On the death of presidents and ignoring the averages

"Perhaps this is an awkward time to talk about the line of succession"

While it is still unclear exactly what has happened, it is looking more and more likely that Malawi’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, has either died or been severely incapacitated by heart failure.

As Kim Yi Dionne points out, the constitution clearly identifies the vice president , Joyce Banda, as successor. This is where things get a little awkward, as Kim points out:

Shortly after Mutharika and Banda won office (by large margins), President Mutharika had plans for his brother, Peter Mutharika to succeed him in office. Banda was marginalized and eventually expelled from the ruling party. She was also removed from ministerial posts and government attempted to have her removed from office (which is unconstitutional). Facing antagonism from the government, she later formed a new party, the People’s Party.

Whether or not the top brass at the the DPP (Bingu’s party) decide to swallow this bitter pill and embrace Banda remains to be seen.

An equally interesting question which has been bothering me all morning: why hadn’t anyone considered this in advance? Bingu wa Mutharika was a frail 78 year old whose increasingly autocratic rants were seen by many as a sign of impending dementia. The probability that he would die or become severely disabled during a five year term were significant enough to warrant some extra planning.

This isn’t an infrequent occurrence – looking back ten years reveals a startling number of African presidents falling off their perches: Zambia, Chad, Togo, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Gabon and Nigeria all had presidents die of poor health whilst in office, all from heart attacks, strokes or cancer. Most of these led to periods of political uncertainty and instability. Even the near-misses are problematic: Mwai Kibaki’s stroke in 2003 led to a substantial shift in both policy and personality – Michela Wrong suggested it drastically hampered the government’s ability to deal with corruption.

Unless the Government of Malawi soon reveals some cunning plan to prevent Joyce Banda from becoming president, it will be obvious that they never really considered this as a potential outcome. Was this sheer stupidity or hubris? Perhaps presidents can’t imagine their own deaths, so do little to prepare for it. There are a few shining outliers out there that might be biasing the results: both Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea and Mugabe in Zimbabwe have shown a remarkable ability to endure, despite cancer and general evilness.

Voters often associate old-age with wisdom and power, substantially more so in countries like Malawi. Yet these preferences constantly expose political systems to new risks. During the US elections in 2008, an actuarial firm rightly pointed out that John McCain only had a 75% chance of living through a full 8 year term. Despite these unnerving numbers (especially considering who would have been next in line), very little was made of McCain’s age-related morbidity or mortality.

As a 61-year-old-woman, Joyce Banda’s prospects of reaching the end of the current presidential term without succumbing to illness, senility or death are significantly higher than Bingu’s evidence successor, his 72-year-old brother Peter Mutharika. If the Government does find a way to thwart the constitution, and Bingu’s wishes are granted posthumously – likely guaranteeing his brother two terms in office – Malawi’s chances of suffering yet another presidential death rise substantially.

For all debts public and private

"You see, THIS is what happens when we lose our credit line to the Hutts"

Odious debt is a fairly simple legal concept: public debt accrued by illegitimate regimes should not be passed on to successive governments. As described by the folks at the Center for Global Development, one of the best ways to make sure this happens is for the institutions responsible for enforcing international contracts to declare that all future loans to the current regime are unenforceable. Faced with the prospect of a higher chance of default by the current government  (and an automatic default by the next), potential lenders would be dissuaded from doing business, thus preventing excessive debt.

In response to the growing violence in Syria, CGD’s Kim Elliot and Owen Barder have revived the idea (here and here), not just as a method for preventing excessive debt, but as a way of putting more pressure on the current regime – if Assad’s remaining lines of credit are dropped, then we might expect his position to crumble even faster.

Let’s break the idea down a little further. There seems to be an implicit model working in the background here, and I think it looks something like this: a rational investor knows the best deal it can get from the Galactic Empire is a rate of return of r on a loan. Based on this, the investor decides how much to loan, conditional on its outside options. The investor knows that, even if the Empire falls to the Rebel Alliance, it is still guaranteed its return r.

Now, assume that an outside party has declared all future debt incurred by the Empire as unenforceable. If the Rebel Alliance wins (with probability P), then the investor won’t receive any return at all, and now there is also a smaller chance the Empire will pay them back even if it remains in power (this probability of repayment E). The investor’s expected rate of return is now significantly lower [(1-P)Er < r], so it will disinclined to lend as much – and might even choose to disengage completely.

