In my last post I agued that: in order to prevent conflict within the elite circle, access to political and economic power is denied to non-elites. In order to secure peace, elites deny citizens access to political and economic power. A loss of their monopoly position will affect the stability of the country and could possibly lead to armed conflict.
In limited access societies, agreements are based on personal ties instead of impersonal rules. In most African states, which are limited access societies, business and politics are not organized according to impartial institutions and amendments written in the constitution, but ultimately rely on personal ties of its elites. This system promotes patronage and corruption and consequently, limits free and prosperous markets and democratic politics.
Careful transformation into a society where political and economic power is accessible to anyone is the single most effective way to stimulate economic progress and a healthy market economy. In Africa, there are several powerful elites who are well aware of the mechanisms that would stimulate democracy and free market reform. The question now is: Why do African elites hang on to a limited access model when there is enough proof that suggests that an open access society enjoys more sustained economic growth? To answer this question we can look at 17th century Europe and see that African elites lack the incentives to properly install institutions that would lead to transformation into an open access society.
In Europe around the 17th and 18th century, the failure to put strong institutions in place would result in loss of territory or wealth. European leaders failing to efficiently manage their administration would surely be conquered by either outside forces or overthrown from within. Years and years of fierce competition among European elites resulted in strong and organized states in which a well organized administration was vital to the states existence. Theorist Michel Foucault sees this development as a direct link that eventually led to enlightenment in Europe around the 17th century. He describes this strong administration as a consequence of the growth of the population in Europe. Foucault tells us that institutions which made Europe flourish in the 17th and 18th century – like schools, workshops, the army, - can only be understood on the basis of the development of great administrative monarchies. In short we could say that because of the extremely competitive environment and the growth of the population in Europe around the 17th century, there was an urgent need for leaders to organize their administration. As a consequence, stronger states emerged that built the foundation for an open access society.
If we take this argument and apply it to Africa Today, we see that through foreign assistance, African governments are able to maintain power despite their mismanagement of essential institutions. International treaties, development aid and easy money through dubious foreign investments (think of China) assist them in their ability to keep access limited to the majority of the population. Bilateral conflicts and wars are prevented by international watchdogs and coups are getting less common because of the tight grip the current elites have on the state (strengthened by foreign money).
Although institutional forms may be present most african countries, their practical use and implementation is often dreadful. In higher echelons of power (think of central government) institutions may work relatively well, however, it is this central government that fails to see to it that institutions are effectively implemented in the lower levels of political administration (local governments). When it comes to obvious cases of corruption, the top elites will take no risk of getting caught with their pants down. However, their reluctance to monitor the rest of their administration ensures that access to economic and political power remains limited.
As the real interest of the elite lie in foreign investment and the larger amounts of direct aid, they care little for corruption in the lower levels of society. The only interest the high levels of power have in the people of the country is a sufficient amount of votes to win (or credibly rig) the elections. For their remaining needs they turn to the richer foreign countries, be it in the form of Western direct development aid or disputable Chinese investments. At top level, politicians know how to handle themselves and to divert liability of mismanagement away from their position. The dreadfulness of government administration starts to show when looking deeper inside.
In my next posts I will describe my experiences during an expedition through the remote Ugandan district of Namutumba with a Ugandan researcher to find out how local governments function in real life..