Making Sense of Competing Visions of Kenya in the Jubilee & NASA Manifestos

This is a longer version of my column in the Standard this week.

This week the leading political blocs in the upcoming General Election released their respective manifestos. Jubilee sought to convince Kenyans that it needs another term in office to finish the job it began in 2013. The National Super Alliance Coalition (NASA) presented an agenda for the full implementation of the 2010 Constitution, focusing on equity and inclusivity. Both documents present competing visions of where we are as a country, and where we ought to go.

On one hand, Jubilee which sees the country’s problems as rooted in poor infrastructure and a lousy business environment. Its vision of government intervention in the economy is thus driven by the need to facilitate private investment (mostly through crony capitalism, but also through streamlining of the regulatory environment).


But on the other hand is NASA, whose manifesto suggests a firm belief that the ambitious 2010 constitution has yet to be fully implemented; and that the country still requires structural transformation in order to guarantee equitable sharing of national resources, social inclusivity, and equality before the law and the government.

On a spatial left-right scaling, NASA’s manifesto is decidedly to the left of Jubilee. This is reflected in both the specifics in both manifestos and the choice of words in the documents. NASA (see image below) envisions a much bigger role for the government in the effort to transform Kenyan lives than does Jubilee (see above).

Both manifestos and visions for Kenya’s future have merits and demerits. Jubilee has a case to make for working with the country we have without re-litigating the political settlement of 2010 and its (partial) implementation since 2013. Restructuring society doesnasa not always yield the desired results, and often comes with instability. Their vision of doing their best to build infrastructure and letting hardworking Kenyans do the rest makes sense if one believes that you go to battle with the army you have. Their proposed vision of Kenya is grounded in the idea that a rising tide, even if marked by high levels of inequality, lifts all boats. Simply stated, it is a vision that prizes ends rather than means.

NASA’s vision of structural transformation is also valid in its own right. It prizes means and ends. Their plan for Kenya is informed by the idea that no society can continue to cohere if a section of citizens have deep feelings of structural inequality and discrimination. That we can have all the roads, water and sanitation, and bridges we need, but still flounder if a sizable proportion of Kenyans still feel like second class citizens in their own land. They also contend that inequalities today will breed inequalities tomorrow, and that a future in which only a small segment of the nation has access to the most lucrative economic opportunities and the best government services – simply on account of the language they happen to speak – is one destined to bring conflict. In a nutshell, NASA’s is a nation and state building manifesto that promises to not only increase the number of sufurias in Kenyan kitchens, but also create a new kind of nation-state devoid of the “culture of madharau.”

A priori, it is hard to say which vision fits the country best at this point in our history. Kenyans who have seen their lives improve over the last four years will most certainly want to eschew any radical changes — this is true, despite recent worrying headline economic numbers. Those who have seen their economic situation stagnate or worsen want change now. Looking at the numbers, there is ample evidence in support of either argument.

This is why, unlike some partisan observers, I see no reason to worry that the world would end if either Jubilee or NASA wins. The truth of the matter is that life will go on as before — with messy and contested politics at every turn, and high levels of economic inequality.

It is extremely hard to change or ignore social forces.

If Jubilee wins, it will be hard to continue ignoring issues of equity in perpetuity. Eventually, even diehard Jubilee supporters will realize that the crumbs that fall off the table are a raw deal. In the same vein, a NASA win will not necessarily produce a radical transformation of the Kenyan state. Once in power, the coalition’s leadership will most certainly be disciplined by our unwieldy political economy dominated by so-called cartels and our general structural conservatism.

As a student of political development, all I can say is that either path will lead to further consolidation of our political economy — either through further entrenchment of a hierarchical order (under Jubilee); or the widening of the economic upper class (under NASA).

Below is a list of what I consider to be the highlights of both manifestos. Consistent with the claims above, the Jubilee manifesto has specifics on many of its promises, while NASA’s largely sets out frameworks within which it will seek to transform Kenyan lives and the nation-state.


