Political Cataclysm. In Action.

Inquilab is a word used in Iran and South Asia, roughly meaning political cataclysm – something that is clearly ongoing in North Africa and the Middle East right now. Whether or not they are successful, the movements of dissent springing up is going to be a major influence on politics in the region going forward.

One aspect I’m incredibly intrigued by is how quickly in the last year or two the culture of dissent and critique seems to have changed in these places. Historically, one of the central lessons of the Age of Revolution that swept through the world in the hundred or so years following the American Revolution is that what caused (or prevented) political upheaval was not simply economic or social pressures, which could be observed in many places, but how dissent and critique was expressed. It strikes me that this use of popular, sometimes violent, protest, is a new tool for dissent in many of the places it’s being used. One of the things historians will be looking at when they look at this surge of demonstration and revolution is how suddenly it flares and how quickly this culture of critique has become transnational. Each of the parochial concerns set off in individual countries has lit new sparks among near or distant neighbours.

Demonstration itself is not a new phenomenon in North Africa or the Middle East. Egypt in particular has the example of anti-British demonstrations to draw upon in its own history (so memorably represented in Palace Walk, the first book of the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz). Yet since last year’s demonstrations in Iran the use of demonstration as an expression of popular discontent has spread with incredible pace and power. We’ve seen two regimes toppled by it, and demonstration has returned to Iran, while new protest movements are being generated in the Middle East in the last few days and weeks. It is not only the successful act of revolution that is important, but the fact that dissent has suddenly become so open and so angry. This in itself is extremely important.

The central question is this: why have these demonstrations spread so quickly? It could be the birth of a new culture of dissent, one that is more confrontational than what had come before it? And will it persist? Like in the late 18th Century, I think the most important lesson from these demonstrations, the lesson that is spreading with such incredible rapidity across the region, is not of the outcomes: it is far from clear how much Tunisia’s state has changed, and Egypt is far from resolution still. The big message here is that the lowest and weakest sections of society can act independently as force for change: that popular discontent can work in these societies as long as it is mobilised in great enough numbers and with enough intransigence. And once it happened in one place, the ordinariness of how it starts was quickly made apparent to people across the world through the media but also through social networking (and this could be the real impact of FB and Twitter, rather than any organisational function – they emphasised that demonstration and revolution were being undertaken by ordinary people, demystifying the process).

The dissent that generated regime change was founded on raw power, but also will be domesticated eventually. Inquilab will give way to stability. The new states that emerge will have new ideological bases – they will probably move their self-justifications from order, stability and protection to ideals like equality, development and possibly freedom. And if this happens the culture of dissent must change again to one of political debate rather than demonstrations of power. And the round of revolutions will peter out.

Chris Blattman wrote just the other day that he cannot think of any sub-Saharan countries ready for street revolution. He’s right; it’s not immediately obvious where they will happen. But one of the lessons we should be drawing from North Africa is that a single successful incidence could set off a chain reaction – it takes far less time now for the message that demonstration and dissent works to spread than it ever has before.

Why do we need the Past?

History, simplified.

When I was an undergraduate, I took a course called Approaches to History. The idea was to study the intersection between history and other disciplines, how they interact and what the historian can learn from and can offer them. This was essentially a course in historiography, the study of how history is studied. One of the best things about the discipline is that different ways of collecting evidence, analysing it, and understanding the past are catalogued and kept alive by constant reference, continuing study and interaction with new modes of study. This includes the knowledge, approaches and concepts they take from other disciplines. Historians very rarely completely reject approaches. Rather, they take what is useful from each and use it in contemporary study. They’re not perfect in this by any means, and in particular the relationship between history and modern economics is weak, but there is a greater regard for other disciplines and other ways of thinking than one finds elsewhere.

By contrast economics, which dominates the development profession, doesn’t engage with other disciplines very well, including history. Part of this arises from one of the very good things about economics: it looks relentlessly forwards and seeks to apply its knowledge to solve problems and change the predicted future. However, a lot of it of it also relates to the methodology that economics has embraced. Methodological Individualism is not well suited to dealing with the social and groupish phenomena that are so important to history, anthropology, and branches of sociology and psychology (unsurprisingly, the ridiculously well-read Tyler Cowen is one of the few economists in the mainstream who has addressed this question directly). As a result, it tends to transform information from other disciplines into formats that fit within the individual-based modelling approach that dominates economics, rather than engage with them on their own terms.

