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Social media & free speech in Africa

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica

It is probably true that African elections are not won on social media. Still, the same cannot be said of public opinion. There is evidence the dominant narrative on social media is influential. Sometimes, and increasingly so, the first anyone knows about a government policy is when it is announced on social media. American president Donald Trump is the archetypal example of this practice. Of course, and unfortunately so, what ‘trends’ on social media could also be false. Recently, for instance, it was falsely reported that Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, married two of his female cabinet minsters. And even now, despite the country’s secret service bringing the culprit to book, the false report is still widely believed.

Little wonder, African governments are increasingly concerned about social media and the influence it wields. Put another way, African governments are finding that they cannot easily control the media narrative as much as they would like or used to be able to. They are not taking the assault lying down. In Nigeria, a social media bill is in the works. It certainly does not help that Singapore, a paragon of development, has one already. In fact, in the Nigerian case, the draft social media bill reportedly takes a cue from the Singaporean law. To be sure, one is not suggesting that mischief-makers, and there are plenty of those on social media, should be given a carte blanche. But the risk of stifling free speech in the process is real and significant. What is to be done then?

Fake news predates social media
“Disinformation is as old as humanity. When the serpent told Eve that nothing would happen if she ate the apple, that was disinformation. But today, spreading lies has never been easier. On social media, there are no barriers to entry and there are no gatekeepers.” This exposition by former Time magazine managing editor & one-time American under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Richard Stengel, in his 2019 book, Information Wars: How we lost the global battle against disinformation & what we can do about it, highlights the longstanding use of disinformation or fake news for mischievous ends.

2019 Nobel prize joint-winners in economics and couple Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s Good Economics for Hard Times: Better answers to our biggest problems highlights the issue rather succinctly. Social media is not the problem. But social media magnifies the problem with relative ease. For instance, old media, not new or social media, motivated the genocide in Rwanda. Banerjee & Duflo assert “altogether, Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) propaganda is estimated to be responsible for 10 percent of the violence, or about fifty thousand Tutsi deaths.” The point is that propaganda & fake news predated social media with perhaps even more fatal consequences.

One concedes, however, that social media has made it easier for mischief-makers to practice their ugly art. Unsurprisingly, fake news and rumours are increasingly first planted on social media before germinating to old media. Fact-based journalism is undoubtedly under attack. Even when news is genuine, the brief format of many a social media platform and the seemingly unquenchable thirst of enthusiasts often means not much is read after the headlining tweet or Facebook/Instagram post. And once a tweet or other social media post goes viral, whether true or not, it is usually difficult for the original author to control the message thereafter.

Better information war strategies needed
Clearly nowadays, it does not take much to plant fake news and get it to permeate through social media with relative ease. Understandably, there is a growing call for regulation. Still, as it is very difficult to discern what is fake news or disinformation, regulation would hardly be a solution. Not without some creativity, at least. Because even when effective, regulating social media would almost certainly stifle free speech. Stengel acknowledges as much. Democracies, by their very nature, being as they thrive on openness to ideas, are not well-equipped to fight disinformation.

Put another way, fighting disinformation through classical regulation, which would probably require full censorship, would almost certainly push a government towards autocracy. And true to type, countries like China and Russia that have a relatively tight lid on disinformation today are autocracies. Incidentally, they are also the leading purveyors of disinformation towards geopolitical ends around the world. Simply put, as Stengel highlights, “in a democracy, government is singularly bad at combating disinformation.” So, should purveyors of falsehoods be allowed to continue going haywire, leaving immeasurable damage in their wake?

One of the first ideas Stengel mulled – to funnily much turf war-type resistance initially – at the American foreign ministry is already being implemented by many governments. But back then, it was a novelty; even for the United States. He suggested a digital hub of sorts, not as originator or author of content but an aggregator to “share, amplify and coordinate” American foreign policy and actions; which essentially involved retweeting and reposting news about the US state department’s activities each day. African governments, which already do this in one form or another, clearly do not think this is enough; in light of their quest for more stringent social media regulation. They are probably right about the limited reach of their current strategies. Even so, they would probably be more effective if they ascribed as much seriousness to the task as they do for old media institutions.

Stengel’s description of how Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) works provides insights into alternative but likely more effective strategies. “Every day, in two shifts, a few hundred young people spend their time writing blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, Vkontakte posts and much more…it is indeed a factory; they manufacture thousands upon thousands of pieces of pro-Russian, anti-American content a day.” Although the Russian IRA is owned by a businessman allied to the Russian government, every government should probably have an IRA-type outfit; much like most governments have their own news agencies and broadcasters.

The suggestion is not that a government-owned social media agency should engage in some of the negative activities Russia’s IRA is accused of. Still, such an agency would probably be the more appropriate public bulwark against the purveyors of fake news and disinformation on social media. It is certainly a better proposition than the potentially free-speech stifling social media regulations being proposed by some African governments and in fact already in practice in Singapore and elsewhere. That said, some regulation of social media has clearly become necessary. The key would be for any regulation to be geared towards incentivizing accurate news reportage. In other words, new media practitioners should be made to have as much fear of punishment as their counterparts in old media. To succeed, the active cooperation of big tech would be required. But would they choose to be part of the solution?

Make platforms liable for their content
Social media platforms are probably conflicted. That is, if you infer correctly from Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff’s 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power, where she asserts “fake news and and other forms of information corruption have been perennial features of Google and Facebook’s online environments…[with]…countless examples of disinformation that survived and even thrived because it fulfilled economic imperatives”. Stengel corroborates this view: “The players in this conflict are assisted by the big social media platforms, which benefit just as much from the sharing of content that is false as content that is true.” Even more bluntly, Stengel asserts “popularity is the measure [social media platforms] care about, not accuracy or truthfulness.” Still, as Zuboff adds, “they [Facebook & others] absolutely have the tools to shut down fake news”. But they have to be willed to do so conscientiously. And there is evidence they do so when prompted by governments.

Still, in America, where most of the top global social media platforms are headquartered, there is limited incentive for them to combat disinformation. Their complacency stems from the United States’ Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 which provides immunity to social media platforms from being liable for published content. The part of particular interest in that American legislation reads thus: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Were this part of the legislation to be modified, it is well-known these platforms are perfectly capable of policing mischievous content with super efficiency. Thus, incentivising them via liability for disinformation might be ideal.

In practice, considering the robust political lobbying apparatus of American big tech firms, this would be a herculean task. But if African governments and others truly desire a curb on disinformation, it would not be untoward for them to be part of a global effort towards forcing the US Congress’ hand, via the United Nations perhaps – not that that has ever successfully forced the Americans to do anything they didn’t want to do – towards such a modification. Even so, Stengel sees a way to make changes to the legislation that may likely be acceptable to social media platforms: “One way to do this is to revise the language of the CDA to say that no platform that makes a good faith effort to fulfill its responsibility to delete harmful content and provide information to users about that content can be liable for the damage that it does.” Still, Stengel adds, “for all this to work, we need global privacy regulations, a universal definition of disinformation and legal consequences for purveying it.”

In any case, Singapore is pushing ahead with fighting fake news on its own; albeit it could be argued its intentions are not entirely altruistic. In November 2019, for instance, the Singaporean government ordered Facebook to issue a disclaimer (“Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information”) on a post by a local newspaper that it considered inaccurate. But how many of these orders can it issue? Its progress in this regard is likely to be incremental. A global effort, with America in the lead, under the auspices of the United Nations, would likely be more effective. In the absence of such a global coalition, hard-fought democratic gains around the world would be increasingly eroded; especially in the poor parts of the world, like Africa, where they are mostly needed.

Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism: Implications for Africa tech policy

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica

“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power” by Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, was an exhausting read. Hitherto, I had not read any book by the author. And even as I appreciate, with the benefit of hindsight of course, how well grounded the book and the author are, I got exasperated at some point to be honest. I wondered about the myriad abstractions and theorizing by the author. But it was worth it in the end.

This is not an attempt to preach patience as virtue. Zuboff could not have been extremely convincing as she was without the firm foundation she laid for making her point. And in the end, you are left with no doubt, you are compelled in fact, to accept all she wrote as truth. And quite frankly, I am yet to find a convincing rebuttal to her assertions.

Zuboff’s principal argument is that big tech wants you. All of you. Everything. You, the individual, are neither the product nor the customer. You are raw material. Yes, you. According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism is “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.” She provides eight definitions and is most damning in the eighth: surveillance capitalism is “an expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.”

By her own admission, Zuboff’s life work has become about finding the answer to the question “Can the digital future be our home?” She contrasts the hitherto industrial future of yore that left many victims in its wake from pollution, climate change, and so on, because voices were not raised on time or high enough. Her main argument is that unlike the carte blanche that industrial capitalists literally had, surveillance capitalists must not be similarly watched in silence.

