Response from Banerjee and Duflo

Abhijit and Esther respond in the comments section of yesterday’s South Sudan post. Lest you miss the response, an excellent excerpt:

Our recommendations were based on a simple idea, very much rooted in politics: An effectively implemented redistributive policy is a very good way to give a new state a clearer identity in the minds of the voters. This can create ownership and start a virtuous cycle where the majority has a stake in fighting against the take over the state by one group. It also creates a basis for developing state capacity; focusing on doing one or two things well is the best way to give the state’s agents credibility and build their skills.

Read the full comment or, as they suggest, read their book for the full argument why, as Abhijit writes, the primacy of politics is way over-sold. I am intrigued.

Yes, I confess: I have not yet read the book (it’s on my Kindle awaiting my June vacation), and I will reconsider and (who knows?) even recant after the reading. I hope they are right, but am quite cautious.

There were many other excellent comments on the post. One good point made more than once: the government of South Sudan knows better than anyone how to corral warlords and (no surprise) are way ahead of me. Another good point, complementary to Banerjee and Duflo, is that redistributive spending may be the best way to spend oil dollars (and the only truly legitimate one).

Fair enough, but I’m curious to see what the evidence on redistribution programs  (including randomized trials) has to say about state attitudes and national identity. My impression so far: the political impacts of cash grant and community development programs have been meager. Here’s one new paper, on Sierra Leone, that makes me pessimistic. I have two experiments–from Liberia and northern Uganda–with eerily similar early results.

Now, a second disclaimer: I have never been to South Sudan. Think of this as commentary Palin-style: I’ve gazed across the border (in this case, from Uganda), and them’s all the qualifications I need. And you should take me with just as much seriousness.

Even so, it may help to explain my vantage point: several years in post-conflict African countries watching justice and security sacrificed for premature social programs, a growing worry that large scale social programs weaken rather than strengthen a fragile state, and a doleful skepticism that national identity is fostered through redistributive aid.

Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock make the argument much better than I do. (And Lant, I understand, is spending some serious time in South Sudan these days.)

In the meantime, the Banerjee Duflo book is here. For those who read faster than I do, comments welcome.