This is all pretty intuitive and sensible – although there a few reasons why it might not be that straight forward. These should be thought more as possible (general) caveats rather than criticisms:


  • Expectations over the value of P are important here – we can expect the impact of an odious debt declaration to be stronger as it looks more and more likely the Rebels will win. Fortunately, the Syrian army might already be signalling its views on P.
  • It’s very likely that the probability the Empire stays in power is a function of the amount of money lent to it – that is, potential investors know that they can directly affect P when choosing how much to lend. While most assumptions over the functional form of P would lead us to the same conclusion, I’m still a bit worried that there could be identifiable thresholds here (if we lend them enough for a Death Star, the probability of winning converges to 1). This is why it is really important that odious debt declarations only affect future contracts (as the CGD suggests) – we don’t want investors given the incentive to prop up bad governments so they can avoid sunk costs.
  • Another assumption is that there is symmetry in the way contracts are enforced: in reality, the financial and legal institutions responsible for international; contract enforcement are much more likely to be binding when a legitimate government takes over and wants to rid itself of odious debt, but the same is not necessarily true if the illegitimate government wins. When dodgy governments (or firms) trade with others of the same ilk, different, more informal mechanisms are likely underlying enforcement. These types of governments are inherently riskier anyway, so potential investors might already be relying on these alternative mechanisms. Again, these wouldn’t reverse the expected results, but they might dampen it.
  • Related to this point – we assume that countries that do business with awful regimes are only interested in profit. Once you add in preferences for that regime staying in power (democratic governments don’t usually buy as many weapons + it’s good to have another evil dictator in the neighborhood), the picture gets even murkier.

Caveats aside, I’m excited that this idea is finally getting the attention it deserves.

UNESCO and evil dictators

In response to complaints about our Emperor Palpatine Award, Aid Thoughts has relabeled it the Death Star Award for Research in the Life Sciences

A few years ago there was a kerfuffle over UNESCO’s plan to create a Life Sciences award named after (and funded by) Equatorial Guinean dictator and all-around-evil-person Teodoro Obiang. Many were worried that the award would undermine UNESCO’s credibility make Obiang’s position more legitimate. At the time, I felt that denying him an award like this was peanuts compared to the many other ways the world routinely legitimizes his never-ending grip on the country. It seems that UNESCO has finally decided to move forward with the award:

After almost two years of debate and hand-wringing, the executive board of Unesco approved a scientific award on Thursday sponsored by a repressive West African dictator, despite the pleadings of Western nations and a finding by the organization’s lawyers that the prize would violate internal bylaws.

But there was one notable change. While the prize originally bore the name of the sponsor, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has ruled over oil-rich Equatorial Guinea since 1979, the award will now be called the Unesco-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.

In the same NYT article, there are hints that the debate hasn’t yet ended. I wish it would – if the Western world wants to show it doesn’t much care for Obiang’s rule, then we need to hit him where it hurts: his oil revenue.

Malawi’s president and the art of diplomacy

From the BBC:

Mr Mutharika said he has intelligence reports that some Western donor nations were working with local non-governmental groups (NGOs) to hold street demonstrations and vigils against his rule.

“I will not accept this nonsense any more,” Mr Mutharika said as he opened a road in his home tea-growing district of Thyolo in southern Malawi.

“If donors say this is not democracy, to hell with you… yes, I’m using that word, tell them to go to hell,” he said on Sunday.

In all seriousness, the media and donors often fail to acknowledge that local NGOs are often headed by members of the opposition or those with close ties to it. While Mutharika’s response is absurdly vitriolic, if outside forces are supporting these NGOs then his concerns aren’t entirely unfounded.

Time inconsistency, Malawi edition

In The Guardian on Wednesday, Bingu Mutharika responds to claims he is becoming autocratic:

“What they are trying to do is to draw a parallel between the leadership of Zimbabwe and Malawi. There is no basis for that. That is totally unfair and uncalled for. I have been very democratic.

“From 2004 until now, there is no single political prisoner in a Malawian jail. Is that consistent with the restriction of democracy in this country? We have been very democratic, we have been very patient. I have asked the opposition to come and see me but they refuse.

“It is simply not true. Because if it were true, all these people would have been rounded up. None of them have. They are free now. If indeed Malawi was starting to be a police state, would they still be walking free? That’s the question.”

In the Guardian today:

A prominent critic of Malawi’s president has been jailed in what activists say is the latest sign that the country is turning into a police state.

Ralph Kasambara, a human rights lawyer and former attorney general, has spent three nights behind bars after a fracas at his law practice in Blantyre.

A man of no importance

Are men being left out of the development equation?

Over at Global Dashboard, Mark Weston reviews a new book on men, masculinity and development:

The problem lies in the expectations society has of men. In West Africa, for example, men are expected to set up a home, marry at least one wife, and accumulate and provide for children and other dependents. Those who fail to perform these duties forfeit the respect of their elders, women and their peers; they cannot become “real men”.

