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.