Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Suffering and Smiling

This one definitely falls into the category of writing because of reading. And in this case it is not so much because so many ideas were set off, but because I want to organise what I actually learnt from reading Patrick Chabal's Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling.

I should point out from the start my strong feeling of doing it out of something verging on obligation rather than pleasure - more suffering than smiling. And in fact, part of this is due to the appeal to me of the title which suggested it must be good -  apparently it was Fela Kuti who coined the term to encompass the fate of the continent but for me it simply invoked pictures of happy, smiling children running out of bamboo huts on the road North in Mozambique.

Chabal is also the author of another book called (Africa Works), which I perhaps erroneously have yet to read, as this seems like the advanced version. Still, here is my short summary/interpretation...

He presents a political theory of African politics. Of course there is the argument about generalisations and he bats that away relatively comfortably - what he is doing is highlighting major differences rather than laying out some detailed prescriptive theory. He is "theorising politics in Africa", not constructing "a political theory of Africa". He is looking at "how the realities of the lives of those who live there affect the workings of politics". Fine. Actually, he makes a nice quote: "Generalisations are not right or wrong per se; they are merely another level of analysis of local empirical reality cast in a useful comparative framework". (Must remember that one for the future...).

One point he makes early on is the impressiveness of the myriad mechanisms people have developed to continue to survive under generally harsh ("catastrophic") conditions. Similarly their governments have thrived in maximising rsource transfers from other countries in hugely varying geopolitical situations (somewhat related to the catastrophic relations of the individuals some would say).

He sets out his "theory" in 7 parts: Being, Belonging, Believing, Partaking, Striving, Surviving and Suffering.

Being is about the role of individuals in their environment, particularly issues of origin, identity and locality or community. Much of this is about contextualising the individual and their concept of what defines them - particularly in relation to gender, age and authority. That is, the values of a community impinge on the behaviour and identity of their individuals (as everywhere presumably).

Belonging is related, but focuses more on the relations which people have and which therefore also define how individuals conceive of themselves. The main point he makes here is that relationships cut across all income levels, rural-urban divides, and powerful with powerless. It's all about "kinship associations" which then imply certain obligations and reciprocity. Politicians then derive their legitimacy from how they meet those obligations across a wide network of relationships at a national level.

Believing - basically beliefs, rationality and virtue matter and political actions operate within that, with corruption, for example, not necessarily viewed as illegitimate or immoral depending on its intention, the beneficiaries and the final outcome. Kind of along the lines of Robin Hood was good as long as you were one of the poor benefitting.

Partaking is about the fact that there is no full political participation of individuals through democratisation, but neither is there a re-traditionalisation going on. But more a hybridisation is apparently taking place, or "political partaking" of all the various institutional mechanisms which have existed, and which themselves have never been as distinct from each other as some would have us believe. That is, for example, that the extractive nature of colonisation and desire to minimise costs themselves may well have contributed to the "big-man" or clientilistic networks which Chabal describes in the post-indpendence era...  

Striving is the first chapter which deals with more economic issues - how do people come together and form an economy under the different contexts discussed in the earlier sections? This focuses on the obvious issue of economic informality, highlighting the mixtures of formal and informal institutions and actors, the degree of overlap, and how this leads to greater flexibility and resilience of firms. The goal is perhaps not the most economic rewarding activity or increased incomes but that which provides most security over the long-term  - as such the informal sector is a necessary corollary to the informal sector. This also underlines the preponderance of trade rather than production - avoiding risks - while trade simply has a far more considerable historical and cultural importance than is often recognised. (At the same time, trade is generally highly profitable for those who engage in it). Actually, this is being dealt with more and more in the discussion of informal firms and the distinctions made between survival and production firms within the informal sector.

This chapter on striving also touches on rent-seeking and aid, both ways of appropriating finances for, according to this analysis, then distributing through the obligation networks described above

Then surviving. This again focuses on the informal, and the role that the informal economy plays in allowing an interaction of modern and traditional ways of operating; the informalisation of the state which implies that some informality is required to survive economically due to the state's predatory nature; and the informalisation of politics which opens up specific channels of opportunity for those lucky enough to be part of a network with people in power.

Finally, the suffering is what goes on for those who are exploited, at the receiving end of the arbitrary nature of the state, whilst unable to benefit from networks and clientelism. Interestingly, here Chabal points at the potential psychological effect of this defenceless role played by the powerless. This also ties in with violence and conflict.

So what to do with all of this?? I suppose ideally we'd like to take and use it somehow to propose how aid might better be put to good use. But I wonder if we can? This framework is just that, while the details of each country with its own history and institutional developments and quirks will make any attempt at reform or change subject to the underlying networks and incentives and norms which prevail. Obviously it is better to understand than not, but just how helpful all this is for policy... ? Having now also just read Wrong's It's Our Turn to Eat (a good one to read after Chabal actually) it's all pretty depressing. Chabal is, to a certain degree, helping us understand why state corruption and phony democracy might be the norm (a view Wrong describes as being slightly racist - "what more can one expect from Africa"), but it seems that very little can be done, particularly given the  pretty limited ability or willingness of donors to act according to their own set of incentives.

In any case, having found all that mostly interesting, if not really as easy a read as I would have liked, I'm now hitting Africa Works, the earlier one from Chabal and Deloz - the wrong way around, I know, but anyway....

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