A book that help change the way I think about politics in developing countries

In the 1990s, the average country tipped from unapologetic dictatorship to holding elections. Many nations let parties compete, the free press criticize, and so forth. This has to be one of the most monumental events to happen in my lifetime–one of the few things a history book 500 years from now will probably mention.

This week I read what was, for me, an important book: Museveni’s Uganda: Paradoxes of Power in a Hybrid Regime, by Aili Mari Tripp. This is the essential book on Ugandan politics and development.

Since that’s a niche audience, I’ll say this on top: I think the book is a perfect window into the perverse logic of the quasi-democracies that dominate most of the world. Most of the time we misunderstand them. Case studies like this one start to make things clearer.

Some things I take away from the book (and some other recent readings on authoritarianism, a new interest of mine):

  • It’s a mistake to think of regimes in most underdeveloped counties as coherent governments. Rather, most are delicate and shifting alliances of influential groups and elites. The strongman who sits atop this look and act like Presidents (and many have a tremendous amount of power) but their first priority is to manage this shifting network of alliances. This overrides everything else.
  • If you want to be crude, the strongman has three tools to keep control (and peace): patronage, repression, and “nation-building”. The last category is a ridiculously cluttered one, where I mix national identity with independent and capable bureaucracies, among other things. These are the things that make governments coherent, accountable and effective. Most nations are working on them and improving, but it takes decades.
  • In the meantime, if you limit patronage, you leave the options of repression or some kind of political instability.
  • Meanwhile, things that look like a move ahead, such as letting many parties form and compete, can also be a way to divide the opposition and entrench power while showing the world a facade of democracy.
  • “Good policy” gets filtered and perverted by this system. It’s silly and dangerous to give aid or recommend a policy reform without some appreciation of the elite alliances, the ritual of democracy, and the incentives faced by leaders. Yet that’s what most aid and reform does.

This could have been a book about Afghanistan, or Guatemala, or early modern France, and I could have drawn similar insights. The more stable and successful autocracies are the ones that (among other things) depersonalize and institutionalize parties and power. China might be an example. I say all this, of course, knowing exactly zero about Afghanistan, Guatemala, early modern France, and China. There’s a reason this blog is free.

I don’t say any of this to impel people not to act. Or to indict all aid. Only to say that this view of politics is rare. Foreigners fall for the ritual of democracy. I did for a long while in Uganda.

Obviously, I recommend the book.

53 thoughts on “A book that help change the way I think about politics in developing countries

  1. I haven’t read the book, but I probably will. Unfortunately, I’m already prejudiced against it. Why?

    Because it sure looks like the author hasn’t read Max Weber. I see a lot of this “hybrid regime” stuff around today and it is always based on looking at a continuum of regimes from democratic to authoritarian. The authors look at the base characteristics of democratic and authoritarian regimes then find a regime that has characteristics of both: that’s a hybrid.

    It isn’t. If you read Weber on ideal types, you will see that he was not, I repeat not, putting together descriptions of actual historical regimes. There is no such thing as a “pure” ideal type; the ideal types are intended to be used to allow for descriptions of regimes in terms of how they meet certain aspects of the ideal poles. It was a basic mistake of the modernization school to read the types as a set of actual characteristics of historical formations. Hence the whole “traditional – modern” fiasco that we now see re-capped in the lit about democracy. You’d think that a whole generation that read (or should have) Gunder Frank would know better by now. But apparently not.

    So … Basta! No more “hybrid types”. Let’s try for once to actually describe what’s going on politically in developing countries by using ideal types the way Uncle Max intended.

  2. Thanks for this review! I read this book a few years ago and it also changed my views on politics in developing countries, and especially Uganda, a country that I have spent significant time in. I think Tripp’s work is completely perspective shifting, and I was glad to read it early in my international development/public health career. It’s helped a lot!

  3. Chris,
    Thanks for this wonderful reflective review. In particular, one
    observation you make is very insightful & should be examined more carefully in a variety of contexts: ““Good policy” gets filtered and perverted by this system. It’s silly and dangerous to give aid or recommend a policy reform without some appreciation of the elite alliances, the ritual of democracy, and the incentives faced by leaders. Yet that’s what most aid and reform does.”

    Also, I’d interested in your response to Tracy’s comment/s above. I want to say something but it’d nice to have your thoughts.