Zuboff’s conclusion is instructive: “The Berlin Wall fell for many reasons, but above all it was because the people of East Berlin said, ‘No more!’. We too can be the authors of many ‘great and beautiful’ new facts that reclaim the digital future as humanity’s home. No more! Let this be our declaration.” In other words, the digital future will not be our home without a fight. But is this a fight Africa should join?

Knowing you pays
To properly put Zuboff’s views in proper perspective would require defining a lot of terms. Not that she didn’t throw in simplifications here and there. But quite frankly, her tome was not an easy read. To simplify, I present her logic as she did and then simplify it based on my own understanding: “Google [and other surveillance platforms like Facebook and Microsoft]…discovered a way to translate its nonmarket interactions with users into surplus raw material for the fabrication of products aimed at genuine market transactions with its real customers: advertisers.”

Put simply, big tech or surveillance capitalists profit from the human experience. To this end, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other surveillance platforms seek and store behavioural data in excess of that ordinarily required for the products and services they purport to provide. The suggestion is not that Google does not provide a search service or Facebook a social media platform. Of course, they do. What Zuboff asserts it that these are not the real ends of surveillance platforms. Instead, they are means to the end of what she termed “behavioural surplus;” that is behavioural data beyond what is ordinarily required in the normal course of their businesses as we know it.

In other words, surveillance platforms are simply that: surveillance platforms. They gather data on everything about you. And because of their scale, they are thus able to gather data on virtually everyone. Consequently, over time they know you well enough to predict your future decisions and actions with almost perfect accuracy. As firms would be willing to pay for such knowledge to better sell their products, surveillance platforms are thus able to earn “surveillance revenues” that translates to “surveillance capital,” the logic of which is “surveillance capitalism,” which thus underpins the “surveillance economy.” (Now I am not so sure this is even a simple enough explanation.) Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others make money from knowing you. That is simple enough, I think.

Free rein
With advocacy and activism by probably Zuboff and others, and certainly in light of recent privacy scandals and increased realisation of the huge power big tech increasingly wields, however, it would not be farfetched to reckon surveillance platforms are already planning ahead to ensure they would continue to have free rein. That is, even as America and the West in general, though increasingly tightening the noose around the activities of big tech, still remain largely accommodative.

Still, it does not require a stroke of genius to know that there would likely be increasingly less room for surveillance capitalism to continue in its current form in the West, as awareness about their privacy breaches and likely even more egregious violations become writ large. So if you are an African, and armed with Zuboff’s robust exposition on the unarguably unscrupulous practices of surveillance platforms, you would be excused if you wondered that the increasing interest in Africa by big tech chief executives might not be unconnected to a search by them for virgin or more relaxed regulatory jurisdictions. If that is indeed the case, what should African governments do?

I think a balance would need to be struck. Because judging from Zuboff’s assertions alone, it would probably take a great deal of effort, even by the most advanced regulatory jurisdictions, to rein in the surveillance practices of big tech. But are the potential gains in jobs, technology transfer and so on, significant enough for Africans to make the trade-off? It is probably too late for that kind of sanctimony. Many Africans and almost all others have already signed out their privacy rights for the social benefits – if you choose to see it as such – of social media and the broader internet.

If Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others offer us Africans free internet, should we then reason that because we worry about our privacy, we should decline the offer? Surely not. But an awareness or knowledge of the trade-off would certainly put African governments in a better position to leverage surveillance platforms for better deals for sure. How so? Knowing that Google, Facebook and other surveillance platforms are not offering free internet to all Africans via satellite and other means out of the goodness of their hearts, African governments could with greater confidence make more robust demands, like greater investments, insistence on technology transfer, etc., that would make the trade-off not entirely seem like a rip-off.

Pay us for our data
Zuboff scoffs at the commoditisation refrain of how the “users [of surveillance platforms] receive no fee for the raw materials they provide.” Her thesis is that what the platforms take away from individuals is far more valuable and priceless to be reduced to a fee. But is this something we should care about as Africans? We lost out on industrial capitalism; not that we really had much of a choice in the matter back then. Now, in the current internet age, however, we do have relatively more say.

So, should we allow sanctimony about privacy and human rights by Zuboff and others stop us from extracting as much gains as possible from information capitalism? The question has a striking resemblance to how Africa is now expected to be conscious of climate change, the negative aftermath of industrial capitalism, the gains of which Africa largely missed out on.

To be clear, Zuboff’s arguments resonate with me a great deal as much as that about climate change. But for us Africans, the choice is not so simple. Because unlike westerners, who are in relative comfort and are probably motivated by a desire to maintain the ease they currently enjoy for much longer, we Africans are still struggling to come out of the doldrums.

In any case, since there is probably not much African governments can do to make surveillance platforms change their ways, we could as well ask that they pay us for the raw material – our data in this case – we provide. And considering the ever increasing noise on the merits and demerits of a universal basic income, isn’t there a chance to do so for the poorest of the world from the humongous revenues of surveillance capitalists? I think there is an opportunity here for Africa’s poor. African governments should seize it.

macroafricaintel | Greenberg’s Sandworm & Africa Tech

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica

In January, about three weeks into the New Year, the internet suddenly slowed one beautiful morning across West Africa. It is not an exaggeration. If you were not tech-savvy, patient and rational, you probably entertained the oft-misguided thought that the “village people” were likely at it again. A lot of African problems do not get solved because of this irrationality. True, you probably heard sounds of glee in that part of the wilderness of your brain you reserve for such fables. If your left brain (or “digital brain”) did not come to the rescue on time, then your day was probably ruined before it even started. Most work these days rely on the internet.

Thankfully, news filtered in soon enough that our internet troubles were as a result of cuts to the West African submarine cable system. My superstitious kinsmen probably have an explanation for how that happened. I could almost imagine one boisterous type spinning a colourful yarn about the mythic African mermaid “mammy water” being displeased about something. It certainly makes for a good bedtime story. Still, a cable was cut, and the internet slowed.

First principles
One pleasant Saturday morning in late April 2007, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, then president of Estonia, similarly woke up to a much more serious internet mishap. The internet was down. According to Andy Greenberg in his 2019 book “Sandworm: A new era of cyberwar and the hunt for the Kremlin’s most dangerous hackers”, a wonderful and instructive read if your life and work, like almost everyone’s today, depends on the internet and technology, Mr Ilves “assumed it must be a problem with the connection at his remote farmhouse, surrounded by acres of rolling hills.” (His mind did not first tilt towards the “people in the village”, at least.) Ironically, the president had been forced to his farmhouse for security reasons due to violence in Tallinn, the Estonian capital city. Clearly, his security services did not think – and probably couldn’t – to protect him from the potential mischief of the internet.

Greenberg gives a good account of Ilves’ immediate experience after his likely unconcious yawn in the aftermath of probably little sleep. The president had stuff on his mind. There were “escalating riots” in his capital city and he was ensconced in his farmhouse. “So the first thing he did upon waking up…was to open his MacBook Pro and visit the website for Estonia’s main newspaper, Postimees, looking for an update on the riots and Russia’s calls for his government’s ouster. But the news site mysteriously failed to load. His browser’s request timed out and left him with an error message.”

“Was it his computer’s Wi-Fi card? Or his router? But no, he quickly discovered that the British Financial Times loaded just fine.” The internet was working just fine, I guess. The problem was not his connection. “Somehow a significant fraction of Estonia’s entire domestic web was crippled.” It was a cyber attack. I do not want to go into detail about how they finally fixed the problem – you’d have to read the book for that pleasure. Suffice to say, they did it the old-fashioned way. They blocked “every web connection from outside Estonia.” Thereafter, they began the painstaking task of restoring sanity to the domestic web.

Some disadvantages are advantages
Bear in mind, Estonia is renowned for how it has been able to use technology to improve the lives of its citizens. Estonians can vote with their mobile phones or computers from the comfort of their living rooms or anywhere else they may be. And almost all Estonian public services can be accessed via the internet. And all it took was a cyber attack to bring it all down. For a brief while, at least. You would probably not be surprised if one were forced to wonder about the African scenario. Incidentally, Greenberg gives an account of another incident in which Africa’s still relative technological backwardness – in some respect at least – managed to save the day.

In late June 2017, employees at the Copenhagen headquaters of A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest shipping conglomerate, suddenly found they could not use their computers. Their “computers were irreversibly locked.” A malicious software had infected the company’s entire global network. And all efforts to fix the problem proved abortive. To fix the problem, they resorted to first principles as well and disconnected the entire global network; a task that took “more than two panicky hours.” To bring the network back on line, Maersk needed at least one server, a so-called “domain controller”, which functions “as a detailed map of Maersk’s systems”. But since all the domain controllers had been “wiped simultaneously” – so they thought at least – a recovery was literally impossible. Put simply, in Greenberg’s account of a Maersk IT staffer, if they couldn’t recover the domain controllers, they couldn’t recover anything. Maersk was in for a pleasant surprise. Just before the cyber attack, there was a power failure in its office in Ghana. A domain controller there escaped unscathed. Let us just say, Ghana saved the day.

