Is democracy overrated?

Brennan calls people who don’t bother to learn about politics hobbits, and he thinks it for the best if they stay home on Election Day. A second group of people enjoy political news as a recreation, following it with the partisan devotion of sports fans, and Brennan calls them hooligans. Third in his bestiary are vulcans, who investigate politics with scientific objectivity, respect opposing points of view, and carefully adjust their opinions to the facts, which they seek out diligently. It’s vulcans, presumably, who Brennan hopes will someday rule over us, but he doesn’t present compelling evidence that they really exist. In fact, one study he cites shows that even people with excellent math skills tend not to draw on them if doing so risks undermining a cherished political belief. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. In recent memory, sophisticated experts have been confident about many proposals that turned out to be disastrous—invading Iraq, having a single European currency, grinding subprime mortgages into the sausage known as collateralized debt obligations, and so on.

That is from the New Yorker. The whole piece is worth reading. It has a lot of interesting takes on the inherent contradictions of democracy. I can’t wait for my copy of Brennan’s Against Democracy.

H/T Tyler Cowen.

Variagated Africa: Trends in Economic Performance in Two Charts

This is from the IMF’s Monique Newiak:

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In summary:

Non-commodity exporters, around half of the countries in the region, continue to perform well with growth levels at 4 percent or more. Those countries benefit from lower oil import prices, improvements in their business environments, and strong infrastructure investment. Countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Tanzania are expected to continue to grow at more than 6 percent for the next couple of years.

Most commodity exporters, however, are under severe economic strain. This is particularly the case for oil exporters like Angola, Nigeria, and five of the six countries from the Central African Economic and Monetary Union, whose near-term prospects have worsened significantly in recent months despite the modest uptick in oil prices. In these countries, repercussions from the initial shock are now spreading beyond the oil-related sectors to the entire economy, and the slowdown risks becoming deeply entrenched.

It should be obvious, but it bears repeating that there is quite a bit of variation in economic performance across the 55 states on this vast continent.

My personal Africa growth index consists of Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Angola, and South Africa. And despite ongoing turbulence in a number of the key economies in this basket, I am confident that the turbulence will not completely erase the gains of the last two decades.

 

The Place of Race and Racism in International Relations

In case you have not read Susan Pedersen’s review of Robert Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations, you should.

Here is an excerpt:

The Journal of Race Development, established in 1910, was one of a spate of academic journals, associations and institutes founded as American social scientists came to grips with their country’s expanding global and imperial role. The journal’s title, jarring today, reflects perfectly the centrality of the category of ‘race’ to political science at the time. During the ‘Wilsonian moment’ of 1919, the journal was rechristened the Journal of International Relations without much disturbing its contributors or character. A few years after that, it was bought and renamed again by a New York-based association of internationalist businessmen, officials and academics, the Council on Foreign Relations. Yes, that’s right: it becameForeign Affairs, the pre-eminent journal of the foreign policy establishment.

This is just one of the startling and illuminating genealogies Vitalis pieced together during the ten years or more he spent researching this book. White World Order, Black Power Politics does two things. First, it provides a critical history of the institutional development of the field of international relations in the United States, from its founding at the turn of the century through to the Cold War. This history is radically unfamiliar: the ‘origin story’ taught on undergraduate courses, which traces the field’s core concepts (realism, liberal internationalism) back to Thucydides or Machiavelli or Wilson is, Vitalis insists, a post-1945 invention. Instead, at the moment of its American birth, ‘international relations meant race relations.’ Races, not states or nations, were considered humanity’s foundational political units; ‘race war’ – not class conflict or interstate conflict – was the spectre preying on scholars’ minds. The field of international relations was born to avert that disaster.

A blunter way to put this, and Vitalis is blunter, is that international relations was supposed to figure out how to preserve white supremacy in a multiracial and increasingly interdependent world. Segregation and Jim Crow had done the trick at home, where non-white populations were in the minority, but how could white America govern its newly annexed and overwhelmingly non-white territories without losing its republican soul? A few white scholars thought the task impossible. Indeed, one of the most famous – John Burgess, founder of Columbia’s School of Political Science and of the Political Science Quarterly – opposed President McKinley’s imperial adventuring precisely because it threatened the democratic institutions he thought suited to ‘Teutonic’ peoples alone. ‘American Indians, Asiatics and Africans cannot properly form any active, directive part of the political population which shall be able to produce modern political institutions,’ he warned. Unless it wanted to go the way of Rome, America should leave empire alone.

Something to think about for students of development and liberal international institutions, both big and small.

The book is available for purchase here. I can’t wait for my copy to arrive.

Is Africa Rising or Reeling?

This is from Amadou Sy, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings.

Whether described as “Hopeless,” “Rising,” or “Reeling,” no one can deny that African countries have made substantial gains.  In a recent piece, I argue that “missed in the binary of a hopeless versus a rosy narrative are large disparities among countries in terms of political and economic governance.” So many countries are quickly rising to the top. Countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia (in spite of the regrettable recent internal violence), Kenya (it is ironic that his article is a “Memo from Nairobi”), and Senegal are expected to grow at more than 5 percent this year (IMF, 2016). Yes, not surprisingly, oil exporters will continue to suffer from the lack of diversification of their sources of revenues, and South Africa—a middle-income country—is struggling from self-inflicted wounds.  But even within these countries, some regions and sectors will fare better than others.