When the breadwinner role becomes impossible to fulfil – as it did for millions of men across Africa during the economic crises of the 1980s and 1990s – men have other facets of masculinity on which to draw in order to recover their self-esteem. Some of these alternative masculinities are positive…….   but many traditional expressions of manliness are socially destructive

This is a difficult subject to discuss – one needs to be critical about the interaction between economic and social forces without sounding like an apologist for the worst aspects of masculinity [Disclaimer: I am male]. A particularly shrill example is David Willletts’s numbskull comment that feminism was to blame for the lack of working class jobs for men. It sounds like Men and Development avoids these tropes:

Legal and institutional changes can embed or trigger cultural shifts, but in many cases the latter exacerbate gender inequality by entrenching harmful masculinity norms. As Andrea Cornwall notes in Men and Development, for example, laws that oblige divorced men to pay alimony without also obliging them to provide child care cement the notion that men should be breadwinners above all else, and that women should take responsibility for caring. Microfinance programs’ targeting of women reinforces the idea of the reckless, irresponsible man who cannot be trusted to invest in his family. And the criminalisation of sex workers’ clients, itself based on a misleading perception that all such men are perverted or violent, perpetuates the stereotype of men as aggressors and women as helpless victims.

I have written before about the dangers of taking men out of the question (Tim Ogden also has some good thoughts). Our tendency to do so is a natural reaction to the relative plight of women in developing countries. Yet, despite the fact that men are the cause of so much woe, we can’t ignore them as part of the solution .

A Couple of Provocative Thoughts

Don't provoke him. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.

A few weeks ago, Nick Eubank wrote a piece about Somaliland in the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog. Somaliland is an interesting one – it’s a state that is not officially recognized and therefore in receipt of less aid than would be expected (though it is incorrect to assert, as he does, that it receives no foreign aid), but is performing well above reasonable expectations. They have a pretty well-functioning democracy, biometric passports – like Lee, I still can’t get over this – and pretty good economic performance.

Eubank suggests that it’s the very lack of aid and subsequent development of tax structures that has led to Somaliland’s good performance, a view to which I have some sympathy. I’ve written in the past about why developing taxation systems is crucially important for all developing countries and why it tends to be difficult. If a side-effect of Somaliland’s lack of access to aid is being forced to be more representative and more developmental, could there possibly be a benefit to restricting rather than increasing aid volumes?

It’s a provocative idea, because it flies in the face of almost everything we’re led to believe about development and levels of development funding, but as a thought experiment, it’s worth considering. It would be likely to yield specific benefits:

  • Most obviously, it incentivizes the creation of a viable tax regime with the benefits of accountability, representation and responsiveness that issue from one
  • It also creates far more pressure to achieve concrete and valuable results than any system of performance assessment – strictly limited aid volumes makes failure far more costly
  • Ownership would take a big boost. The biggest boon to local ownership of the aid agenda would be the ability and necessity to refuse aid packages that are not wanted. If bad aid or aid out of line with the local development vision replaces good aid, the incentive to exercise ownership of the agenda and refuse the aid is that much higher
  • A limited volume of aid would mean that the limited management capacity of local institutions is not stretched over hundreds of projects and programmes (as is the case now), but focused on a few tightly prioritized programmes, with consequent benefits for implementation.

Offsetting these benefits is the obvious drawback that much of what needs to be done could not be financed with a strict aid ceiling. The value of the thought experiment is not to assess whether we should cap aid, but to see what benefits it would bring so we can work out how to generate these benefits without limiting aid volumes. The hardest two to incentivize without some resource constraint are the improved ownership (which really requires that local institutions to refuse aid far more than they actually do) and the management effects. Suggestions welcome.

Staying in the region, Chris Blattman also linked to a paper suggesting that Somalia was better off without a state. While the writer of the original paper seems to be a libertarian (and somehow the headline ‘Libertarian Dislikes Government’ isn’t all that shocking), it does make an interesting basic point: the correct counterfactual when we consider poorly governed or chaotic states is not a ‘good’ Government, but a ‘different’ one. This is something to bear in mind when we consider countries with corrupt, dictatorial or ineffectual Governments. Very often it’s not the specific leadership or political party that is at the root of bad governance or decline, but the structural characteristics of their rule: their relationship with the opposition, their relationships with the public, their ability to govern effectively and the options open to them. In very different contexts I’ve argued this for Malawi and Zimbabwe. In Malawi, the same leadership was fine in one political context and dictatorial in another. In Zimbabwe, the temptation to lay all blame at the feet of a very convenient (and abhorrent) villain blinds many to the complex roots of his crimes and Zimbabwe’s decline. The saddest thing is that this point is often neglected even by immensely powerful decision makers – the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq both show marks of this error.

Going back to the original article, is there a case to be made for statelessness when the Government is predatory? The argument is strongest in the static view, comparing a bad state and statelessness. The more dynamic the view taken, where we consider how tyrannical or corrupt regimes can become effective ones, the less this view makes sense, though it’s also true that plenty of tyrannical regimes didn’t evolve but were overthrown. Again, the thought experiment of whether some developing countries would be better off stateless is most valuable in focusing our attention on the long term needs and real dynamics of state building – not just in terms of building institutions but understanding how bad or predatory institutions can evolve into good ones. It’s happened in many countries, and links back to the questions of accountability, representation and taxation discussed above.