  1. Investments in universal secondary education and 100% transition from primary to secondary school
  2. Completion of 57 large-scale dam projects to improve water access and irrigation
  3. Setting aside 1% of R&D funds to document and disseminate lessons and best practices in policymaking from the 47 counties
  4. Increase of electricity access to up to 100% of Kenyan households (from current ~53%)
  5. Complete several ongoing and planned transport and energy infrastructure projects (six-lane highway from Nairobi to Mombasa, Isiolo-Lamu road, SGR to Malaba etc) 


  1. An ambitious nation and state building framework to guarantee equity and inclusivity
  2. Strengthening of the devolved system of government (including in areas of education, health, and agriculture)
  3. Investments in improving agricultural productivity (including for smallholder farmers)
  4. Expansion of social protection for households with orphans and vulnerable children
  5. Implementation of regionalized (cross-country) development plans


Pepinsky On Identity and Politics

The whole post is worth reading here.

Here is an excerpt:

My hunch is that the next big conceptual move for political economy is to take identity seriously. The task for political economists now is to integrate identity into our theoretical architectures as a conceptual primitive rather than as a nuisance, a behavioral distraction, or as merely a consequence of something else.

[If you are reading this and pounding the table, saying “I’ve been doing this for years,” please bear with me. I recognize that scholarship on identity and political economy has a long history. I am proposing that we need to do it more, and rather differently.]

What would this look like? Take, for example, the literature about preferences for economic integration. One view holds that people’s preferences are a function of their economic interests: in the simplest Stolper-Samuelson world, low skill workers in advanced economies should oppose trade, and high skill workers should favor it. In a world in which ideas are foundational, individuals favor trade because they have learned (or come to believe in) a cosmopolitan worldview in which trade is good—they possess a causal belief about what trade does. In a world in which identity matters, people oppose trade because they are part of a community that opposes trade.

The first thing to observe about this identity-based explanation is how vacuous it seems. “One does X because one is an X-doer” is infinitely generative claim, but that is because it is nearly tautological. Here is a more pointed way to think about identity in political economy. When people search for information about what they should do, how do they go about it? One view is that they consider costs and benefits, although not necessarily in a materialist or egoistic way. Another view is that they consider their existing beliefs about how the world works, and then try to apply them by analogy. The third is that they look for cues among the beliefs and actions of people whom they consider to be like them. That third possibility is an argument for identity in political economy.

A possible avenue for methodological advancement here would be to treat identity as encompassing a non-transactional political relationship between principals and agents, but with a lot more emphasis on what elites do. Materialist models of politics focus on what politicians give voters. Including identity would simply expand the scope of rewards to include identity affirmation as a central part of the principal-agent relationship (most current works relegate identity to the world of residual psychic benefits of having a co-ethnic or co-partisan in power).

One logical implication of this conceptualization is that elites (agents of voters) have loads of arbitrage opportunities under identity politics — and will likely under-provide populist promises of public goods and services.

By peddling identity politics, populist politicians can shirk on the delivery of real material benefits for their supporters; which implies further upward redistribution. Politicians will grant their voters honor and respect (by, for example, turning a blind eye to racists and other “anti-PC” movements) and do little else in terms of pro-poor policies.

In short, elites stand to gain the most in a world of identity politics.

What Donald Trump teaches us about the stability of electoral democracies

Intra-elite checks and balances within America’s Republican Party are in shambles. It is increasingly clear that Donald Trump might be the exception that proves the rule that The Party Decides. Over the last 8 years the Republican Party has spawned and ceded power to all manner of groups and organizations aimed at delegitimizing and obstructing the Obama Administration. But by empowering fringe groups and ideas, the Republican party also ceded its power as a gatekeeper to key institutions like the U.S. Congress, state legislatures and governorships, and the U.S. presidency.

The result of this has been the Donald J. Trump presidential campaign. Trump is sort of self-financing (with loads of free publicity from an insatiable media), a fact that has left him untethered from the control of party elites who typically bankroll election campaigns in America. Electoral freedom from party elites has afforded Trump the luxury of dabbling in heterodox policy positions that are at variance with the positions of party elders. He is a populist who is promising a neglected segment of the Republican base a lot of goodies whose logical implication is an even bigger government — something the anti-tax establishment wing of the party doesn’t like. Trump also has a knack for plainly saying out loud what mainstream Republicans only ever communicate through dog whistles. This all makes for excellent political theater. It’ll be interesting to see if the party actually manages to stop the Trump juggernaut from getting the nomination.

The Trump phenomenon offers important lessons on political development in general and democratic consolidation in particular.

