From Impunity to Accountability: Africa’s Development in the 21st Century (conference review)

I spent yesterday at the New School’s conference on development challenges facing African countries. There were several interesting talks. Here are a few highlights:

Bill Easterly described a double-standard in democratic accountability for the rich and the poor. He traced the persistence of this double standard from the pre-colonial era through contemporary international aid discussions. Not only do aid agencies fail to accept that they should be accountable to the intended beneficiaries of aid, the agencies are also indifferent to whether the recipient governments are accountable to their people. He coined a new phrase: “aid-ocrats” (autocrats who maintain their power through aid, e.g. Paul Biya of Cameroon, Idriss Déby of Chad, Lansana Conté of Guinea).

Agnès Callamard disaggregated the concept of “accountability” into: who is accountable, to whom, for what, how, and with which consequences. She proceeded to describe the progress and setbacks facing the how and for what of accountability in African nations. One interesting comment she made along the way: “accountability” is very difficult to translate into other languages, so it may not be the best concept to use. Ultimately, to discuss accountability is to discuss power and human rights.

Befekadu Degefe continued on the theme of accountability and power. He had an interesting re-framing of corruption: it’s not really corruption, it’s just a question of ownership. In many cases, the state has been privatized, so the state machinery has been designed to take resources and turn them over to the leadership and their supporters. It becomes a question of not only changing the people in power, but the structure of the regime itself.

Kristin McKie described several mechanisms for vertical accountability (people to government) and horizontal accountability (government agency to government agency, i.e. checks and balances) in Uganda, Benin and other nations. I appreciated how her talk described specific cases in specific countries, rather than trying to cover the whole continent. However, I think the description of accountability in terms of relationships (either vertical or horizontal) is too simple. Accountability exists in webs of relationships: vertical, horizontal, diagonal, skipping rungs, going in circles, etc. Of course, once you start fleshing out that web analytically, you might find that it’s better described as “power” than “accountability”.

Mueni wa Muiu took an explicitly “bottom-up” look at how the relationships between political institutions and people have evolved since the colonial era. From that perspective, she called for a broader view than just leadership or institutions; we need to look at history, indigenous systems, economic constraints, etc. to fully understand such complex systems. She ended with a call for reconstituting Africa into 5 super-states, with groupings based on relations between groups, trade patterns, and language.

George Ayittey was easily the highlight of the conference. He brought passion to his analysis of what traditional institutions mean for accountability in Africa. He emphasized the need for African solutions to African problems. His primary example was the difference between Western jurisprudence (which focuses on punishment) and African jurisprudence (which focuses on reconciliation and restitution, e.g. Rwanda’s Gacaca courts and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission). In that vein, Ayittey sees accountability and democracy (in their typical application) as foreign concepts. The majority-vote of Western democracy is fast and transparent, but it ignores minority opinions. In contrast, traditional African systems relied on village meetings and decisions by consensus. Similarly, the European colonialists imposed unitary governance structures and concentrations of power, which survive today despite their divergence from Africa’s typical pre-colonial confederations.

Berhanu Nega described the need for an accountable state in Ethiopia. He objected to the idea that the country could develop without one. For every Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, there are a dozen kleptocrats. That has been Ethiopia’s history. Despite never being colonized, the country has a similar history of governments who assume the people are childish and incapable of governing themselves. Authoritarianism has been repeatedly justified by the need for rapid economic development. Nega gave a stinging critique of the alleged development success in Ethiopia, highlighting how the numbers on increased agricultural output don’t add up in the face of conflicting surveys and other data. The same contradictions show up in social indicators (e.g. one town officially has more children in primary school than it has residents). As he tells the story, the international community likes giving money, and wants to show progress. The government wants the money, so it gives the international donors the desired numbers. The donors print those numbers in reports, without questioning them, and then the government points to those reports to prove that their numbers are good. Everyone wins. Except the people of Ethiopia.

Overall, it was an excellent conference. Of course, there were many speeches during the Q&A section (h/t Elspeth). There were serious moments and angry moments, but a few funny ones too. Ayittey joked that he longed for the days of regicide. The best line of the day goes to Nega: when the moderator told him that he had only twenty minutes and would be held accountable, Nega asked whether that would be in Africa time.

(The full conference proceedings will be published in the winter. See the conference website for more.)