The state in Africa, ignored

I’m using Uganda, Liberia and Ethiopia travels to reread state building books on my shelf: Seeing Like A State and Strong Societies and Weak States. Both are subjects for longer posts, when project demands recede.

Some people are struck by the similarity of African states to early states in Europe and Asia: weak centers struggling to exert control over wider territories; patrimonial politics; authoritarian control; coups, counter-coups, and revolutions.

I’m more struck by the dissimilarity. The core function of the state is law and order. European and Asian states provided police, military control, and access to justice (of a sort) long before they provided schools, clinics and electricity.

In Liberia, if you need a policeman you must pay him to come to you, since he has no transport. There may only be one or two policeman for an entire district. They get paid at roughly the poverty line, and may not have been trained. Most people don’t have access to a judge other than a local elder, who is not empowered by the state to make binding decisions. Courts are distant, if they exist at all in your district. If you do reach one, court can cost many days wages simply to process the forms and get a hearing, ignoring the side payments that can get your case heard quickly, or turn the verdict in your favor. The one time I looked into a murder case, in Lofa county, I wisely stopped within a few hours after discovering the perpetrator was probably the town’s chief of police.

The situation is better in many places, like Kampala or Addis, but head to the rural areas and you begin to get a more Liberia-like situation.

To borrow a phrase from Tyler Cowen: “Views I toy with but do not (yet?) hold”:

  • State weakness in Africa may be exacerbated by attempting to graft the West’s idea of a 20th century developmental state onto structures not fully capable of providing the basic bits of law and order.
  • The international system and aid can exacerbate the problem by pushing the state to build a public education and health system ahead of more core state functions.
  • Conspicuously, there is no Millennium Development Goal for access to a court system, or freedom from crime and violence. Everyone has heard of UNICEF, few have heard of UNPOL.
  • I would bet that more donors and non-profit organizations focus on microfinance than justice, by a factor of five to ten.