic take on theories of violence and counterinsurgency and a historical narrative of Kenya’s war of independence (as I was taught in primary school) or the “Kikuyu civil war” (which is a lot closer to the truth). The book sheds light on the foundations and dynamics of the Mau Mau rebellion and dispels previous accounts which argue that the cleavages that defined the war (Mau Mau vs. loyalist) was primarily class-based and existed before the onset of the rebellion in 1952. I highly recommend the book for the readers interested in Kenyan history or COIN, or violence and civil war.

I also currently reading William Reno’s Warfare in Independent Africa, an account of the evolution of the nature of civil wars in Africa and the type of leaders that led them. Reno groups Africa’s rebel groups into anti-colonial rebels (e.g. FRELIMO), majority-rule rebels (a southern African animal, e.g. SWAPO), reform rebels (who fight against oppressive regimes, e.g. RPF, EPLF, etc) parochial rebels (who fight for circumscribed community rights e.g. OPC in Nigeria) and warlord rebels (e.g. LURD, NPLF, etc).

The book gives an account of how the socioeconomic origins of rebel leaders and the wider political context in which they operated influenced the trajectories of conflict in African states over time.  It also attempts to tackle the question of why most African rebels (even those from Ruritania) have tended to fight for the capital instead of secession, even in states with limited capacity like the DRC (this is however changing, Sudan, Somalia, and Mali are good examples). If you had lingering questions after reading Jeremy Weinstein’s Inside Rebellion (on the industrial organization of rebel movements) then this is a good book for you to read.

Lastly, I finally took Debt, The First 5000 Years by David Graeber off the shelf. Graeber is an anarchist anthropologist who was one of the brains behind the Occupy movement. I took his last Intro to Cultural Anthropology class at Yale before he got fired. Graeber sometimes goes into the deep end, but his ideas are refreshingly provocative. I look forward to reading it and availing my comments soon.

Also need to get my hands on this book when it comes out.

On (the now shattered) Malian Democracy


Mutineers in Mali have appeared on national television to announce the overthrow of the “incompetent” government of President Amadou Toumani Toure. More on this here.

Also, I must hand it to Jay Ulfelder over at dart-throwing chimp for nailing it on Mali’s coup risk in 2012.

What started as a mutiny in Mali on Tuesday night appears to have degenerated into a coup. Mali was due to hold elections on April 29th 2012. Since (re)democratization in the early 1990s Mali has routinely been cited as a case of democratic consolidation despite seemingly insurmountable odds (poor HDI scores, etc.). The current developments, however, raise serious questions with regard to whether the Malian political and military elite have wholly bought into the idea of settling their battles for power and influence at the ballot.

Furthermore, existing evidence (see below, part of an ongoing research project) paint a picture not of consolidation but of a cycling of over-sized coalitions that are prone to executive control and manipulation. The non-existence of stable elite coalitions (as appears to be the case in the stylized comparative case of Ghana) is a recipe for elite political instability as we are currently witnessing.

Oversize coalitions in government under electoral democracy are not a sufficient condition for elite political instability, but they are definitely a sign that things might not be right.

The idea here is that stable coalitions create room for self-enforcing arrangements among elites by raising actors’ audience costs. A regular cycling of over-size coalitions flies in the face of all of this – resulting in near-permanent first mover advantage and incentives for those left out to use extra-constitutional means to gain power.

The proximate cause of the mutiny and eventual (attempted) coup in Mali might have been a confluence of weak state coercive capacity and the resurgence of the Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country (fueled by weapons from Libya); but one cannot rule out the significance of the enabling structural conditions.

This is a data point on coups in Africa that I rather did not have.

A Ugandan journalist and a politician respond to Kony 2012

Angelo Izama, Ugandan journalist (and a good friend of yours truly) has a thoughtful op-ed piece in the Times. He makes the case that:

Campaigns like “Kony 2012” aspire to frame the debate about these criminals and inspire action to stop them. Instead, they simply conscript our outrage to advance a specific political agenda — in this case, increased military action.

African leaders, after all, are adept at pursuing their own agendas by using the resources that foreign players inject and the narratives that they prefer — whether the post-9/11 war on terror or the anti-Kony crusade. And these campaigns succeed by abducting our anger and holding it hostage. Often they replace the fanaticism of evil men with our own arrogance, and, worse, ignorance. Moreover, they blind us by focusing on the agents of evil and not their principals.

