Does Kenya have too many MPs?

An article in the Daily Nation asked this provocative question. In the article, the author examined the cost per capita of legislatures in several countries; and concluded that legislatures in OECD democracies tend to be relatively more representative (seats/million people) as well as cost effective (per capita cost/east) than their counterparts in the developing world.

Of course, linking per capita income to the density of representation has its pitfalls. An assumption that countries with smaller economies should have smaller assemblies, regardless of population size, implicitly undervalues the political voice (and rights) of citizens of poor countries. At the same time, setting an arbitrary upper bound on the remuneration of legislators (and general resourcing of legislatures) has the potential to limit the continued professionalization of legislatures in emerging democracies. Under-resourced legislatures find themselves in a bad equilibrium of high turnovers, weak institutionalization (lack of experience), inability to check the executive or effectively legislate, and a whole lot of dissatisfied voters who invariably choose to go with erstwhile challengers.

How break out of this bad equilibrium is one of the key questions I grappled with in the dissertation (and in the ongoing book project). But I digress…

legseatsThe standard metric in Political Science for comparing the density of representation was developed by Rein Taagepera in the early 1970s. The Taagepera formula predicts that assembly sizes tend to approximate the cube root of the total population of states. In the dissertation I looked at how African states faired according to this metric (see figure) and found that the vast majority of countries on the Continent have relatively smaller assemblies than would be predicted by their population sizes (the figure only captures the sizes the lower houses). Somalia, Uganda, Sudan, the DRC, South Africa, and Ethiopia are the clear outliers. Incidentally, Kenya’s National Assembly is right on the parity line.

The usefulness of this metric (at the national level) diminishes beyond a certain population size. For countries with hundreds of millions of people or more, it makes more sense to apply the formula with respect to sub-national assemblies, if they exist. This is for the simple reason that beyond a certain number of seats the legislature would become too big to reasonably be able to conduct its business (see Nigeria).

On presidential decrees

Nearly all world constitutions grant presidents the power make laws via executive orders and subsidiary legislation at the point of implementation. And this is what happens when presidents exercise the same powers without robust legislative oversight.

There is no way around the basics: Development will take time

I just read Chris Blattman’s response to the UK Prime Minister’s op-ed in the Journal. It reminded me of a lot of the things that I have been reading lately in preparation for my fieldwork (My dissertation will tackle the subject of legislative (under)development in Africa, with a focus on the Kenyan and Zambian legislatures).

Cameron’s sentiments in the op-ed are emblematic of the problems of development assistance. Like in all kinds of foreign intervention, developed states often try to externalize their institutions (and more generally, ways of doing things). These attempts often ignore the lived realities of the countries being assisted.

Forgetting the history of his own country (think autocratic monarchs, monopolies, limited suffrage), Cameron thinks that democracy, human rights and free markets (all great things) will magically create jobs in the developing states of the world. They don’t. In fact, they often lag the job creation process. For development assistance to be effective it must eschew these feel-good approaches to the problem of underdevelopment.

Blattman is spot on on a number of points:

  1. Unchecked leaders are bad for economic development (this is why I am so much into PARLIAMENTS!!!): Also, democracy is NOT synonymous with limited government. Heads of state like Queen Victoria or Hu Jintao or Bismarck or even Seretse Khama were in no measure democrats. However, they reined under systems with strong (sometimes extra-constitutional) checks to their power. That made a difference.
  2. Institutions rule, yes, but the right kinds of institutions: 1688 moments do not drop out of the sky. They are often preceded by decades if not centuries of civil strife, economic change and plain old learning. Institutional development takes time. Plus each society requires its own unique and appropriate mix of institutional arrangements to meet unique economic and social needs. A procrustean approach to institutional development (embodied in global capacity building) will inevitably fail. Institutional development must never be allowed to be captured by those who think that we can transform Chad simply by having them adopt Swedish institutions.
  3. Growth will require creation of jobs, i.e. industrial development: The poor countries of the world need real jobs for high school-leavers and other less educated people. The present focus on the “sexy” entrepreneural sectors – whether they are small businesses for the poor or tech hubs for the very highly educated – as the engines for growth in the developing world is misguided. I reiterate, starting a business is a very risky venture that should be left to the wealthy and the occasional dare devil. The poor in the global south need stable 9-5 jobs. Lots of them.

And lastly, where do strong institutions come from? There is no easy answer to this question. What we know is:

  1. History matters: Present countries with a long history of stateness have a better track record of building strong institutions for development. Yes, they may not always be democratic, but countries with a long history of centralized rule have strong states (and institutions) that deliver for their people (for more on this see Englebert and Gennaioli and Rainer).
  2. Democracy does not always create strong institutions: Since 1945 many have chosen to forget the fact that universal suffrage is a pretty recent phenomenon in the political history of the world. For the longest time world polities were ruled by power barons who held de facto power (as opposed to the procedural de jure power in democracies). When democracy came along after the Enlightenment the resulting structures of rule often reflected these de facto configurations of power. Over time institutions in these countries were cemented enough to allow for complete outsiders like say the current president of the United States to be elected without upsetting the balance of power (in another era he would have had to have mounted a coup). This is the challenge of the democratization in the new post-WWII states. How do you make democracy serve the interests of the people, rather that purely that of the elite? How do you use democracy to create strong institutions? Is this even possible? And if not, what other options do we have?