A key source of democratic stability in America has been the existence of robust intra-elite checks and balances within the leading parties. For much of American history the choice set presented to voters has been, for better or worse, significantly regulated by elites. This system has served to protect America from delegative democracy — whereby elected officials do whatever they want in-between elections. In other words, intra-elite checks — in an attempt to protect party brand names or sectional interests — have served to limit the variance between what politicians promise and what they do while in office. It has also protected the American political system from wildcards like Donald Trump.

The danger of posed by politicians like Trump is that because they are independent from fellow elites they are hard to keep in check in-between elections. This is a crucial point. Most voters do not have the time or interest to follow the everyday actions of their preferred politicians. Only a few activist citizens do. So the bulk of the monitoring of elected officials in-between elections tends to be carried out by other elected officials (like Members of Congress) or civilian elites (like lobbyists). A candidate that is untethered from these kinds of checks poses a real danger to political stability. Because they derive their power from opposing institutions, they are very likely to destroy the same institutions once elected. Trump has so far proven that he can win electoral contests without any support (and implied constraints) from America’s rightwing political and economic elites. Reasonable Americans have good reason to be very afraid.

Now imagine that Trump wins the nomination and the November 2016 election. What stops him from cobbling together a coalition that would win him reelection? All he has to do is give everyone what they want — crazy nativist talk for some, a nice dose of social services for others, and side payments to specific segments of the middle class to keep them comfortable. In this scenario the only thing that would stop Trump is America’s consolidated constitutional term limits. And even then the damage will already have been done.

Everyday politics in most young democracies have a lot of similarities to Trumpism. In these contexts the richest person in the country (or the one with the most power to determine who becomes rich) also tends to be the leading politician. Such politicians typically have the power to raise all the money they need to win elections. And because of their superior access to resources they also tend to have the power to determine who gets elected to legislatures and other important elective positions. The lack of independently wealthy elites that can finance rival factions, and because all elected officials typically depend on the one who controls the money spigot, means that very little intra-elite balancing happens in-between elections. In addition, political parties typically operate as personal enterprises of the president.

Notice that in these contexts, elections alone do not provide the panacea to the lack of intra-elite checks and balances. Anti-institutionalists can and do win free and fair elections.

Also notice that the failure of elections to correct the behavior of elites in-between elections is not because voters in these contexts are particularly dumb. It is just that most voters do not consider the institutional consequences of their personal electoral choices. It is elites who operate within institutions. And it is elites who care about institutional strength. When structural conditions dis-incentivize elite investments in institutional strength, personalist politics under a delegative democracy obtains.

In America, pro-Trump voters are probably not thinking about what a Trump victory will mean for democratic stability. They are simply responding to the bundle of solutions to their specific problems that Trump is selling them. And there are elites like Chris Christie who might join the Trump bandwagon, again for personal reasons or a resignation to the fact that Trump has voters on his side and the only way to stay relevant is to join Trump.

American institutions are old and strong enough to withstand the Trump candidacy (I think). They are also buttressed by strong informal (extra-institutional) intra-elite checks on presidential power. Chances are high that American democracy will survive Donald J. Trump.

But imagine this happening in a young democracy with a non-existent upper class and therefore almost zero informal checks on presidential power in-between elections. Such democracies almost always fail on their first contact with some variant of Trumpism. Trumpists violate term limits. Trumpists are erratic with policy. Trumpists know how to run populist campaigns and win elections. Trumpists undercut fellow elites and destroy institutional checks on presidential power.

The biggest lesson from the American 2016 election cycle is that elections, on their own, cannot protect political institutions in young democracies from characters like Donald J. Trump.

Elite Political Stability and Development: The Case of Europe

Alex Lee of Rochester and Avi Acharya of Stanford write:

During the Middle Ages, most European polities operated under a norm that gave only the close male relatives of a deceased monarch a clear place in the line of succession. When no such heirs were available, succession disputes were more likely, with more distant relatives and female(-line) heirs laying competing claims to the throne. These disputes often produced violent conflicts that destroyed existing state institutions and harmed subsequent economic development. Given these facts, we hypothesize that a shortage of male heirs to a European monarchy in the Middle Ages has a deleterious effect on levels of development across contemporary European regions ruled by that monarchy. We confirm this hypothesis by showing that regions that were more likely to have a shortage of such heirs are today poorer than other regions. This finding highlights the importance of the medieval period in European development, and shows how a sequence of small shocks can work in combination with both institutions and norms in shaping long-run development trajectories.