When this translates to a weak grasp of history, development thinking suffers. There is a huge amount of literature out there looking in great depth and with a remarkable breadth of vision at the process of economic development that is rarely or never referenced in the development profession. These studies primarily look at the process of development of the currently developed countries; they take into account changing cultural conceptions of work, changing political and legal frameworks, demographic factors, evolving trading relationships and the political and physical violence that accompanied the birth of capitalism in the West. There are a number of lessons here that are simply missed out altogether. When was the last time anyone in development referenced Jan de Vries’ seminal pieces on the Industrious Revolution, a cultural change in working patterns that he claimed was a necessary precursor to industrialisation? Some studies or books even look precisely at the question of why some countries developed while others stagnated or fell behind, such as Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, or The Birth of the Modern World – neither of which feature on most development workers’ bookshelves.

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"Over the line! Mark it zero, Dude!"

Lee has a thought provoking post about institutions over at his blog. Responding to criticisms that the idea is too diffuse and difficult to pin down, he expresses admiration for Paul Romer’s use of the term ‘rules’ rather than the vaguer terms ‘institutions’ and ‘good governance’ (though this is ancillary to his main point, that migration reduces the importance of institutional change). He’s right – it is a more concrete term, but I still take great issue with the way the concept has been used by Romer.

Romer has made rules the centrepiece of his Charter Cities idea. For him, rules are the laws, regulations and norms that govern an economy and society. The Charter Cities idea runs on two central premises: one is that developing country Governments don’t have the right rules or the capacity to enforce them properly. The second is that the ‘correct’ rules are known and can be imported, as can enforcement capacity.

I don’t for a second doubt that rules and enforcement are deeply important for economic development, whether you want to call the bundle of policy associated with all of this institutional economics or governance reform. There are a great number of examples of this historically. When historians debate why the Great Transformation of the Industrial Revolution and rapid economic development occurred in the West and not in other historical centres of commerce such as China, India and parts of the Middle and Near East, one of the most important factors is the emergence of a clear set of rules relating to property and financial intermediation, as well as the improving functioning of the legal system in Britain and the US in particular. Another example is the emergence of property law in the US, which Hernando De Soto has convincingly argued was central to the development of capitalism in the US.

There are also examples of rules that were imported to power economic progress. In particular, when the British brought their banking and legal system to India, it caused a massive spark in Indian businesses: increased investment and hence a more dynamic economy emerged out of the ability to lend and borrow against clear rules.

That said, the reality of how rules emerge and are enforced is far more complex than Romer and many advocates of good governance and institutional approaches to economics recognise. I’ve seen a lot of people write some variation of ‘we know what good rules are’ or ‘we have a good understanding of what institutions stimulate development’. Despite this, I’ve never seen anyone actually set down on paper exactly what the correct legal framework and institutional makeup for development is. If we really did know what worked, surly someone would have written a fairly uncontroversial but best-selling book about this, right?

The basic problem is that we have a fairly good knowledge of what rules and institutions work pretty well where we live, and we assume that these are objectively ‘good’ rules and institutions. Not enough consideration is given to matters of variance across time and space. This is extremely important when considering rules and institutional policy for developing countries.

The first point to make is that rules vary in important ways across space. This is obvious. When people say that ‘we know the rules that make for good development’ do they think that rules (any rules) are the same in all places? A passing interest in world affairs will demonstrate that very important rules are different in different places. Take laws on rape. Most people would assume that laws on something as awful as rape would be relatively straightforward. They’re not. The legal framework around constitutes rape varies across countries quite significantly. Statutory rape is a good example of this. In France, in order to be convicted of statutory rape, it has to be proven that the accused knew the age of the victim. In other words, it’s actually a legitimate legal argument in France to say ‘well, she sure looked old enough!’ Such knowledge does not need to be proven under UK law, for example. Even the basic set of possible verdicts can vary. In some countries, a case can return a verdict of ‘not proven’ – which is different to saying the defendant is guilty or innocent.