At the same time over at FP Nobert Mao, politician from northern Uganda and former presidential candidate, has the following to say:

It’s clear that the aim of the video [Kony 2012] was never intellectual stimulation. I don’t think the founders of Invisible Children are the foremost analysts of the complicated political, historical and security dynamics in our troubled part of Africa. They certainly wouldn’t earn high marks in African Studies. But I will go to my grave convinced that they have the most beautiful trait on earth — compassion.

Such sentiments matter, even today.  There are those who say the war is over in Northern Uganda. I say the guns are silent but the war is not over. The sky is overcast with an explosive mix of dubious oil deals, land grabs, arms proliferation, neglected ex-combatants, and a volatile neighborhood full of regimes determined to fish in troubled waters. What we have is a tentative peace. Our region is pregnant with the seeds of conflict. The military action in the jungles of Congo may capture Kony, but we need to do more to plant the seeds of peace founded on democracy, equitable development, and justice. Like peace, war too has its mothers, fathers, midwives, babysitters, and patrons. Perhaps Kony 2012 will help sort out the actors. The video has certainly shaken the fence, making fence-sitting very uncomfortable, indeed.

The two may disagree on the usefulness of tactics such as those that made the now famous video, but they certainly agree on the need to acknowledge agency of local actors in all these problems that require outside intervention.

My two cents on this is that there is definitely room for Africans to shape the narrative and tactics of advocacy in Western capitals (or elsewhere). Emotionally charged  mobilization tactics, like Kony 2012, are definitely a distraction from the real issues. But they also present an opportunity for African actors to leverage international attention and support against their own leaders who refuse to deal with problems that affect their daily lives. I am glad that in the case of Kony 2012 Ugandans have stepped in to provide perspective on the narrative and, hopefully, influence the eventual response by the relevant policymakers in DC.

The complex problem of slavery in Mauritania, a response

This is a guest post by Mauritania (and the broader Sahel) expert and  friend of the blog Erin Pettigrew (PhD Candidate, Stanford University)

A response to John D. Sutter over at CNN.com

I’ve been working in Mauritania on and off for the past eight years and this issue of ‘slavery’ is still one I am struggling to fully understand. I certainly cringe every time I see a young black child working in someone’s home, whether they be Black or Arab, in Mauritania and these relationships of work and pay are rarely clear to me. Likewise, one’s clan and lineage affiliations are sometimes difficult to sort out and this is what people use most to justify the history and current reality of exploitative labor practices. The extreme economic inequalities in Mauritania play a large part in the preservation of these relationships. And the role of government and then outside intervention in all of this? Here, I am very hesitant to comment.
The article itself reminded me a lot of Fabien’s critique of how Africanists tend to deny any sense of coevalness to their objects of study. The overly-dramatic descriptions of a “Mauritania [that] feels stuck in time in ways both quaint and sinister” and an “isolated environment” were, to me, problematic. Mauritania is neither isolated from the world, nor stuck in time. These relationships of labor, race, religion, and gender continue to change and are very much tied to developments in the Middle East and the rest of NW Africa. There are prominent Hratine politicians (take the current Vice-President or a long-time diplomat/journalist whose family has become very wealthy in their region through trade and land sales), academics, and activists, a sign of some kind of social shifting. Yet, I’ve also talked to Mauritanians who have visited these villages inhabited by those of slave origin and the conditions they describe and neglect by the over-arching tribal structures are dismal.

While it is true that notions of race do dominate the political, economic, and cultural landscape here and this article, perhaps more than others recently published in the American media (see recent articles in the Atlanta Constitution and Atlantic Monthly), attempts to address some of the complexity of this history, I still found it lacking some nuance and historical depth. I can’t really expect otherwise, since 8 days in Mauritania is hardly enough time to really engage in deep conversation about the issue. Is it really that “incredible” that the “nuances of a person’s skin color and family history determine whether he or she will be free or enslaved?” Skin color and lineage have been and are powerful markers of identity in West Africa (see Bruce Hall’s recent book on this topic) so it’s not surprising that these would persist as important means of discrimination.

