Tag Archives: governance

Dambisa Moyo redux: is Ethiopia’s governance model mimicking China’s?

Since the rise of development economics in the 1960s, the prevailing discourse around development has maintained that liberal democracies tend to grow faster than centralized, authoritarian societies (and this, in turn, is an echo of Max Weber’s then-revolutionary thinking). So, if you want development, focus on giving people freedom: they will use their political rights to start companies, whip their leaders into serving the collective interest and so on. Result: fully developed economies.

This approach has recently become the target of piercing criticism by Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo. This model is failing, she says: economic activity seems rather to flourish on the back of economic stability and infrastructure provision. In an already sufficiently developed economy you might think of market forces providing infrastructure (well, that’s the theory – don’t get me started here); but when development needs yet to be bootstrapped – and in a context of low literacy and low standards of education – such provision needs to rely on some central authority – a government. What kind of government? A pragmatic, technocratic one, made up of engineers and scientists rather then lawyers and journalists. One that emphasizes “getting the job done” rather than rules and processes, and economic rights over political rights. In one sentence: China’s government. And sure enough, China’s achievements in fighting poverty are astonishing: this one country has single-handedly lifted some 300 million people out of poverty over the last decade. I recommend you watch the video above in its entirety – especially if you are a Westerner, like me and like most readers of this blog.

I am just back from Ethiopia. It is one of the poorest countries in the world (per capita income: 570$), and it has a fairly poor human rights record. And yet, everywhere we went we perceived a fairly upbeat mood. With robust growth (double-digit in 2013, 8% in 2014), a booming tourism industry and an expanding middle class, many Ethiopians see their lives improving year after year. Crime rates are very low, and the streets safe. Many tribes and religions live together in peace, and Ethiopians seem to think this is a more or less permanent arrangement. With concern to human rights, the mood seem to be ambivalent: while people do not expect much change from the upcoming elections, they seem to be completely unafraid to discuss politics and criticize their leaders.

More than that: many are ready to give their government their due: the Ethiopian government has had the vision to embark in large-scale infrastructural project. Three were most cited to me: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the  Blue Nile; the new regional road network, connecting the country’s main cities across different regions (since regions were designed along linguistic/ethnic lines, this means “bringing Ethiopia’s tribes closer together”); and the new rail network, consisting of a planned national long-distance network, of the Addis Ababa light rail network (under construction – testing began the day after we left Ethiopia),  and of the Dire Dawa-Djibouti line (already in operation; construction work to prolong it to Addis is underway, with the first Addis-Djibouti run to take place in September 2015). These projects, and many more, were carefully planned and are available for public review in a document called the Growth and Transformation Plan (yes, it’s a 5-year plan).

Many Ethiopians take pride in the achievements of their country, and they seem to think yes, in principle you could fight to get different people in power, but why trouble? This crowd seems to be doing a competent job – whatever their ideology, they are quite good at technocracy and pragmatism – and by not having to get involved in politics we can concentrate on improving our own lives. This is similar to the mood I perceived in previous visits to China; another similarity with the Chinese leadership is the background of  Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, by training a civil engineer who studied and taught in Finland and the USA.

So, I guess, score one for Dambisa Moyo. I am afraid that, if Western countries want to inspire Africans with its style of governance, they will have to do a better job of tangibly improving life for their people.

Diversity is hard: how to enrich governance without losing coherence

Photo: whatleydude @ flickr.com
Not everybody agrees that participatory processes lead to better public decision. They do enable decision makers to access the extraordinary wealth of diversity, information and first-hand experience embedded in the citizenry: this is their advantage, and it is an important one. But they also have two disadvantages.

  • such information is not organized. It is not simply a language problem: different people have different stories, and they just see things differently. If you ask someone what they think about pedestrianizing a street in the city center, for example, you are likely to get completely different answers according not just to that person’s position with respect to that street (does she live there? does she work there? does she own real estate in that street?), but also to her values, lifestyle, personality. A cycling enthusiast, or simply someone in good physical shape, will probably appreciate the advantages of pedestrianization, whereas a couch potato will be worried about restricted mobility. It just depends who you ask! Citizen participation (when the people involved are not very many, i.e. almost always) introduces an element of idiosyncracy in the decision making procedure – and this is a problem for public decision makers, that need to be accountable for whatever they do.
  • the discussion can become hard and unpleasant. Good debate requires debating skills, and not everybody has them. Public decision makers generally do: it is a part of their job description. Citizens, it’s hit and miss. Some tend to ramble, or are aggressive; others refer to values or information not shared by the whole community (“pedestrianizing is useless! Nostradamus is clear, a giant globe of fire will swallow the city next year!”). Some might try to apply rhetoric to delegitimize the process if they don’t get what they want (“why do you involve citizens, if you are not prepared to listen to them?”). Different discussion styles might lead to a polarizing, non-convergent outcomes just as well as different positions.

I am convinced that these problems can be overcome at a very low cost – I defend this thesis in Wikicrazia. There is a condition: that participating citizens are recruited from a community oriented towards open and rational discussion. Preferably from an online community. Here is why:

  • the members of these communities validate each other recursively, like Pagerank does with web pages. A person that makes wise, widely shared contribution to the conversation will quickly acquire reputation and authority. This is most visible in online communities, and takes the shape of accumulated comments, shares, likes, +1s or whatever the reputational currency is in each community. “Fishing” the highest-standing members from these open communities reduces the randomness of run-of-the-mill participatory processes.
  • communities train their members in constructive debate. In well-run communities trolls are isolated. Well-meaning, respectful people talk to each other, and compensate each wise contribution with the reputational currencies mentioned above. This, too, is easier online, where the underlying technology typically does not support seizing the microphone and holding on to it for lengthy speeches, or shouting, or interrupting. The most respected members of such communities tend to be people that is useful, even pleasurable to debate with – even when you do not agree with what they have to say.

Since I believe this is true, I am going to try something daring: invite some members of the Edgeryders community – giving them expert status – to discuss with professional researchers and European policy makers (if you want to take part, read the relevant info ). Will they really enrich the discussion without increasing its entropy?