Backup, backup, backup
There are many lessons for African firms and governments from these incidents. Do African governments have measures in place in the event of an internet shutdown, for instance? As the foregoing shows, an internet mishap could be because a submarine cable was cut, a malware was put into the system by mischief-makers, and so on. It is probably needless to belabour how the incidents are likely to occur. What matters is how individuals, firms and governments manage the crisis when it occurs.

During the West African submarine cable incident, since only one major service provider seemed majorly affected, individuals with multiple internet subscriptions were able to get by. And as the Estonian and Maersk examples show, it would be quite helpful if a firm or government has a standalone and offline backup system analogous to a standby generator for when public power fails. For individuals, keep hard copies of important documents, subscribe to more than one internet service provider, and so on. And if you are active on social media, try your utmost to spread your activity on multiple platforms. For all it takes for you to suddenly be in ‘analog lala land’ is a sudden change in the terms of a service agreement by an internet platform, a cyber attack on your tech infrastructure (individual, firm or country), or a submarine cable incident.

macroafricaintel | Democracy & African development

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

1.0       Introduction
Whether Africa’s democratic experiment thus far has led to differential economic development is a subject of debate. Many complain the democratic process is expensive and sluggish, with an increasingly number of Africans beginning to question whether western-style or liberal democracy is the development panacea it is touted to be.[1],[2] Nonetheless, there are studies that show democracy has engendered economic growth in Africa.[3],[4] But there is also evidence of democratic decline and disillusionment.[5] According to Cheeseman (2019), Africa’s democratic progress is stalling, with the continent’s countries divided down the middle between autocracies and democracies.[6] Cheeseman (2019) also notes a worrying trend: African autocracies have become more repressive and their democratic counterparts have not shown much progress. With evidence that democracy does engender growth and ample evidence to the contrary, what then should Africa do?

2.0       Evidence on democracy-development nexus is mixed
Acemoglu et al. (2019) show evidence that democracy engenders economic growth by attracting more investment, facilitating increased educational attainment, spurring economic reforms, decreasing social restiveness and thus the security of lives and property, and the provision of public services.[7] Democracy also engenders economic growth by making opportunities available to most of the people as opposed to a powerful few. For instance, Acemoglu & Robinson (2012) argue “inclusive political institutions, vesting power broadly, would tend to uproot economic institutions that expropriate the resources of the many, erect entry barriers and suppress the functioning of markets so that only a few benefit.”[8]

In sum, Acemoglu et al. (2019) posit that as democracy encourages economic reforms, increases human capital, raises state capacity, improves public service delivery, increases investment and reduces social unrest, economic growth occurs consequently. Acemoglu et al. (2019) also find that their results of the beneficial effects of democracy on economic growth are robust across developing and advanced economies. When a country adopts a democratic form of government, Acemoglu, et al. (2019) assert, its GDP per capita rises by at least 20 percent over the subsequent 30 years. Acemoglu et al. (2019) also find this effect to be easily attained in countries with already high level of educational attainment.

Conversely, Gerring et al. (2005) argue democracy has no significant effect on economic growth; and if at all, it is negative.[9] Similarly, Gerring, Thacker & Alfaro (2012) do not find substantial human development gains from democratic transitions. Instead, a country’s poor only begin to see substantial gains from democracy when it is longrunning.[10] To some extent, this corroborates Ross (2006) findings that while democracies tend to spend relatively more on education and health, the main beneficiaries tend to be non-poor groups.[11] There are more nuanced arguments. Baum & Lake (2003) investigate the indirect and direct effects of democracy on growth using a 30-year data set of 128 countries and find no statistically significant direct effect on growth. Instead, they find that democracy’s effect on growth are “largely indirect through increased life expectancy in poor countries and increased secondary education in nonpoor countries.”[12]

Varshney (2005) actually argues that relative to dictatorships, democracies have recorded a lacklustre performance with respect to poverty alleviation. They have not failed in the task, but they have also not been spectacularly successful.[13] In fact, Charron & Lapuente (2010) show evidence that poor countries may be better off with dictatorships until they become wealthy when “good bureaucracy and administrative services and lower corruption are better provided by democratic rulers.”[14] Besides, Collier & Rohner (2008) find that democracy actually increases the risk of political violence for countries below the US$2,750 income per capita threshold. While they do not altogether discountenance the benefits of democracy, their evidence clearly shows the net benefits of democracy for poor countries are not robust.[15]

3.0       Dividends from African democracies below expectations thus far
The so-called “dividends of democracy” remain elusive to many Africans. As earlier highlighted, democracy engenders development by increasing investment, educational attainment, provision of public services, human capital and state capacity. Democracy also spurs economic reforms and reduces social restiveness. Has Africa been a beneficiary of these touted benefits from its experiment with democracy thus far? Judging from the United Nations’ human development index, it could be argued that there has been a positive development trajectory on the continent. When juxtaposed with measures of freedom, however, a divergence is observed in recent years. Thus, it could be inferred that democracy may not be definitively attributed for the past improvements in human development on the continent. For if that were the case, a noticeable decline in progress should be observed in tandem with the recently increasing decline in freedom on the continent. In practical terms, having already established the theoretical thesis, why has democracy underwhelmed on development in many African countries?

Firstly, elected officials are rarely held accountable. This is not surprising since they mostly get elected through fraudulent electoral processes. Parliaments that are supposed to check the potential excesses of executives, tend to end up being little more than rubber stamps; especially when controlled by ruling parties. And since victory at the polls is significantly subject to elite manipulation, politicians are largely insensitive to the needs of the people. Apathy on the part of a frustrated and disillusioned populace consequently contributes to a vicious cycle that strengthens the manipulation machinery of the elite.

Secondly, political participation is largely exclusionary due to high barriers to entry related to ethnicity, financial capacity and corruption. Political parties charge exorbitant fees for registration and other party-related financing. Campaign costs are also prohibitive. There are similarly huge expenses borne by politicians for dishing out patronage; which they almost always make sure to recoup when they eventually win. Thus, “although democracy appears to yield economic benefits over time, the transition to democracy has not fostered dynamic economies or substantial improvements in welfare in most of Africa” (Lewis, 2008).[16]

Thirdly, state capacity remains weak in most of Africa. This is because ethnic insitutions still hold sway in many African countries, especially in rural areas far from capital cities, where whatever state capacity there is tend to be concentrated. A colonial legacy is responsible in part for these circumstances. In fact, it has been shown that the economic performance of partitioned ethnicities remain similar despite being under different national institutional arrangements. For instance, using light density at night as a proxy for economic activity, one study finds a significant relationship between pre-colonial ethnic institutions (stateless ethnicities, petty chiefdoms, paramount chiefdoms, and pre-colonial states) and regional development in Africa.[17] In other words, kingdoms, empires, chiefdoms and the like, that were in place before European colonisation continue to be relevant to African development.[18] And the rigidities of these pre-colonial ethnic-based political centralizations explain the incapacity of some African states to exercise full authority over property rights, tax collection and monopoly of violence to this day.

Fourthly, western liberal democracy is a foreign concept. Little wonder, Bradley (2011) contends African perceptions of democracy differ from the Western view.[19] This may explain why “democracy” has not been effective for development on the continent; in light of its increasing decline. Recent African elections have either been fraudulent or violent or both. True, there has been some positive outcomes from the African democratic experiment thus far. Still, it could not be definitively said that democracy has engendered relatively more development for African countries. Rwanda, which is regularly mentioned as an African development exemplar, is an autocracy in practice, for instance. It could actually be argued that African elites have found that it is easier to manipulate state resources under a flawed or pseudo democracy than an autocracy. Thus, the assertion by Jotia (2012) that “liberal democracy has impeded development in Africa rather than nurturing it” is succinctly true.[20]

Still, there is evidence that democracy has indeed been germane to economic growth for some African countries. Using data for 43 Sub-Saharan African countries over the period 1982-2012, for instance, Masaki & Van de Walle (2014) find “strong evidence that democracy is positively associated with economic growth, and that this democratic advantage is more pronounced for those African countries that have remained democratic for longer periods of time.”[21] More specifically, Narayan, Narayan & Smith (2011) find support in varying degrees for the democracy-development nexus in Botswana, Niger, Chad, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Madagascar, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland and Sierra Leone.[22] In any case, Cheeseman (2015) asserts that in spite of the negative narratives around Africa’s experimentation with democracy thus far, about a quarter of Sub-Saharan African countries could be considered to be relatively democratic.[23]

In sum, democracy, while underwhelming in general on the continent thus far, has great prospects for tackling some of the widely acknowledged constraints on African development like ethnicity, nepotism, corruption and so on. Using data on road building in Kenya, for instance, Burgess, Jedwab, Miguel, Morjaria & Miquel (2013) show high level of ethnic favoritism during earlier non-democratic periods, when “districts that share the ethnicity of the president receive twice as much expenditure on roads and have four times the length of paved roads built”, disappears during later periods of democracy.[24] Furthermore, Cheeseman (2014) finds in Kenya and a couple of other African countries that a rising middle class is aiding democratization across the continent, arguing “contemporary demographic changes will improve the prospects for democratic consolidation.”[25] Thus, the prospects of democracy on the continent remain bright. But will development happen in tandem?