In its attempts to simplify these markers, the article glosses over the fact that Hratine (Black Moors…these terms are actually synonymous) came from (Black) Halpulaar, Soninke, Wolof (who also had their own slave practices, raiding, and castes), but mostly Bambara linguistic groups before they existed as this distinct group with a history of labor and unclear lineage. And it’s very clear that Wolof and Soninke still discriminate strongly against those of slave origin in their own communities. The article also argues that the reason the French abolition of slavery didn’t hold was due to the vastness of the desert but, if one looks at colonial-era documents, it’s very clear that the French did very little to enforce their 1905 law abolishing slavery in West Africa. They feared upsetting their relationship with powerful Bidan (White Moor) leaders if they enforced these laws and, in most cases, they allowed these exploitative relationships and the trade itself to continue. This was not because of the geography of the region since they certainly established new tax and educational systems, but because they were too concerned with the political consequences of disciplining their ‘allies’ in the region.

As a researcher in Mauritania, I must say that I and another researcher here were both deeply troubled by the “hidden” agenda of these reporters. Conducting research in Mauritania is already difficult enough, with government officials very worried about the political nature of any American’s presence, but reporting like this only adds to Mauritanians’ fears about the “real” agenda of Americans roaming around in their country. And the question of what one can do? Here, I’m really at a loss. There are many local organizations working on this issue (SOS, l’IRA, etc.) so the best answer would be to get in touch with them and see what they advocate for action. The reality is that exploitative labor with inadequate pay, however one wants to call it, does exist in Mauritania and most often relies upon this group of Arabophone black Africans called “Hratine”.

The complex problem of slavery in Mauritania

Over winter break I was in Mauritania, a vast country slightly bigger than Egypt but with a population 24 times smaller than Egypt’s. Whenever I told people where I was going they usually paused to ask where Mauritania was. I was a little more disturbed when Mauritanian gendarmes had no idea where Kenya was.

The country of 3.4 million has a serious identity crisis. The ruling elite has Bedouin ancestry and styles itself, and the country, as Arab. About two thirds of the country is black -  divided between Arabized blacks (blacks Moors or Hratines; mostly comprised of *former* slaves) and Africans; in proportions of 40% and 30% respectively.

I can attest to the fact that racism is very much alive in the country.

Another old evil, slavery, is also still refusing to go away in Mauritania. As John D. Sutter reports on CNN.com, about a fifth of Mauritanians live in slavery. I last wrote on the subject myself back in 2007.

In the next post, friend of the blog Erin Pettigrew (PhD Candidate in History, Stanford) responds to the CNN piece. Erin is an expert on the Sahel in general and Mauritania in particular.

Can RCTs be useful in evaluating the impact of democracy and governance aid?

The Election Guide Digest has some interesting thoughts on the subject. Here is quoting part of the post:

The use of the RCT framework resolves two main problems that plague most D&G evaluations, namely the levels-of-analysis problem and the issue of missing baseline data. The levels-of-analysis problem arises when evaluations link programs aimed at meso-level institutions, such as the judiciary, with changes in macro-level indicators of democracy, governance, and corruption. Linking the efforts of a meso-level program to a macro-level outcome rests on the assumption that other factors did not cause the outcome.

An RCT design forces one to minimize such assumptions and isolate the effect of the program, versus the effect of other factors, on the outcome. By choosing a meso-level indicator, such as judicial corruption, to measure the outcome, the evaluator can limit the number of relevant intervening factors that might affect the outcome. In addition, because an RCT design compares both before/after in a treatment and control group, the collection of relevant baseline data, if it does not already exist, is a prerequisite for conducting the evaluation. Many D&G evaluations have relied on collecting only ex-post data, making a true before/after comparison impossible.

Yet it would be difficult to evaluate some “traditional” D&G programs through an RCT design. Consider an institution-building program aimed at reforming the Office of the Inspector General (the treatment group) in a country’s Ministry of Justice. If the purpose of the evaluation is to determine what effect the program had on reducing corruption in that office, there is no similar office (control group) from which to draw a comparison. The lack of a relevant control group and sufficient sample size is the main reason many evaluations cannot employ an RCT design.

More on this here.