Accountability and the Gates Foundation

Laura Freschi and Alanna Shaikh have an article out in Alliance Magazine on the potential pitfalls of the Gates Foundation’s massive influence on the global health funding. This paragraph says it all:

It is not inconceivable that you might find yourself some day reading a story about a Gates-funded health project, written up in a newspaper that gets its health coverage underwritten by Gates, reported by a  journalist who attended a Gates-funded journalism training programme, citing data collected and analysed by scientists with grants from Gates. What happens when we need to move beyond the success stories?  If the Gates Foundation influences governments, NGOs and the media on global health, who will be able to offer objective feedback on its goals, practices and impact?What happens when we need to move beyond the success stories? If the Gates Foundation influences governments, NGOs and the media on global health, who will be able to offer objective feedback on its goals, practices and impact? If expensive polio and malaria eradication efforts, pursued not just by Gates but by the entire global health community at Gates’ urging, fail, to whom will Gates be accountable for that failure? Currently the foundation is ultimately accountable for its success or failure only to the four decision-makers on its board.

I’m equally concerned – I’ve also written at length before about why we shouldn’t assume that the Foundation’s objective function is well-attuned to that of the countries it aims to help, as big philanthropic foundations will always be biased towards record-breaking wins over slow progress.

However, I suspect that the Gates Foundation’s influence will slip somewhat in the future – budgets everywhere are squeezed right now, forcing many more players to turn to the Foundation for funding. This will change when resources start flowing again (not that I see it happening any time soon…).


Take me to the riot

The fertilizer subsidy is people!

Tomorrow will see a spate of peaceful demonstrations across Malawi to protest the country’s recent decline in economic governance and Bingu wa Mutharika’s creeping authoritarianism. For an excellent summary of events leading up to these protests, see Kim Yi Dionne’s post here. You’ll find a few pieces on the growing problems in the country on this blog.

There are some reports of pro-DPP (the ruling party) gangs going around and beating up the odd person, and there is some concern that there could be violent intimidation at tomorrow’s rally.

As a former civil servant of the Malawian government, this is all making me a little sad. My thoughts will be with the protesters tomorrow, who have every right to make their case without being bullied by an increasingly stubborn and belligerent government.

As two (now) British-based bloggers, we’ll do our best to bring any new information to light, although Kim is already several steps ahead of us with info on the coming protests.


"You want my advice, Tone? I say we whack him.'

Duncan Green has a really good set of suggestions for advocacy with ‘effective but authoritarian’ states. The first five are especially good and worth quoting in full:

1. One party states can be more open to robust evidence than multi-party ones. Disturbing, I know, but these governments often appear more interested in hard evidence than their more democratic counterparts. Petitions and emails won’t do it – you need data, though individual impact stories can work quite well too. Let’s not get too starry-eyed though, there will be areas that are off limits, and you need to know what they are.

2. Research will have more influence if it is done by an organization the government trusts – such as the parastatal Academies of Social Science in Vietnam and China and major Moscow-based universities. In any system, the messenger matters as well as the message, but these governments seem to specifically use such parastatals as channels to gather new knowledge.  Such research institutions are also often hungry for connections with external agencies so you’re pushing at an open door.

3. Your political economy analysis had better be good: understanding how decisions are taken in Addis or Moscow is absolutely critical. Personalities, relationships (both personal and professional), the histories, cultures and incentive systems of different leaders or ministries. Until you have a confident grasp of these, your influencing is highly likely to go wrong (always with the risk of backlash).

4. The importance of symbolism, pride and sovereignty. Traditional NGO name-and-shame tactics are as likely to lead to a counter-productive backlash as a breakthrough.  Instead, offer things that work. Find the Achilles’ heel that the government recognizes as a weak spot and focus on that. They can be surprisingly grateful for suggestions.

5. Alliances with non-state actors: in terms of citizens, most authoritarian regimes are keenly aware of issues of legitimacy, if not of direct accountability, and acts of citizenship are far from absent even when elections are either not held, or perfunctory. Building alliances with other actors (academics, churches, private sector) is just as important as in more open state systems.

Numbers three and four are particularly important. Always approach leadership upwind: nothing makes authoritarian Governments angrier than the feeling that they’re being ambushed. I would caveat point five by saying that it’s exceedingly important to ensure that support to NSAs is transparent; you don’t want to give anyone the chance to make accusations of perfidy based on their paranoia. In general, these rules can be extended to ‘intransigent’ states where leadership is democratically elected but is particularly sensitive to criticism, especially from external actors. Malawi probably fits this bill.