Africans are past the debate of whether their countries are hopeless, rising, or reeling. What they want to see is resilient, sustainable, and inclusive growth, and the debate they are interested in is about the actual policies that will generate such outcomes. That is why young Burkinabe, following the example of youth in Senegal, took to the street in Ouagadougou two years ago to stop and reverse attacks against democracy. That is what many Congolese in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are fighting for right now.

Change is inherently destabilizing. So it is kind of amazing that in light of recent hiccups in political and economic development across Africa most analysts have opted to completely ignore the gains that African states have made over the last 25 years. Instead, many have run back to the old tried and tested narrative of a reeling continent plagued by political instability and economic catastrophes.

screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-10-50-20-amTake the example of Ethiopia. You essentially have a country that for a couple of decades has tried a formula of faux ethnic federalism under the domination of the TPLF, the formateur of the EPRDF constellation (see works by my colleague Lahra Smith here and here). For a long time this institutional innovation allowed for a reasonable amount of political stability (remember that Ethiopia was an empire of different peoples for centuries); on the back of which the country has registered pretty impressive economic gains (see here for another perspective). But now those gains have made the initial institutional innovation untenable. Ethiopians are demanding for greater voice for non-TPLF factions. Remember that the key trigger of the recent Oromo Protests was the encroachment on Oromo lands by a rapidly expanding Addis Ababa. Economic development (and the inequalities it has produced) is partially responsible for lowering the perceived costs of political organization in an attempt to revise the rules governing the initial post-Derg political settlement.

The state has pushed back violently against these revisionist political movements, particularly in the Oromo region (see image). A recent state of emergency takes away any pretense of proportionality, meaning Ethiopia is headed for greater shrinkage of political space.

Writing in 2003 Alem Habtu presciently observed that:

Ethnic federalism institutionalized ethnic groups as fundamental constituents of the state. It established them as social categories sharply distinct from the overarching category of citizenship. Many citizens are worried that it might lead to the demise of the state altogether. Thus far, there is no evidence that new ethnic nationalisms have emerged in Ethiopia as a consequence of ethnic federalism, as they did in the former USSR. But it is too early to entirely dismiss their emergence.

…… EPRDF has been undergoing an organizational-cum-ideological crisis since 2001. In a series of party meetings in June 2001, OPDO and SEDPF as well as the five allied regional parties, complained publicly of TPLF/EPRDF “tutelage.” Its crisis was manifested in its employment of Leninist organizational practices while adopting pluralist principles. It may face a great challenge in sustaining the ethnic federal project unless it undergoes ideological and organizational changes. Only time will tell whether it can do so without severely undermining the integrity and political management of the federal structure. If the federal state were to be in grave danger or collapse, the military may once again seize power. But if the latter fractures along ethnic lines, we could witness a Yugoslavia-like scenario. Inasmuch as EPRDF is a coalition, it is different from the Communist party of the USSR or Yugoslavia. The viability and stability of the infant political system is dependent on its flexibility and adaptability [emphasis mine]. Contingent events will shape the outcome of the ethnic federal experiment. In any case, the experiment is politically fragile.

On balance, it would be inaccurate to claim that Ethiopia is in decline. There are countless stories documenting very concrete gains in the country over the last two decades. Several state-owned enterprises are getting things done, with some — like Ethiopian Airlines — outcompeting their private competitors in the region. The narrative of general decline therefore betrays a singular misconception of how political development works. Did anyone really expect the process of reckoning with the failures of the institutions of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia to be smooth?

Serious students of Ethiopia (and of political development in general) certainly did not.

My own assessment is that this episode will be more of a Tiananmen Square moment for the Ethiopian state, as opposed to what happened in the USSR or Yugoslavia. I hope I am not wrong.

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Ethiopian rules Africa’s skies

What can the international community do? Well, now is the time to make it clear to the Ethiopian government that basic respect for human rights will not always be sacrificed on the altar of economic growth. The TPLF leadership must be made to understand that for stability to obtain they must allow for some dispersal of power. They must be reminded of the fact that China’s rise was actually accompanied by significant openings on both the political and economic fronts. Nobody wants to go back to the suffocating and rudderless tin top dictatorship of the Derg.

I’ve always considered binary analyses of a continent of 55 countries as evidence of intellectual laziness. These analyses are nothing but a repackaging of 18th century views of the Continent as a place full of simple peoples, who live simple lives, that can be packaged into simple narratives. As I have tried to show with the Ethiopian case, what is happening in the country is complicated. And it is silly to try and project this onto the rest of the Continent.

All this to say that I agree with Sy. Read the whole thing here.

A Kansas City High Schooler’s Development Questions

I regularly receive emails from readers with all sorts of questions and requests. This one caught my eye:

Hello Dr. Opalo,

My name is [redacted] and I am a senior in high school in Kansas City, MO. I am currently working on an exhibition regarding poverty in sub Saharan Africa. My essential question is: What are the factors that contribute to ongoing poverty in sub Saharan Africa. I was wondering if you would be willing to answer a few questions to assist me in my research.

1. How would you describe the current state of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa?

2. What can be done to solve the feminization of poverty?

3. Is Time Poverty a large factor in ongoing poverty and how can time poverty be solved?

4. How can safety be maintained in sub-Saharan Africa through policy?

5. What can an average American do to help end poverty?

Thank you for your time!

If you have answers to any of these questions, let me know in the comments section. I plan to write back before the student’s exhibition is due…