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.

10 thoughts on “The state in Africa, ignored

  1. Re Security and Justice: The DFID White paper recently made clearer commitments to security and justice provision, signalling that the obvious fact that these are core services is gaining ideological ground. It has an impact on other development goals too. For example if you’re living in an area where there is a lack of physical security, the incentives to invest are pretty low if your profits are going to get stolen, exploited by a corrupt policeman etc. Another eg: without security basic levels of trust are low, especially outside of your local community, meaning that trade is probably restricted between communities (as social trust and trade are tied), especially if you have to bribe a policeman or a judge to enforce a contract you made.

    However there is the assumption that the state inherently wants to strengthen its monopoly of violence. If this is the case, why is security provision so poor?

    And Charles Tilly argued that all of this has to do with the state wanting to fight wars abroad – but with colonially imposed borders and Cold War and post-cold war internationally-imposed stability on the continent, what effect has this had on state formation? Are Ethiopia and Eritrea better formed states?

    Lots of questions…

  2. I think your estimate of justice vs. other charities is probably off by a factor of 10. Many of the charities that do talk about justice are mostly talking about “social justice”, in other words a roundabout focus on health and education, not on law and order.

    One of the reasons for that is that American donors generally don’t like working with States–they want independent (often newly created) independent/private actors like NGOs–who really can’t get into the law and order business.

    The only high profile charity that I know of focusing specifically on justice of the law and order variety is International Justice Mission. I’d be interested to hear of others.

  3. Very interesting points!!
    As I see it, the core assumption underlying modern (European) states – and one which is missing in many parts of Africa – is the balance between the demands made by the sate upon the population (crucially taxes and (historically) soldiers as Tilly shows) – and what the state gives back (law and order of course, but also other public goods, education and welfare institutions.
    Now, this balance is non-existent in African states for various reasons but one of the most important one is aid, which makes states dependent on external, not internal, sorces of revenue (and if you don’t need people’s taxes why spend on them).
    As I see it then, the first priority for development programs should be taxes, and the second one, taxes…

  4. This is a great post. I’m in the process of drafting my senior thesis proposal about the different experiences in state-building between Europe and Africa. Strong Societies and Weak States seems like an excellent book to help me narrow down my topic. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. I’m not sure I see the connection between Scott’s central point, namely the failed rationalizations of the high modern State, and the continued debility of African States. At issue is the extent to which a strong State imposes its mechanisms of law, order, and revenue generation on an unwilling population. Knowing very little about Liberia’s history, I imagine that rural Liberians conceptualize the state mostly in its absence and are comfortable with their consuetudinary approach to justice, trade, land ownership, etc. Nevertheless, to have access to modern life (finance, for instance, but also justice from the depredations of those already full modernized), these rural Liberians will require a bureaucratic State well attuned to the needs of a population transitioning from communal to societal engagement. Unfortunately, State capacity in Africa, where strong, has run counter to the demands of civil society and has imposed its vision of African modernity, one gleaned from Western developmental models, on unwilling peoples.

  6. Among the questions to be asked are: to what extent does it matter? If the original social contracts of the West were built around providing security to the richest and worked their way down to poorer members of society, what prevents a social contract built around providing other public goods to the richest and working their way down to poorer members of society? Is the problem that the contract is between donors and government rather than citizens? Is the problem one of capacity: if it requires more capacity to provide education and health care than police protection and property laws, the one builds into the other. Is the problem that the rich do not need the government to provide the modern public goods and so are not on board while it is harder to get the poor into the social contract? Is the problem ethnic diversity or other lack of social capital that slows any contract formation? Is there no problem – it just takes a little longer?

  7. While law and order may be desired, the actual construction of rule of law requires reconfiguring power relations in a society–“political will.” Development organizations are often unable (or unwilling) to get involved in this. The only things you see are top-down rule-of-law programs that build courthouses or draft laws or formalize property titles or send judges from afar to train judges in the host country. Trouble is, all of this stuff is more or less for naught. The commitment to rule of law lasts as long as the donor’s program cycle, and the “locals” picked to participate are often simply an ersatz stand-in for the “political will” described as necessary in any program proposal. More to the point, most of the population won’t have access to any formal justice system, no matter how good your judges are or how shiny your courtrooms become.

    I recommend having a look at the Legal Empowerment literature, especially Stephen Golub’s work. For that matter, the World Bank has begun a justice for the poor (J4P) program office, although it’s questionable how willing they are to get involved. I think an interesting approach is non-state justice systems in Bangladesh, where you see NGOs with long histories actually convening their own customary courts and providing access and jurisprudence that is legitimate and desired by the community. More to the point, providing legal services for the poor will create the “demand” for justice systems that is necessary, rather than simply the exclusive “supply” side approach of conventional rule-of-law programs. See Vivek Maru’s writing on paralegals in Sierra Leone–it’s fascinating.

    Stephen Golub, “A House Without a Foundation,” in Promoting the Rule of Law Abroad: The Search for Knowledge, ed. Thomas Carothers (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006), pp. 106-136.

    Stephen Golub, “The Legal Empowerment Alternative,” in Promoting the Rule of Law Abroad: The Search for Knowledge, ed. Thomas Carothers (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006), pp. 161-187.

    World Bank, “Justice for the Poor Program,” (May 2008). http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTJUSFORPOOR/Resources/J4POverviewMay2008.pdf

    Vivek Maru, “Between Law and Society: Paralegals and the Provision of Justice Services in Sierra Leone and Worldwide,” Yale Journal of International Law, vol. 31 (2006). pp. 428-276.

  8. I hold the first view you toy with and a slightly weaker version of the second one, namely that there is a trade-off between long-term state building and the development of the bases for long-term development and the shorter-term, but hugely important gains of health and some kinds of education.

    On the fourth I think you’re probably right, but for a different reason to the one you probably hold: I work in aid management and in every country I’ve worked in there has been at least one major access to justice programme. these programmes might be few in number, but they bring together many donors in their planning, funding and execution, even if some provide no funding (but a lot of policy support). Many of the donors that do not fund the sector are interested and involved, but recognise that access to justice is something that must be well coordinated under Government and thus does not benefit from a number of competing programmes. Microfinance on the other hand is far more likely to be atomised: different donors/NGOs focusing on different areas or sectors of the economy. As such, yes – far more donors and NGOs will be involved in microfinance, but this does not mean that it gets more attention from actors in-country.