African poverty: it’s beyond institutions

Institutions matter, say James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu in their recently published book Why Nations Fail?. The book is a fairly suggestive defense of the idea that it’s institutions which shape the political, social and economic fate of a country. The book follows a line by the same authors of explaining economic outcomes by the institutional setup, this explanation gaining preponderance (if not completely excluding) over geographic or cultural explanations.

My interest in this post is not to review the book (I have nothing to add to what has already been said here, here, and here) but an earlier work dealing with the causes of African poverty, published under the title of ‘Why is Africa poor?‘ in the journal Economic History of Developing Nations.

The answer to the question in the title is the same that in the book. Africa is poor because its institutions are poor, and not conducive to providing public goods and securing property rights. In this paper they focus however in interpreting how African institutions became what they are today. Contemporary economic decline comes from a combination of late state development, the negative shocks of the slave trade and colonialism, and path dependence at independence.

My summary of their position, and the historical evidences provided by Acemoglu and Robinson, is presented here:

Using historical evidence can easily lead to privileging those cases which better fit your own stance. It might be what happens to Acemoglu and Robinson when discussing late political centralization in Africa. Does the Kongo kingdom allow for a generalization? Some doubts come to mind when, later on in the paper, the Oyo, Dahomey and Asante kingdoms are called states ‘whose main raison d’être was raiding and slaving‘ .

In addition, their discussion of neo-patrimonialism engages only with mainstream researchers such as Bratton and van der Walle, Bates, Bayart and Sandbrook. Following their bias towards institutionalism, the paper leaves aside, for instance, accounts which put neo-patrimonialism in a cultural framework, such as Patrick Chabal‘s (his last work is not included among the references; some comments surveying the discussion of the book convened by Critical African Studies can be found here).

This laziness to explore alternative explanations gets even worse when taking notice of the neglect of Catherine Boone in the theoretical framework. And this is quite surprising, given the fact that in ‘Political Topographies of the African State‘ she has also looked for historical evidence supporting her claims. Her stance is, however, notably different, since she explicitly rejects the institutional explanation because of its short-sightedness. Boone goes one step beyond, and looks for the socioeconomic variables which account for institutional choice in central-rural elite relations. Social hierarchy and economic autonomy are the answer.

Compared to Acemoglu and Robinson’s position, Boone’s theoretical framework seems to provide a better explanation of post-colonial politics in some African countries. Path dependence as put forward by Acemoglu and Robinson is part of the truth, undoubtedly, but their position would benefit enormously if complementary and farther reaching explanations given by prominent Africanists were considered.

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