4.0       Tune African democracies for greater development
For better or worse, democracy has become the preferred form of government in Africa. If as it has been found, it does not always deliver development, the obvious next step is to determine how to ensure that it does. Even so, there are a number of democratic exemplars on the continent. What have Mauritius, Cape Verde, Botswana done differently? These top three African democracies are in addition to being models of good governance also economic successes. They also have one common characteristic: they are small countries. South Africa, which is Africa’s most advanced country and one of its largest, while having relatively strong democratic institutions, suffers from rampant corruption, poverty and anaemic growth. South Africa’s increasing economic decline exemplifies how institutional design could still fail to deliver expected economic benefits. This background is useful for contextualising any proposed reforms.

Top 10 African Democracies
1. Mauritius
2. Cape Verde
3. Botswana
4. South Africa
5. Lesotho
6. Ghana
7. Tunisia
8. Namibia
9. Senegal
10. Benin
Source: 2018 EIU Democracy Index

Nonetheless, there is a strong case for urgent political reforms in many currently floundering African democracies. Making the electoral process more credible and less expensive might be a good place to start. A sense of urgency with such reforms would be crucial to stemming the increasing slide to autocracy on the continent. More importantly, it would ensure that current African democracies endure long enough to deliver the expected developmental benefits that the literature suggests tend to take time to come to fruition. With palpable benefits from democratization over time, these should then spur yearnings for democracy in current African autocracies.

5.0       Recommendations
We propose solutions to the earlier identified challenges faced by African democracies of lack of accountability, political exclusion, weak state capacity, and the perception and practical realities of democracy as still a foreign concept.

Improve the electoral process
Osaghae (2004) recommends the following measures for improving the electoral process, upon “which the stability and survival of democracy ultimately hinges”: “Control of electoral commissions should reside with the legislature and/or judiciary rather than with the executive” and “the first-past-the-post electoral system should, wherever possible, be replaced by the proportional representation system, which guarantees more opportunities for power sharing and bargaining among competing parties.”[26]

We believe electronic voting would also help a great deal in reducing electoral fraud; albeit it has not been quite successful in doing so in the few African countries that have tried thus far. For instance, the 2018 presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was adjudged to have been easily rigged because of e-voting.[27],[28] In the more recent 2019 Namibian presidential election, where electronic voting was similarly used, there were hiccups here and there.[29] Still, these challenges could be easily fixed. And even in the DRC example, just as the electronic system probably made it easier to manipulate the results, it made a forensic determination of fraud relatively easier as well.

More direct democracy for greater accountability
According to Matsusaka (2005), “direct democracy works.” “The spread of direct democracy is fueled in part by the revolution in communications technology that has given ordinary citizens unprecedented access to information and heightened the desire to participate directly in policy decisions.”[30] What is direct democracy? Matsusaka (2005) defines direct democracy as “an umbrella term that covers a variety of political processes, all of which allow ordinary citizens to vote directly on laws rather than candidates for office.” Bottomline, there is a growing need for more effective, representative and participatory political systems; especially in Africa.

We recommend a truly representative and egalitarian unicameral “People’s Assembly” legislative system where lawmakers would all be independents and not belong to any political party. That way, no party controls the legislature. Registration and other formalities for election into the legislature would be free or for pittance and via the electoral body. And while independent candidates would still be qualified and eligible to participate in elections to executive positions (president, governors, premier, etc.), political parties would be the primary vehicle for executive positions. If the rational assumption, in light of history thus far, that political parties are likely already captured by the rich elite, an egalitarian and truly representative People’s Assembly of independents would be a well-suited counterbalance.

Foreign technical assistance to strengthen state capacity
This would have to be an ongoing process, for sure. That is, even as the effectiveness of aid is debatable. For instance, while on the face of it, aid could potentially contribute to democratization through technical assistance with electoral processes, capacity-building for legislatures and judiciary, conditionality, and education, Knack (2004) finds no evidence it promotes democracy.[31] When properly designed, however, it could be effective. In fact, Gibson, Hoffman & Jablonski (2015) argue that foreign aid not easily converted to patronage by incumbents like technical assistance enabled greater and economic and political freedom in African countries.[32] That said, the international community must look beyond election monitoring and other mostly ex post measures to more cogent ones aimed at preventing electoral irregularities in the first place.

Africa should develop its own form of democracy
Cheeseman (2015) suggests “Africanizing” democracy, arguing some of the “most successful innovations on the continent, such as zoning in Nigeria or the best loser system in Mauritius, have been homegrown.”[33] Cheeseman (2015) advocates “a more indigenous set of political arrangements” is best suited for Africa’s peculiarities. In Ghana, “the integration of traditional rulers into the formal political system has helped to generate a sense of inclusion, and has made it easier to manage intercommunal tensions around elections” (Cheeseman, 2015). Recall, Mauritius and Ghana are in the top 10 of African democracies.

Kenya is another example of an African country continually evolving its political system with its realities. As politics is ethnically entrenched in Kenya, with elections almost always strictly along ethnic lines, a process is now underway to ensure the typical bickering and violence in the aftermath of elections are reduced or avoided altogether. The Kenyan proposal would ensure that both winners and losers end up feeling their efforts were not in vain. True, the likely outcome would be administratively expensive, a triumvirate of sorts, with a president, deputy president and prime minister and an official leader of the opposition. Still, the potential benefits outweigh the costs. Cheeseman (2015) also notes the incorporation of traditional norms on social relationships and decision-making into the formal political structure and system of Somaliland.

The point is that democracy engenders development when the government it produces is truly representative of the will of the people, less expensive to manage than other forms of governance, with elected officials truly held accountable, and all of its institutions having legitimacy with all stakeholders. Perhaps, western liberal democracy in its unadulterated form has not quite succeeded in doing that in Africa because it runs at variance with some local cultural entrenchments.

[1] Dahir, A.L. & Kazeem, Y. (2019, February 27). Africans pay a hefty economic price to uphold their democracies. Quartz. Retrieved from

[2] Campbell, J. & Harwood, A. (2011, October 28). Democracy’s growth in Africa: Slow, violent, and worth celebrating. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

[3] Bates, R.H., Fayad, G. & Hoeffler, A. (2012). The state of democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa. International Area Studies Review, 15 (4), 323-338. Retrieved from

[4] Masaki, T. & van de Walle, N. (2014). The impact of democracy on economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1982-2012. WIDER Working Paper 2014/057. Helsinki: UNU-WIDER. Retrieved from

[5] Freedom House (2019). Freedom in the world 2019: Democracy in retreat. Washington DC: Freedom House. Retrieved from

[6] Cheeseman, N. (2019). A divided continent – BTI 2018 Regional Report Africa. Gutersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung. Retrieved from

[7] Acemoglu, D., Naidu, S., Restrepo, P. & Robinson, J.A. (2019). Democracy does cause growth. Journal of Political Economy, 127 (1), 47-100. Retrieved from

[8] Acemoglu, D. & Robinson, J.A. (2012). Why nations fail. New York: Crown.