……. Our main empirical finding demonstrates the path dependent effects of the uneven nature of state development in medieval Europe arising due to the availability of male heirs. We show that regions of Europe that were ruled by medieval monarchs who had an abundance of male heirs are today richer than other regions. We are also able to trace our effects over time by showing that urban density in each century between 1300 and 1800 was higher in regions that had an abundance of male heirs. In addition, we show that an abundance of male heirs also decreased the frequency of internal wars and coups during the Late Middle Ages, and we find that contemporary economic development is negatively correlated with the frequency of these medieval wars and coups.

Forget the sweeping comparisons between England and the rest (esp France) that is common in works about economic development in Europe. This paper offers lots of great insights about the mechanics of statebuilding (and institution building) and the impact on economic development.

The linking of medieval European political realities to economics outcomes in 2007-2009 still requires a tighter justification. But the general insights in the paper about elite-level conflict and institution-building are spot on.

The paper is a reminder that our obsession with vertical accountability (mostly elections) as a means for institution-building is patently misguided. Much of the action takes place at the elite-level, hence the need to focus on horizontal accountability (as yours truly does….)

As they say, the paper is self-recommending.

H/T Andy Hall.

A Commentary on Research Priorities in Development Economics

Over at the Bank’s Future Development blog, Princeton Economist Jeffrey Hammer writes:

The Chief Minister posed serious questions that have traditionally been the bread and butter of the economics profession. Unfortunately, we are not even trying to answer them any more. The specific question was “Should I put more money into transport? Infrastructure (power, roads, water)? Law and order? Social services? Or what? And where am I going to get the money?” What questions could be more solidly part of the core of economics than these? Unfortunately none of these were even remotely the focus of the “evidence-based” policy making discussed.

Almost all of the cases analyzed were  single, simple policy “tweaks” that were, first of all, isolated from the broader market context in which they occurred and, second, had no conception of opportunity cost – what we would have to give up to pursue these things? We had an answer to “how to improve a public food distribution system” but even with a precise answer (to whether a tweak would work) we had no idea whether the substantial amount of money funding such a system is a good idea. Maybe the Chief Minister would be better off improving education or road networks or police or rural electricity. Some of these alternative policies could have more impact on food consumption than food distribution if we thought about how the world worked. Getting food to market securely (roads, better cold storage, trustworthy police and safe roads – this is Pakistan, which no one seemed to notice) may increase food availability much more than any tunnel-visioned food program Or not – maybe the food distribution system is better. We just don’t know. And none of us “experts” are trying to find out.

When someone says “we should have more “X” because we have evidence that it works”, the response should be “compared to what?” What should we cut in order to promote your particular interest? My hobby horse these days is more sanitation in South Asia. I should have to defend it against (at least) a few alternatives.

What’s your justification for your latest hobby horse?

My take on the gap highlighted by Hammer is that what is good for reviewers is seldom useful to policymakers. The incentive for academics is to publish. And this will always be reflected in the design and implementation of interventions headed by academics. This is not necessarily a bad thing [For obvious reasons we should firewall academic research from the actual process of policymaking. The latter should be the political process that it is, albeit informed by the former]. I think the widespread acceptance of rigorous evidence-based policymaking has been a net benefit for the developing world. What it means though, is that the “public sector” development research community — i.e. the IMF, the World Bank, & host country research institutes — should do more to ensure that funding for hyper-targeted interventions do not detract from broader macro research (like, when and why did the rain start beating Ghana?)

However, in the long run, developing countries will be better served by having more and more of their own/country-based politically relevant macroeconomists.

This is because answering the types of questions posed by Hammer requires one to also take a political stand (on account of a lack of consensus among economists). Economists who can’t do this will invariably resort to “technical” solutions that can be perceived as “apolitical” by both host governments and the sponsoring foreign development agencies. Again not necessarily a bad thing, just a reflection of the politics of knowledge production.

H/T William Easterly.

Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party Systems in Africa

That is the title of a new book by Rachel Riedl of Northwestern University on party system development in Africa following re-democratization in the early 1990s. Riedl writes:

To explain these country’s divergent development, I point to earlier authoritarian strategies to consolidate support and maintain power. The initial stages of democratic opening provide an opportunity for authoritarian incumbents to attempt to shape the rules of the new multiparty system in their own interests, but their power to do so depends on the extent of local support built up over time. Where authoritarian incumbents are strong, they tightly control the democratic transition process, which paradoxically leads to higher party system institutionalization in the new democratic system.  Conversely, where authoritarian incumbents are weak, they lose control of the transition agenda and new players contribute in uncoordinated ways to press for greater reform and more open participation, which results in lower party system institutionalization in the democratic era.  The particular form of the party system that emerges from the democratic transition is sustained over time through isomorphic competitive pressures embodied in the new rules of the game, the forms of party organization, and the competitive strategies that shape party and voter behavior alike.

The book is an excellent resource for understanding the evolution of party systems on the Continent.

Implied in the book’s argument is the centrality of state capacity to well-ordered development and consolidation of democracy. As the case of Mali shows, if there was ever a precondition for democracy it is certainly a reasonable level of state capacity. In other words, there has to be empowerment before limitation, or else you get collapse.

A note from Mr. Development Man

Perhaps after experiencing a Bill Easterly moment, a friend of mine (grad student here at Stanford) had this on his facebook wall:

“Hello, my name is Mr. Development Man. I know Africa so much!! I went there one summer and stayed with an NGO. I talked to my servant cook who served me food, so I know African workers. I read a few books written by white Americans about Africa, and remembered their big words. So I know African ideology. African prostitutes talked to me at my hotel poolside, so I know about relationships in Africa. I took pictures of kids at the orphanage, so I know how Africans suffer.

My conclusions: Africans are corrupt. The place is poor because of poor policies. And my knowledge can help them. If they just listened to my smart American knowledge — obtained from the 2 months at the NGO, my white man books, my prostitutes, my few words with my servant cook — they would develop!! Why don’t they listen to me?? I can help them…Stubborn, corrupt African politicians…

Signed, Mr. Development Man. Remember, I am here to help you Africa!!”

I have a sense that Mr. Development Man’s note is directed at both development practitioners and academics alike. Let us all take heed.

Chad, who is into short stories and is also a late night radio DJ, wrote this Letter to Mr development man on the dynamics of the love-hate relationship between donors and aid recipients.

H/T Chad.

$500 million, and for what?

Congolese go to the polls on Monday, the 28th of November. The result of the election is almost a foregone conclusion. Incumbent president Joseph Kabila looks set to win another term in office – another 5 years to continue the mismanagement of the DRC’s resources through shady mining deals.

According to the Economist:

Whatever the result, doubts about the election’s fairness will persist, not least because of a perception that the electoral commission’s head is a friend of the president. Logistical problems are also ubiquitous, despite an election budget of $500m or so. As well as 11 presidential candidates, 18,000 hopefuls, including several pop stars and a rebel leader accused of ordering the rape of more than 300 women in eastern Congo last year, are contesting 500 seats in parliament. Some of the ballots will exceed 50 pages, which will surely daunt even the minority of voters who can read.

(Read the whole piece here)

If I were in charge of the promotion of democracy in the DRC I would push for a system of staggered elections, both nationally and at the provincial level. I would also try and broker a deal to create a government of national unity in Kinshasa (representing the provinces) and competitive elections at the provincial level. In my view, the longer that everyone keeps pretending that the Congo – with its 70m+ and landmass the size of Western Europe – can be run by a single central government in Kinshasa – the longer it will take to put the country on the path of institutional development that will be conducive to long run economic growth.

Centralized state development definitely makes sense for smaller African states (think of the infamous trio of the Mano River basin). But if you are the DRC, capacity development in the capital must necessarily be accompanied by the strengthening of institutions at the provincial level – with more emphasis, in my view, on the latter than the former.

The number one problem facing the DRC right now is woeful state incapacity. It is doubtful that elections alone will force politicians’ hand in the right direction.

For more on the elections follow Congo Siasa.

emerging africa

I have read the book, met the author and will be writing a review soon. In the book Steven Radelet makes the important point that African countries are not born equal. About half of sub-Saharan African countries have, since the mid 1990s, have shown signs of preconditions for take off. The stars in the book are the usual suspects, Ghana, Mauritius, Botswana. The suckers are mostly Sahelian and central African.

An abbreviated version of the book appears in the Journal of Democracy.