Are We Helicopter-Parenting the African State?

Development people have a strange, double-thinky relationship with Angus Deaton’s argument against development aid. Deaton is too senior in the aid world to be dismissed, but his critique is too devastating to be fully internalized. It’s as though part of us knows if we get too deep into this we’re going to find out some things we’d rather not know, so we prefer to know-and-not-know at the same time, a weird Orwellian move that does nobody any favours.

Facing up to the gory details of aid dependence is one of the last great taboos of the development world.

Deaton’s beef is with Western Paternalism: the never explicit, always just-below-the-surface tendency to treat African states like children, abrogating the paternal role for the West.

Trouble is, through aid paternalism, the West has become the very worst kind of parent: a meddling, hyperindulgent, over-involved helicopter parent that constantly undermines his charge. It’s this idea – that we’re locked into a messed up codependency that undermines everyone involved – that reviewers of Deaton’s new book invariably balk at.

And I can see why: on a micro-level, it’s a hard pill to swallow. We see African states patently unable to run a minimally effective health system. We see millions dying of easily preventable diseases, and we find it intolerable. So we go and run the hospitals for them.

So, does that kind of aid “work”? Think of it like this:

A helicopter parent sees his 19 year old son is plainly unable to tie his own shoelaces and goes and ties them for him. Perhaps he makes some peremptory attempt to show the 19-year old how he might go about tying his own shoelaces in future, but the kid has little reason to pay very much attention – the way the relationship is structured, he knows full well dad will still be there to tie his shoelaces when he’s 24, or 30, or 55.

Did dad’s aid “work”? Well, if your metric is “total laces tied”, it certainly seems to work. Is this a reasonable definition of success, though?

It’s when he talks about aid’s impact on state capacity that Deaton is at his most scathingly convincing. Western aid discourses continually fret about the level of African state capacity – “capacity building” as a buzzword is getting buzzier and buzzier – while also pursuing policies that relieve African states of any compelling reason to become more capable. 

Nicholas Van de Walle gets at this poisonous little dynamic brilliantly in his aging, but still useful “African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, 1979-1999.”

In Van de Walle’s telling, donors are blind to how easy it is for African state elites (we’re talking the 100-300 most powerful people in any given country) and African presidents to play them like a fiddle, using aid to keep their deeply screwed up, extractive political systems going indefinitely. He has great fun describing how “adjustment programs” (along with their accompanying “Social Dimension of Adjustment” aid sweeteners) came to be a permanent condition lasting decades on end in some African countries, to the crazy extent that you could publish a book only half-ironically titled “Burkina Faso: A Tradition of Adjustment”.

More recent research has detailed the way African state elites have become extraordinarily adept at being seen to reform just enough to keep the aid spigot open without ever doing anything so foolish as to pursue any reform that actually threatens their hold on power.

Conditionality, carefully designed in Washington and Geneva to make reform unavoidable, is subtly jujitsued back into a force for maintaining the political status quo. That’s made some types of aid – especially budget support – an obstacle to the reform agenda it’s meant to enable.

None of this is all that surprising. Children of hyperindulgent/overinvolved parents who don’t know how to make credible commitments to sanction bad behavior quickly master the art of placating them just enough to get what they want.

“OK, I’ll pay your rent just this once,” says the parent of the 34 year old slacker, “but only if you promise you’ll get off the Playstation and look for a job.”

“Of course dad,” comes the answer, “I’ve cleared my schedule, all I’m doing today is sending out resumés all day.” On some level, both of them know no resumés are going out that day. Both of them know they’ll be back at it the following month. Neither of them really believes the dad’s threats to stop sending rent money if X or Y doesn’t happen. It’s a conversation they have every month, a kind of ritual, really.

Deaton is alive to these concerns, and to the twisted ways the-worse-it-gets-the-better-it-gets thinking has spread over African governing elites. He notes the party officials in Sierra Leone threw one year to “celebrate” coming dead last in Human Development Index, ensuring a fat slice of aid the following year.

Facing up to the gory details of aid dependence is one of the last great taboos of the development world. Seriously questioning the political economy of aid-enabled extractive government is similarly verboten. We’re a-ok running an RCT to see what happens when you offer anti-malarials to one village and none to the next. But nobody’s going to do an RCT to see what happens when you cut off an entire, very-corrupt African state from aid altogether for 10 years.

Which is too bad, because it means we’ll never be able to verify Deaton’s suspicion: that aid short-circuits the processes of accountability and grassroots mobilization that might, imaginably, lead to real reform in due course.

It’s a brutal argument – too brutal for polite company, that’s for sure – but it seems to me to underlie Deaton’s approach: if public services in any given very-corrupt African state were to deteriorate to the level that they would deteriorate in the absence of aid, people would be incandescently angry. Angry enough to possibly, imaginably, maybe,  demand and obtain reform. Real reform, of the kind aid-sweetened IFI conditionality has conclusively proven it can’t deliver.

At some point, that flash of insight needs to burn bright enough – you need to see with full clarity that that 34 year old is never going to go out and get a job until you stop paying his rent. But that can’t happen until you fully internalize the need to step back and just watch as bailiffs evict him for rent arrears.

Ideas like these have been around for a long time. What’s new is that now they’re coming from a guy like Angus Deaton, with a resumé the length of my arm, an unmatched reputation for mastery of the detail and unimpeachable intellectual credentials.

When one of the field’s founders and giants starts making an argument functionally indistinguishable from the one your drunk republican uncle makes over Thanksgiving when you say you’ve been working on an aid project in Senegal, you know things have come to a head.

6 thoughts on “Are We Helicopter-Parenting the African State?”

  1. The problem with your analogy is that the elites in Africa have no trouble at all tying their own shoes–and their own shoes are Bruno Maglies.

    More generally, the hypothesis that aid has enabled bad governance seems implausible to me. First, where is the evidence that cutting off aid leads to better governance? Several of Africa’s most enduring regimes–O’biang, Mugabe–don’t receive any aid to speak of. Second, the notion that aid mitigates public pressure on governments to perform seems to exaggerate the impact of aid on local populations–and to exaggerate the ability of those populations to make effective demands on their governments. Third, what’s the evidence that immiseration produces revolt?

    If the US were to cut off aid to Congo tomorrow, how many Congolese would notice–and what would they be able to do about it? To the extent that cutting off aid means that some (few) among them become slightly less poor, less educated, and less healthy, won’t that reduce their capacity to petition their government? The people of Kinshasa or Lagos might or might not already be incandescently angry–they certainly should be–but is there any evidence that further immiserating them would increase the likelihood of revolutionary violence? And if so, what’s the likelihood that that violence will have a positive outcome?

    I do agree with Deaton that mainstream development practitioners have historically failed to reckon with the state–and that those who do have tended to treat governance as a technocratic problem of capacity rather than as a political problem of behaviors and incentives. But surely the solution is to build up the capacity of the “good governance” types rather than cut the entire country adrift. Government accountability and grassroots mobilizing are absolutely essential; they’re the only things that address the roots of the problem rather than the symptoms. But let’s get there by working with the countless (in many cases incredibly brave) Africans working to challenge and reform their governments rather than by cutting off access to malaria nets.

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