[9] Gerring, J., Bond, P., Barndt, W. & Moreno, C. (2005). Democracy and growth: A historical perspective. World Politics, 57 (3), 323-364. Retrieved from

[10] Gerring, J., Thacker, S.C. & Alfaro, R. (2012). Democracy and human development. The Journal of Politics, 74 (1), 1-17. Retrieved from

[11] Ross, M. (2006). Is democracy good for the poor? American Journal of Political Science, 50 (4), 860-874. Retrieved from

[12] Baum, M.A. & Lake, D.A. (2003). The political economy of growth: Democracy and human capital. American Journal of Political Science, 47 (2), 333-347. Retrieved from

[13] Varshney, A. (2005). Democracy and poverty. Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives, 383-401. Retrieved from

[14] Charron, N. & Lapuente, V. (2010). Does democracy produce quality of government? European Journal of Political Research, 49 (4), 443-470. Retrieved from

[15] Collier, P. & Rohner, D. (2008). Democracy, development and conflict. Journal of the European Economic Association, 6 (2-3), 531-540. Retrieved from

[16] Lewis, P. (2008). Poverty, inequality and democracy: Growth without prosperity in Africa. Journal of Democracy, 19 (4), 95-109. Retrieved from

[17] Michalopoulos, S. & Papaioannou, E. (2013b). Pre-colonial ethnic institutions and contemporary African development. Econometrica, 81 (1), 113-152. Retrieved from

[18] Osafo-Kwaako, P. & Robinson, J.A. (2013). Political centralization in pre-colonial Africa. Journal of Comparative Economics, 41 (1), 534-564. Retrieved from

[19] Bradley, M.T. (2011). African perceptions of democracy. African Journal of Political Science and International Relations, 5 (11), 456-464. Retrieved from

[20] Jotia, A.L. (2012). Liberal democracy: An African perspective. Academic Research International, 2 (3), 621. Retrieved from

[21] Masaki, T. & Van de Walle, N. (2014). The impact of democracy on economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa, 1982-2012. WIDER Working Paper No. 2014/057. Helsinki: World Institute for Development Research. Retrieved from

[22] Narayan, P.K., Narayan, S. & Smyth, R. (2011). Does democracy facilitate economic growth or does economic growth facilitate democracy? An empirical study of Sub-Saharan Africa. Economic Modelling, 28 (3), 900-910. Retrieved from

[23] Cheeseman, N. (2015). Democracy in Africa: Successes, failures, and the struggle for political reform. New York: Cambridge University Press

[24] Burgess, R., Jedwab, R., Miguel, E., Morjaria, A. & Miquel, G.P. (2013). The value of democracy: Evidence from road building in Kenya. NBER Working Paper No. 19398. Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

[25] Cheeseman, N. (2014). Does the African middle class defend democracy? Evidence from Kenya. WIDER Working Paper No. 2014/096. Helsinki: World Institute for Development Research. Retrieved from

[26] Osaghae, E.E. (2004). Making democracy work in Africa: From the institutional to the substantive. Journal of African Elections, 3 (1), 1-12. Retrieved from

[27] Wilson, T., Blood, D. & Pilling, D. (2019, January 15). Congo voting data reveal huge fraud in poll to replace Kabila. Financial Times. Retrieved from

[28] Paravicini, G., Lewis, D. & Ross, A. (2019, January 18). How Kabila’s election strategy unraveled in Congo. Reuters. Retrieved from

[29] ‘Frustratingly slow’ vote count in Namibia after extended polling. (2019, November 29). Aljazeera. Retrieved from

[30] Matsusaka, J.G. (2005). Direct democracy works. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19 (2), 185-206. Retrieved from

[31] Knack, S. (2004). Does foreign aid promote democracy? International Studies Quarterly, 48 (1), 251-266. Retrieved from

[32] Gibson, C.C., Hoffman, B.D. & Jablonski, R.S. (2015). Did aid promote democracy in Africa? The role of technical assistance in Africa’s transtions. World Development, 68, 323-335. Retrieved from,%20R_Did%20aid%20promote%20democracy_Jablonski_Did%20aid%20promote%20democracy_2015.pdf

Culture & development: The case of Africa

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

1.0       Introduction
Does culture matter for development?[1] A significant body of research identifies “intergenerationally transmitted” biological and cultural characteristics that affect economic development.[2] Why are some countries rich and others poor? Significant and persistent long-run effects of geographical, historical and cultural factors on productivity are attributed. And despite the broad consensus that favourable geography, strong free markets and property rights institutions contribute to development, there is evidence that these factors are by themselves inadequate. In other words, countries with strong institutions and geographical advantages could still flounder. Why? Culture is attributed.

According to Boas (1911), culture is “an integrated system of symbols, ideas and values that should be studied as a working system, an organic whole”.[3] Another definition, by Bates & Plog (1990), posits culture is “the system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.”[4] Development, on the other hand, is the “process of creating and utilizing physical, human, financial, and social assets to generate improved and broadly shared economic well-being and quality of life for a community or region” (Seidman, 2005).[5]

Mokyr (2016) establishes a strong link between culture and development.[6] Mokyr argues that the unprecedented and sustained technological progress in the West stems from a significant change in “cultural beliefs about the natural world and the diffusion of knowledge” in 17th to 18th century Europe. A contrast is made between the cultural evolution in Europe, where it was dynamic, and in China, where it was relatively static. An openness to new knowledge in the West encouraged the continued challenge of old beliefs with evidence. In the East, however, awe for long-held beliefs engendered conservatism. Put simply, the West encouraged new ideas and adopted them once they passed the test of rigorous scrutiny. On the other hand, the East largely held on to its orthodoxies.

Does China’s later economic success challenge this view? Not necessarily. China’s rise is relatively recent. And even to this day, it lags the West with respect to technological innovation. Its early history suggests this should not have been the case, however. In Mokyr’s (2016) account, science and technology flourished in China during the rulership of the Tang (618-907 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties but subsequently declined and stagnated during the Ming (1368-1644 CE) and Qing (1644-1911/12 CE) dynasties. Thus, the reason Europe had an industrial revolution and China did not, is that in addition to a radical change in culture that allowed scientific inquiry and innovation to thrive, there was no truncation in the trend on occasion of conflict or politics.

It is not suggested that there was no resistance by conservative forces in Europe to such liberalism. What differed in Europe from China and the Islamic world, where science and innovation initially thrived, was that the conditions, environment, politics coupled with the determination of its elite, allowed for liberalism to prevail over conservatism. Europe was also more receptive and adopted new technologies far quicker than China. For instance, owing to the printing press, far more books were published in Europe than in China, where “movable type printing” only took off from 1800 (Mokyr, 2016).

A contemporary case is the contrast in the economic evolution of mainland Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai and Hong Kong, which was a British protectorate until 1997. Lately, there has been sustained protests by Hong Kong youths against the increasing exercise of power by the mainland Chinese government over its special administrative region. Clearly chagrined by the prolonged protests, Chinese authorities have happened on a likely culprit: culture. Why do youths in Hong Kong behave differently from those in Beijing or Shanghai? They are educated differently. In mainland China, the young are indoctrinated with patriotic zeal at formative ages, via rote learning. In Hong Kong, the young are deliberately taught to think independently and critically. Thus, mainland Chinese youths are not as likely to challenge the government as their counterparts in Hong Kong.[7]

Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter to culture and air transportation safety in his 2008 book “Outliers: The story of success”. Gladwell posits Korean Air had the most plane crashes in the 1990s because of its hierarchical culture: co-pilots had difficulty pointing out errors by their captains because of the airline’s (and broader Korean) culture of deference to elders.[8] A culture of deference is also attributed to the 2013 Asiana 214 plane crash. Analysis of aviation accidents in sixty-eight countries supports the hypothesis that culture plays a role in safety.[9] Enomoto & Geisler (2017) find the higher the GDP per capita and culture of individualism in a country, the lesser the number of plane accidents. Conversely, they also find the higher the number of flights and power distance scores, the higher the number of plane accidents.

Citing Pinker (2018)[10], Spolaore (2019) argues that the cultural thesis of “open science” based on Robert Merton’s scientific virtues of communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organised scepticism and “inclusive institutions” for European progress in Mokyr (2016) presupposes that the current era of fast & seamless global communications should see unprecedented levels of progress across the world. Is that the case, though? Not entirely. Because even as global communications are easier and faster than ever, technological progress remains uneven. Put another way, that communications and international collaborations are easier now and yet technological progress remains skewed towards Western nations is perhaps evidence of the robustness of the cultural argument. But what specific aspects of a culture drive economic progress? I survey the literature on the relationship between culture and economic outcomes and explore the role of culture as a factor in Africa’s relative underdevelopment to date.

2.0       Cultural characterisations
Most studies employ cultural characterisations of individualism and collectivism by Hofstede (2001), autonomy and embeddedness by Schwartz (1994), and trust and equality by Inglehart (2000) (see Table 1).[11],[12],[13],[14] Individualism, autonomy, egalitarianism, trust and tolerance have been found to be significant cultural traits for rich countries while embeddedness, hierarchy, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, market orientation, and equality are the dominant cultural dimensions in poor countries (see Table 2).[15]

Table 1: Cultural dimensions
Hofstede (2001) Schwartz (1994) Inglehart et al. (2000)
Individualism/Collectivism Harmony Trust
Power distance Embeddedness Hard work & thrift
Masculinity/Femininity Hierarchy Tolerance
Uncertainty avoidance Mastery Public good provision
Long-term/Short-term orientation Affective autonomy Equality
Intellectual autonomy Market orientation
Source: Schwartz (1994), Inglehart (2000), Hofstede (2001), Gorodnichenko & Roland (2011)

Hofstede defines his five cultural dimensions as follows: Individualism/collectivism is the degree to which individuals are expected to look after themselves or remain integrated within groups, usually around the family. Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Masculinity/femininity refers to the distribution of emotional roles between the genders. Uncertainty avoidance is the extent to which a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Long-term/short-term orientation refers to the extent to which a culture programs its members to accept delayed gratification of their material, social and emotional needs.