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We must be doing something right

I’ve been making my way through Chinua Achebe’s The Education of a British-Protected Child, and stumbled upon this gem:

In 1976, U.S. relations with Nigeria reached an all-time low in the face of a particularly clumsy American handling of the Angolan-Cuba-South African issue. Henry Kissinger, whose indifference to Africa bordered on cynicism, decided at last to meet Joseph Garba, the Nigerian foreign minister, at the United Nations. In a gambit of condescending pleasantness, Kissinger asked Garba what he thought America was doing wrong in Africa. To which Garba replied stonily: “Everything!” Kissinger’s next comment was both precious and, I regret to admit, true. He said: “Statistically that is impossible. Even if it is unintentional, we must be doing something right.”

A Reminder

50 years ago today, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated.

Here’s an interesting piece on the assassination from the Guardian. Here’s a (French) transcription of a rousing speech he made on the occasion of Congolese independence.

Matt’s made the good point that Collier’s ideas are less radical than they seem; Blattman’s pointed out that it is morally dubious to shoot down Collier without a valid alternative.

But ultimately, we have a bad enough record when it comes to external interventions by force or the threat thereof that I think the only morally defensible position is to be humble enough to say that we almost certainly know too little to be making any strong claims for the use of violence (real or implied) even if this does bias us towards inaction.

Revolution in Africa?

Serbia's 'Bulldozer Revolution' had a clearly defined aim.

I’ve blogged and commented about the rarity of revolution in Africa, so the very under-reported events in Tunisia have captured my interest.

Now the NYT is reporting that the President has fled the country and the Prime Minister has claimed power, constitutionally.

I find this fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, the Prime Minister is a close ally of the President and seems to immediately have become the focus of a new campaign of removal:

Yet by late Friday night, Tunisian Facebook pages previously emblazoned with the revolt’s slogan, “Ben Ali, Out,” had made way for the name of the interim president. “Ghannouchi Out,” they declared.

This is one indication that there is no popular figure who the riots are aimed at pushing into power: it is solely a vehicle to express discontent. This contrasts with, for example, Serbia’s ‘Bulldozer Revolution‘ which removed Slobodan Milosevic in favour of the winner of the previous elections Vojislav Koštunica.

Secondly, I’m having real difficulty in identifying leadership of the riots and demonstrations. This could simply be my ignorance about the situation, since the coverage here has been so patchy. However, to my mind, revolution has a defined aim and defined leadership. Is this then a revolution? Or a different kind of political upheaval? And what will be the final result? Elections (which will take at least a month or so to organise)? Or is there a popular leader ready to take power? Can someone who knows more about this please enlighten me?

The lost pact to end poverty porn

As early as 1994, at the start of the genocide in Rwanda, several of the world’s largest aid organizations signed on to a code of conduct intended to govern communication with the press and the public. It was compiled by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Signatories to the code agreed that in their briefings, publicity and advertising they would acknowledge victims of disasters to be “dignified human beings, not hopeless objects.

That’s Linda Polman in her book on humanitarian aid, The Crisis Caravan (War Games in the UK). Expect a review sometime in the near future.

The list of signatories to that code are here, comprising nearly 500 NGOS, including many organizations we’re familiar with today (like MSF). It’s disheartening, but not surprising, that so many signatories went on to ignore this part of the code – I fear the fundraising incentives are a little too strong for this one.

Revolution, Oppression, Ornithology and a semi-Charter City

One of the incredible monolithic churches in Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis

Apologies for my long blogging silence. I’ve been almost completely off the grid for a holiday in Ethiopia (with a short detour to Djibouti) for the last couple of weeks. I checked my e-mail only a couple of times, and completely avoided Facebook. It was glorious.

Still, Ethiopia gives one the blogging bug. Historically, culturally, archaeologically and politically it must be one of the most interesting countries I’ve ever had the good fortune to visit. Without claiming any kind of in-depth analysis, a number of things occurred to me in the last couple of weeks, things I’d be interested to explore further or hear about from people who have already done so. I also saw some interesting economic developments in Djibouti that I’d be really keen to get more of an insight into.

