Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Political economy

Taking political economy aspects into consideration in working on aid and development issues is hardly new. But their importance is seemingly gathering ground in development and aid circles (see this for example). The problem, however, is that once you start looking more closely at issues of political economy and the context in which aid money is received, it is hard not to become quite cynical (see my post on Suffering and Smiling).

An important text in this area is Chabal and Deloz's Africa Works. As it turns out,  I really did read this and Suffering and Smiling in the wrong order - I now want to go back. In any case, this prequel to Suffering and Smiling sets things our more clearly and lays out several of the notions which S&S then further develops (and repeats on occasion).

As its subtitle suggests, its thesis is that disorder - that is, systems which allow for corruption through lack of accountability, democratic and legal checks and balances etc - do not actually represent a system of improved governance waiting to happen, but an equilibrium situation which has emerged due to the "efficient" way this allows rulers to yield and maintain power.

Basically his points are as follows:

1. States don't really operate as states as we would understand them in the Western sense, but only superficially so, having basically merged some modern aspects with colonial administration aspects and pre-colonial modes of political operation. Also, the political class basically isn't separable from the rest of society.

2. Civil society doesn't exist as such. The swathes of NGOs are a response to the chanelling of funds through these, but there is no dichotomy between "the state" and "civil society". As such, good luck in hoping that civil society will demand full democratisation (although who knows now after Tunisia and Egypt etc).

3. The political class doesn't change much with time, basically because very few are able to muster the resources required to keep large national-level client networks going, what ultimately keeps them in power. Something of a path-dependency in the political class....

4. He discusses the issues of identity again, and much as in S&S highlights the importance of reciprocal relationships, the fuzzy political boundaries wit the rest of society, and the question of representation. This relates to how tribal identities are also used politically, no matter that these have often been at least strengthened, if not put in place, in colonial times.

5. On the issue of corruption, since political power and success require funds, as long as these are later disbursed through paternalistic channels, this corruption may be seen as legitimate (e.g. the Kikuyu cabal of corruption under Kibaki as described in Wrong's It's Our Turn to Eat). Also, ostentation is a sign that they are behaving as a good chief should through legitimately gained goods - a bit like the hold Hello magazine has over many people in Europe.

6. Finally, he discusses the fact that the political class essentially has no incentive to reduce aid dependency, that structural adjustment had little effect on the economic structure, nor on the clientelistic nature of politics.

Overall then, the message is pretty much one of misery:
"There is therefore an in-built bias in favour of greater disorder and against the formation of the Western-style legal, administrative and institutional foundations required for development".    
Bloody hell. This clearly raises a few "minor" points:
  1. Once this network type situation is understood, it is very difficult to see how aid can ever be useful when sent through governments.
  2. Although democracies clearly make for voting out unpopular politicians, the issue of leaders providing preferential treatment to their constituents also happens in the US and other governments through pork-barreling - or is there a distinction to be made?     
  3. Even if you manage to understand the various interested parties, it isn't clear what role that leaves for providing aid effectively - except if it allows you to find specific interests which can be dealt with somehow else...
So there we have it. Chabal and Deloz basically say  "there ain't nothing can be done", and then Chabal comes back and says it again in Suffering and Smiling. I may need to find something a bit more positive before I start really working on putting political economy into practice....


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