Table 2: Culture vs. Wealth
Rich Countries Poor Countries
Individualism Embeddedness
Intellectual Autonomy Hierarchy
Affective Autonomy Power Distance
Egalitarianism Uncertainty Avoidance
Trust Market Orientation
Tolerance Equality
Adapted from Gorodnichenko & Roland (2011)

Schwartz’s cultural values and their characteristics (in parentheses) are as follows: Harmony (unity with nature, protecting the environment, world of beauty); Embeddedness/Conservatism (social order, respect for tradition, family security, wisdom); Hierarchy (social power, authority, humility, wealth); Mastery (ambition, success, daring, competence); Affective autonomy (pleasure, exciting life, varied life); Intellectual autonomy (curiosity, broadmindedness, creativity); and Egalitarianism (equality, social justice, freedom, responsibility, honesty).[16],[17],[18] Inglehart’s cultural values of trust, hard work & thrift, tolerance, public good provision, equality, and market orientation are self-descriptive.

3.0       Culture & economic outcomes
Culture affects economic development. A comparison of the results of an experimental Ulitmatum Bargaining Game (UG) among the Machiguenga tribe of the Peruvian Amazon and participants in Los Angeles in America show significant differences in economic decision-making.[19] The experiment especially demonstrates that humans make economic decisions differently based on their values and beliefs. But even as this fact has always been reckoned, there was hitherto a reluctance to consider it as a factor in the explanation of economic phenomena because “explanations will become less clear-cut than they seem to be in the world of economic models.”[20] Cultural economics studies have since been able to successfully use survey data, study of second-generation immigrants, and experiments to overcome this supposed measurement constraint.[21]

Studies show individualist cultures engender higher economic growth relative to collectivist cultures. This is because “of the social status rewards associated with innovation in that culture.”[22] And studies find that this individualism-innovation-growth nexus is robust to the effects of institutions and other growth-related factors. The suggestion is not that collectivist countries do not engender innovation. Rather, it is that the innovation observed in collectivist cultures tend to be incremental and relatively irrelevant over time. Acemoglu & Robinson (2019) put it in the most straightforward way: “It doesn’t mean no innovation and no technological progress, as China’s own experience during the Song dynasty and the Soviet Union’s early success attest to.”[23] The consensus view is that individualistic societies are likely to maintain their technological leadership and thus likely to remain richer.

Table 3: Hofstede (2001) country index scores (ranks) for select countries
Country Power Distance Uncertainty Avoidance Individualism


United States 40 (38) 46 (43) 91 (1)
Germany 35 (42-44) 65 (29) 67 (15)
Australia 36 (41) 51 (37) 90 (2)
UK 35 (42-44) 35 (47-48) 89 (3)
South Africa 49 (35-36) 49 (39-40) 65 (16)
East Africa 64 (21-23) 52 (36) 27 (33-35)
West Africa 77 (10-11) 54 (34) 20 (39-41)
Source: Hofstede (2001)

Culture also plays a role in financial development, which is germane to economic growth.[24] Specifically, a strong correlation is found between uncertainty avoidance and the financial development of a country. That is, countries with high uncertainty avoidance or a low appetite for risk, tend to have relatively less developed financial systems (proxied by private sector credit extension and stock market capitalization). Incidentally, they also tend to have relatively lower levels of trust. Unsurprisingly, much of the developed world is characterised by a high level of trust. Generalized trust, where the goal of trust is towards the society, engenders economic efficiency while personalised trust, where the goal of trust is towards a small group (e.g., family, etc.), weighs on economic efficiency. Put another way, as most economic activities require dealing with strangers, countries with a generalized trust culture tend to be relatively more prosperous.

4.0       Culture & African development
A high level of trust is a cultural trait associated with rich countries. A low level of trust has been observed among African populations.[25],[26] The historical origins of mistrust in Africa has been traced to the slave trade. “Individuals whose ancestors were heavily raided during the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbours, relatives, and their local government.”[27] The heterogeneity of African populations has also been attributed for its relatively lower level of trust. This is because “heterogeneity increases the likelihood of mis-cordination and distrust, reducing cooperation and disrupting the socioeconomic order.”[28] Little wonder, cultural affinities matter more than national institutions in Africa.[29] When ethnic groups partitioned across different African countries were compared in one study, it was found that “there were no systematic differences in economic performance within split ethnicities whose partitions following independence would come to be subject to different national institutions.”[30]

And even while colonialist choices still underpin the institutional framework of most African countries, they are not of the kind to bring about a positive change in values.[31] This is not the case in general. A study shows that these institutional choices were correlated with the mortality rate of the European colonialists.[32] Where the colonialists faced high mortality rates, as they did in most of Africa, they set up extractive institutions (e.g. slave trade). Where they did not, like the US, Australia and New Zealand, they settled and set up institutions that enhanced growth factors like the rule of law and thus encouraged investments.

For instance, the British colonialist divide-and-rule strategy has been found to be detrimental to state-building in its former African colonies.[33] Unsurprisingly, former British African colonies place greater store in their ethnicity than their European-imposed national identity. There are some nuances in this regard, however. In areas close to capital cities, where incidentally European colonialists largely concentrated their developmental efforts, there is evidence of state capacity. But in areas far from capital cities, where state capacity is literally non-existent, ethnic insitutions prevail and hence explain why the economic performance of partitioned ethnicities are similar despite being under different national institutional arrangements.

For instance, using light density at night as a proxy for economic activity, one study finds a significant relationship between pre-colonial ethnic institutions (stateless ethnicities, petty chiefdoms, paramount chiefdoms, and pre-colonial states) and regional development in Africa.[34] In other words, kingdoms, empires, chiefdoms and the like, that were in place before European colonisation continue to be relevant to African development.[35] And the rigidities of these pre-colonial ethnic-based political centralizations explain the incapacity of some African states to exercise full authority over property rights, tax collections and monopoly of violence to this day. Clearly, for better or worse, African ethnic institutions are a factor in its economic development. In light of these realities, ethnic institutions could very well be formalised to fill these gaps in state capacity.

The case of Botswana suggests colonialism is not an excuse, however.[36],[37],[38] Parsons & Robinson (2004) show how the majority Tswana tribe of Botswana had a relatively egalitarian and accommodative political structure before the arrival of colonialists. Whereas tribal loyalties was a huge obstacle to state formation in many other African jurisdictions under colonialsim, and are adjudged to still be the case presently, the relative homogeneity of the Tswana’s pre-colonial political institutions in Botswana, which already integrated non-Tswana tribes almost seamlessly, made the transtion to a unitary state almost a natural one.

5.0       Changing culture
If culture is a factor in Africa’s relative underdevelopment thus far, why not reform? It is a herculean task. Cultural practices endure precisely because they worked towards a desirable purpose of the majority of a population during a prior period. For instance, tight kinship and the moral systems around it were useful for agricultural production, which typically is the early stage of a country’s development. But is such a system suited to the current “modern economic regime that relies on increased interactions with strangers”?[39] While loose kinship societies currently populate the global technology frontier, it is not suggested that tight kinship societies give up their norms to achieve similar feats. Instead, it is the institutions around the culture that need to be changed or reformed to become fit-for-purpose for the current modern era. Intercultural exchange can also be a mechanism through which sub-optimal norms are updated or discarded. Cultural entrepreneurs have also been found to be effective influencers; albeit with varied success.

5.1       Policy & Institutions
“A modern economy is characterized by a rapid growth in non-parental transmission, and in fact such mechanisms of intergenerational transmission are one of the hallmarks of modernity” (Mokyr, 2016). Policy reforms can be used to effect cultural change.[40],[41] It is a fact that “exposure to different institutions/norms during crucial developmental-ages significantly changes individuals’ behaviour.”[42] Institutions can be used to change culture.[43] And it is weak institutions that allow bad cultural practices to persist. Because even when a cultural practice is bad, in the face of strong countervailing formal institutions, it can be discouraged to extinction. In other words, “culture persists in certain institutional environments and not others.” Culture and institutions are complementary and the roles they play in wealth creation depends on the environment and context.[44] Still, even as culture may be amenable to institutional changes, the lead time to the desired outcome could be considerable. In fact, it “can take several generations to reach a new steady state [even] after institutions have changed.”[45]

One study actually shows that it is in the absence of institutions that culture matters, but that once institutions are in place, culture is not so relevant.[46] The study further argues that “economic freedom is relatively more important for growth than culture” albeit the effects of culture on growth are not totally dismissed. It could be inferred that institutions could be used to change culture. And when strong institutions are in place, sub-optimal cultural practices and the systems that sustain them would have little room for influence or power.