First are the politics. A while ago I wrote a post speculating as to why popular revolt and revolution are so rare in Africa, when so many countries seem to have many of the characteristics that would make them likely. Ethiopia is an exception to this rule. It has experienced a genuine revolution, which led to the fall of the Mengitsu, effected by civil war with the aim of regime change (not solely for secession, though this was the aim of a subset of the combatants). While in Ethiopia, I picked up a book, Ethiopia: Power and Protest, by Gebru Tareke, which shows that prior to the revolution, peasant revolt and rebellion was common enough to dissipate state resources and demand remedial action. Tareke argues that rebellion was a relatively rare phenomenon in Ethiopia compared to peasantries elsewhere in the world, but nonetheless, this still marks it out as historically more prone to rebellion than the rest of Africa.

Why Ethiopia? What has made revolution and rebellion occur here? One reason might be that the extremely strong influence of Orthodox Christianity provides an alternative source of authority to the state, thereby making challenge of the leaders more palatable. Historically the monarchy sought legitimacy by patronising the Church, once conversion was widespread – the incredible monolithic churches of Lalibela stem from this impulse. It may be that by providing an alternative authority, one which is relatively unified in voice, the authority of the state can more effectively be challenged by Ethiopians. Yet this could hardly be more than a minor part of the story. The organisation of so many people, encompassing a number of diverse tribes and linguistic groups must have been extraordinarily difficult if revolt was to be anything other than local. I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who knows more about this.

Yet, despite the rebellious and revolutionary past of Ethiopia, its polity has remained resolutely centralised and undemocratic. It was ruled as a serious of Kingdoms from the beginning of its recorded history (gorgeously preserved in Axum and Gondar, with many more treasures under the ground waiting for excavation); after a brief interlude of Fascist occupation, the monarchy was restored under Haile Selassie, before a military coup replaced it with the Communist Council or Derg, ruling as a dictatorship of enormous brutality. Following civil war, the Derg collapsed and was replaced by the ‘democratic’ Government of Meles Zenawi, which took 99% of the elected seats in Ethiopian Government in the elections of 2010, to general incredulity. This does not seem to be an especially open or subtle Government. In almost every place we went we either met or heard about communities that were being forcibly evicted from their land, often to make way for new commercial buildings, for what was usually claimed to be inadequate compensation.

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On Entrepreneurs, Capitalism and History

I wrote an article in the most recent issue of the UNIDO magazine, Making It, about the role of entrepreneurs in the development of low-income countries. Entrepreneurship is a difficult issue to approach from a head-on perspective, because it’s very difficult to put a finger on what one can actually do to help entrepreneurs – their raison d’etre is to respond to opportunities, rather than to function within a wider framework of a Government plan. This tends to lead a lot of writers to the standard liberal response of ‘provide an enabling environment’, and to avoid crowding them out, which is essentially the thrust of most of Bill Easterly’s work on his Planners vs. Searchers dichotomy, though I’m not much of a fan of this distinction.

My argument is that focusing on entrepreneurship is misguided, because there’s little shortage of it, and it’s been around for a very long time. Rather, we need to think much more carefully about the systems that allow entrepreneurs the ability to move from being small businessmen to the cornerstone of an economy. What distinguishes Richard Branson or Alan Sugar from the guy selling sea shells outside my local bar in Zanzibar isn’t their basic approach to opportunity, it’s the structures in place that amplify that approach. Referencing Bayly’s Birth of the Modern World (yet again) and De Soto’s Mystery of Capital (for the umpteenth time), I argue that there are specific economic, legal and political realms in which improvements must be made, and interventions undertaken if entrepreneurship is to achieve the same kind of effects in Africa, for example, as it has in America.

These are more than simply refining a market system, but move into the realms of redefining a legal system and property structure to change the incentives and capacities of different economic actors, and in effect, move an economy into modern capitalism, rather than the kind of market-based mixed economy that actually prevails in most of the third world.

I don’t see much evidence of this kind of approach in practical development work, unfortunately, though I’d be very happy to be alerted to examples of this.