“Culture changes in response to a new environment”.[47] Culture is hard to change, however. The reasons why this is the case are as follows.[48] Firstly, parental transmission, through which a great deal of culture is passed from generation to generation, is hard to shake off; that is, even in the face of evidence of sub-optimality. Secondly, entrenched organisations like the state and religious institutions, which garner economic benefits, power or influence from certain values and beliefs, are typically reluctant to give up their power. Thirdly, some growth-hindering cultural practices engender population growth and thus the spread of these values and beliefs.

With these entrenchments, how then can culture be successfully reformed? Culture consists of two major components: inherited values, a historical component, and social interactions, a contemporaneous component.[49] As inherited values are transmitted from parents, they are hard to change. Social interactions, however, are malleable to change, and are thus channels through which culture could be changed, updated or reformed. Thus, interactions between accomplished Africans in the diaspora, who could be encouraged to return home via incentives, and their compatriots on the continent could be effective. Put in positions of authority in business and government, they could effect cultural change. Multinational companies already do this but with mixed results.[50] For instance, a 2015 survey by Russell Reynolds Associates on senior African executives in the diaspora shows that while senior African talent no longer view returning home to work as a failure, the willingness to do so varies by country.[51]

Also, “education is an effective way of inculcating the right sort of beliefs among citizens” (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2019). Put another way, “education is the most powerful factor in making men modern”.[52] Political leaders could be persuaded to the cause of modernity through education; which some top American and European universities already facilitate. For younger citizens, school curricula could be modified to promote critical thinking over rote learning. For those outside of the school system, public advocacy on specific negative cultural practices has been found to work; especially when backed by the international community. In tandem with advocacy, legal measures could also be put in place in strengthen deterrence. For instance, female genital mutilation has been criminalised in many African countries. And just recently in South Africa, spanking a child was declared unconstitutional.[53] These are just few examples. More fundamentally, policy and institutions could be used to countervail cultural practices and entrenchments inimical to prosperity.

5.2       Intercultural exchange
“Intergenerational transmission of human traits, particularly culturally transmitted traits, has led to divergence between populations over the course of history” which in turn, has “introduced barriers to the diffusion of technologies across societies.”[54] Knowledge and experiences are easily and often first shared between peoples that are closely related in culture, language, and habits.[55] In other words, the success of a developed country is closely related to the practices of its ancestral population or its cultural proximity to a developed one. As “historical and cultural variables affect the propensity of the citizens of a country to trust the citizens of another country”, “perceptions rooted in culture are important determinants of economic exchange.”[56] Still, while ancestry matters, it is not insurmountable for disadvantaged populations if the barriers to “communication and interaction across cultures and societies” are addressed. Still, the intercultural exchange required to overcome these disadvantages must be deliberate and focused.

Does that then mean contemporary development policies are efforts in futility? Spolaore & Wacziarg (2013) argue they are not. An understanding of a people’s history and culture allows for the identification of the barriers to the spread of knowledge and innovation they create and thus allow solutions to be fit-for-purpose and effective. And there are examples of these. For instance, “Japan is geographically, historically and genetically distant from the European innovators, but it got the Industrial Revolution relatively early” (Spolaore & Wacziarg, 2013). And because of Japan’s success, South Korea and later other Asian nations were able to also climb the economic ladder. (Japan “became a cultural beachead”.) Hong Kong was similarly a “beachead” through which modernity spread to China.[58] “Southern Chinese cities or special economic zones developed largely as the result of having generalized what had worked in Hong Kong” (Spolaore & Wacziarg, 2013). This view underpins how special economic zones are today used to accelerate economic development around the world.

In the current era of globalisation and high-speed innovation, these hitherto high barriers are easier to scale. “There is still room for development policies to reduce barrier effects and to accelerate the spread of ideas and innovations across populations, especially in the context of an increasingly globalised world where barriers to the diffusion of development can be brought down more rapidly” (Spolaore & Wacziarg, 2013). There is evidence technology adoption is faster nowadays. Still, while “adoption lags have converged across countries over the last 200 years”, “penetration rates have diverged.”[59] This is what explains why despite the ubiquity of new technologies, the income gap between poor and rich countries remains wide.

5.3       Cultural entrepreneurship
Being as cultural change largely consists of social learning and persuasion, cultural entrepreneurs, like today’s celebrities and social media influencers, can be effective cultural change agents.[60] According to Mokyr (2016), “cultural authorities [or celebrities] often have no special expertise and yet somehow become the source of authority or focal points in cultural choices.” Mokyr further argues that when knowledge is effective (that is, when techniques or predictions based on this knowledge work well), beliefs can change quickly: once people see an airplane fly, they will accept the propositional belief that objects heavier than air can actually defeat gravity”.

6.0       Conclusion
Clearly, culture matters for development. And it is one of the factors that underpin the relative underdevelopment of African countries. Studies show individualist cultures engender higher economic growth relative to collectivist cultures. A high level of trust is a cultural trait associated with rich countries. Incidentally, African countries are characterised by low trust owing to slavery and colonialism. Institutions, intercultural exchange and cultural entrepreneurship are means by which the negative aspects of sub-optimal cultural practices could be mitigated, reformed or eliminated.

I propose an action-plan that includes critical-thinking in school curricula, laws against negative cultural practices, incentivisation of the arts to promote progressive values, special economic zones in partnership with successful countries, allocation of senior government positions to citizens in the diaspora, and national orientation programmes to promote proven innovation-enhancing values. They are discussed below.

Critical-thinking school curricula for early education
Rote-learning remains the dominant teaching method in many African countries. To become innovation-focused, young Africans need to acquire critical thinking skills early on. It is not as difficult as it may seem. Affluent and middle-class Africans already differentiate their kids by sending them to foreign-affilliated “international” schools to learn these critical skills. While it would be a herculean task to re-orient local teachers towards this type of pedagogy, there are already affordable tech-based solutions. Pre-recorded classes by teachers already skilled in critical thinking pedagogical methods abroad could be played to local students. Parents with means, could also stream or download such educational materials for their wards via the internet.

Promulgation and enforcement of laws against negative cultural practices
Corporal punishment is unconstitutional in South Africa. It could be so everywhere else on the continent. Female genital mutilation is also increasingly illegal across Africa. These are few examples of how laws could be used to change negative cultural practices.

Progressive and liberalist approach to censorship of the arts
As celebrities – artists, actors, etc. – have a huge influence on African youths, there should be a deliberate effort by African governments to faciliate collaboration between local and foreign celebrities with a view to achieving intercultural exchanges. Local ones could also be incentivised and encouraged to espouse values that engender innovation in their works. Governments can signal this intent by how they approve works of art – music, movies, etc – for airing to the public.

Special economic zones in partnership with successful countries
As evidence shows special economic zones have been successfully used to transfer knowledge and technology from developed countries to developing ones, in Asian countries, no less, African countries could easily find in them a quick and effective way of not only acquiring knowledge and technology but desirable work cultures as well.

Allocation of government positions to Africans in the diaspora by statute
There are many successful Africans in the diaspora. To succeed, they had to attune themselves to the cultures of the foreign lands they found themselves. Incidentally, they are also best positioned to bring about cultural change in their home countries. Already familiar with their home cultures, they are likely to be more persuasive in their transmission of their newly acquired innovation-enhancing norms and habits. To be sure, they do not always succeed in doing so. Still, their understanding of “both worlds” makes them compelling advocates of new ways.

National orientation programmes to promote proven innovation-enhancing values
In China, patriotic zeal is instilled in citizens at a very early age in schools, at work, and so on. Patriotic songs and messages are aired from speakers on the streets for the continued indoctrination of citizens as they go about their daily businesses. It is not suggested that such extremes should be applied in African countries. Thankfully, there are more creative and effective ways nowadays. For instance, Burna Boy, a popular African music artiste, recently released a song about Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man. In the song, the musician uses the example of Mr Dangote, whose reputation for hard work is well-known, to espouse the virtue of hard work. In a melodious tune now sang by millions, Mr Burna Boy wonders why anyone would be lazy if Africa’s richest man continues to work hard than most people. This is a striking example of the many creative ways that cultural change could be facilitated.

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Democracy & Development

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Democracy engenders growth
A recent paper by Acemoglu et al. in the top-rated Journal of Political Economy shows evidence that “Democracy does cause growth.” It does this by attracting more investment, facilitating increased educational attainment, spurring economic reforms, decreasing social restiveness and thus the security of lives and property, and the provision of public services. Democracy also engenders economic growth by making opportunities available to most of the people as opposed to a powerful few.

The study also finds that the beneficial effects of democracy on economic growth are robust across developing and advanced economies. In other words, they do not find that democracy weighs on the growth of developing economies; as argued by a substantial part of the extant literature. When a country adopts a democratic form of government, the authors assert, its GDP per capita rises by at least 20 percent over the subsequent 30 years; albeit they find this effect to be easily attained in countries with already high levels of educational attainment.

The study also finds that democracy is contagious. When democracy takes hold in one country, its neighbours tend to become democractic as well. In other words, “the probability of a country transitioning to democracy or nondemocracy is strongly correlated with the same transition occurring in other countries in the same region.” Even so, country-specific values are significant factors underpinning the evolution of the democratization process.

Reduce the cost of democracy
There is a difference between an electoral democracy and a liberal democracy. The latter is ideal but the former is what is prevalent. Following from this, it could be argued that Africa cannot yet boast of a country where true democracy thrives. That is, one based on the classical Abraham Lincoln definition of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Botswana is probably an exception, though. Little wonder, there are increasing complaints in mostly poor African countries about the effectiveness and costs of “democracy”.

The so-called “dividends of democracy” remain elusive to many and elected officials are rarely held accountable. Besides, political aspiration is largely exclusionary due to high barriers to entry related to financial capacity. Political parties charge exorbitant fees for registration and other party-related financing. Campaign costs are also prohibitive. There are similarly huge expenses borne by politicians for dishing out patronage; which incidentally they tend to make sure to recoup with “interest” when they eventually win. Bottomline, you could not aspire to political office if you were not rich or sponsored by the rich.

Additionally, parliaments that are supposed to check the potential excesses of executives, tend to end up being little more than rubber stamps; especially when controlled by ruling parties. Thus, there is an urgent need for political reforms in many poor African “democracies.” Good thing then that with information and communications technology (ICT) increasingly spurring more direct participation of the general public in governance matters, there is an opportunity to make the necessary changes with relative ease.

A people’s assembly
I recommend a truly representative and egalitarian unicameral (“People’s Assembly”) legislature. Firstly, aspiring legislators should all be independent candidates and not belong to a political party. That way, no party controls the legislature. Registration and other formalities for election into the legislature should be free or for pittance and must be via the electoral body. Thus, no party primaries. And while independent candidates would still be qualified and eligible to participate in elections to executive positions (president, governor, premier, etc.), political parties would be the primary vehicle for such positions. If the rational assumption, in light of history thus far, that political parties are likely already captured by the rich elite is made, an egalitarian and truly representative People’s Assembly would be an ideal counterbalance.

Hofstede’s Culture’s Consequences: A review in the Nigerian context (1)

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

The purpose of Geert Hofstede’s Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organisations Across Nations is an ideal starting point. “A better understanding of invisible cultural differences is one of the main contributions the social sciences can make to practical policy makers in governments, organisations, and institutions – and to ordinary citizens.” I extract some of the expositions in the book to highlight certain cultural practices and behaviours in Nigeria, which to the ignorant, are accepted as “wisdoms.” Unfortunately, a lot of those who eventually see the “light” – many do not, only realise the false or flawed logic behind these “wisdoms” when they are aged, too late of course, sapped of strength, with little or no initiative left for enterprise. But for these suboptimal norms, we would probably be a nation of groundbreaking innovators and entrepreneurs of global reckoning. Yes, we do have some of those. But where are they? Most are in saner climes.

Shame vs guilt
Nigeria has unity in many spheres than most people realise. We have a commonality in at least one instance: all our ethnic groups have shame cultures. Ever wonder why most Nigerians make decisions around the frame of reference of “what will people say?” Shame cultures do not engender innovation. Shame cultures are collectivist while guilt cultures are individualist. Most of today’s advanced economies have individualist cultures while some of the poorest economies are collectivist. The motivation to do what is right in guilt cultures is intrinsic while that for shame cultures is extrinsic. I quote from several parts of the relevant sections of Hofstede’s book to establish the theory.

“US anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1946/1974) stressed the distinction between cultures that rely heavily on shame and those that rely heavily on guilt…True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behaviour, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin. Shame requires an audience or at least a man’s fantasy of an audience. Guilt does not. In a nation where honor means living up to one’s own picture of oneself, a man may suffer from guilt though no man knows of his misdeed”

“The child in a collectivist society is seldom alone, either during the day or at night. In an individualist society, such a lack of privacy would be highly abnormal. In most collectivist cultures, direct confrontation of another person is considered rude and undesirable. The word “no” is seldom used because saying no is a confrontation. In individualist cultures, on the other hand, speaking one’s mind is a virtue. Telling the truth about how one feels is seen as a sincere and honest person. Confrontation can be salutary; a clash of opinions is believed to lead to a higher truth.”

“A child who repeatedly voices opinions that deviate from what is collectively felt is considered to have a bad character. In the individualist family, in contrast, children are expected and encouraged to develop opinions of their own, and a child who always only reflects the opinions of others is considered to have a weak character. Family life in collectivist societies can be oppressive and stultifying, with no escape for those suffering abuse, especially girls. Members of the collectivist family are partially kept in order by the threat of shame.”

“A child in individualist society who infringes upon a rule learns to feel guilty, ridden by an individually developed conscience that functions as a private inner pilot. Collectivist societies, in contrast, are shame cultures: Not only the culprit him- or herself but also his or her in-group mates are made to feel ashamed when a misdeed is committed. Shame is social in nature, whereas guilt is individual: whether a person feels shame or not depends on whether the infringement has become known by others. This becoming known is the source of the shame, more so than the infringement itself.”

Be your own audience
To feel shame requires that your actions and thinking are against the background of an audience; real or imagined. If your sense of purpose is otherwise, based on something genuine, like your own satisfaction, shame is an emotion you cannot feel; that is, with respect to failure, etc. Incidentally, it is also those with such emotional resilience and grit that succeed in our shame-based climes.

The reason most of our compatriots do not hesitate to roll up their sleeves when abroad is because suddenly there is no audience to impress or be wary of. It is shame that stops a lot of ideally industrious young Nigerians from letting go of their false pride and getting down to work. The fear of standing out also prevents a lot of young Nigerians from pulling above their weight. The consequence is that the poor remain poor and the wealthy remain wealthy or wealthier. For instance, the rich send their wards to “international schools” and thereafter abroad for further studies. Add to that some work experience in the “temperates”, they become well-placed to maintain the lofty positions of their parents.

Ever notice how the rich are stern with the children of the poor when they violate a cultural norm and laugh off the same “infractions” by their own kids? Much of what we call culture are mechanisms for discrimination and exclusion. Take another issue: corruption. It is retractable because our cultures tolerate some level of corruption. There are proverbs in our various languages with meanings like “live and let live”, “it is where we work we will eat from”, etc. Corruption is not considered a shameful act in most Nigerian cultures. Who are largely the practitioners and major beneficiaries of corruption in Nigeria? The rich. It is a vicious cycle.

e go learn” & “o ma gbon” fallacies
You would hear custodians of these shame cultures make remarks like “e go learn”, “o ma gbon”, etc. (They mean “he will learn”, “he will become wise”.) In the Yoruba culture (I am Yoruba), for instance, early marriage is encouraged, living by yourself (“on dagbe”) is discouraged, and so on. They are not the “wisdoms” they are oft-presented as. These are norms, that put together with others, ensure the tribe’s cultural institutions of rewards and sanctions, function effectively. They hinder social mobility. Put another way, they engender social statism. If you are not well-to-do and you marry early, with responsibilities hitting you right, left and centre, you cannot garner enough savings in time to change your circumstances for the better. With little or no privacy, being perennially in the company of others from birth, there is little chance of the kind of introspection and contemplation required to better your lot.

So when you hear these culture custodians make such remarks like “e go learn”, “a ma ko”, “o ma gbon”, etc., what they really mean, logically at least, is that you would learn to be mediocre, you would acculturate to aim low. Put simply, you will learn to know your place. From the slave trade, our forever potholed roads, power blackouts on end, to the continued pilferage of our commonwealth by the elite with impunity, the “e go learn”, “a ma ko”, “o ma gbon” pseudo-sages have little to show for their self-acclaimed wisdom. They do know one thing, though. Those who refuse to “gbon” (learn), the mavericks, the sometimes “olori olowos” are precisely destined as such because of their consistent defiance of convention. Flawed conservatism is not wisdom. Needless to say, our culture is holding us back.