Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

When things fell apart

with 4 comments

This is by far the best analysis of the post-independence African tragedy that I’ve read. And the shortest. In When Things Fell Apart, Robert Bates distills decades of research into a compact but powerful book that will take you an afternoon to read, but will keep you contemplating much longer. How is it possible that African states, inheriting growing economies at independence, could radically deteriorate into constant conflict and, in a few cases, genocide? Bates has the answer: political order rests on three variables, namely, the level of public revenues, the rewards from predation, and the specialist’s rate of discount. The interplay of these three factors determines whether a state protects or preys upon its citizens. Bates shows how the decline in public revenues, from internal and external forces, the capture of state revenues by elites (often in the name of nationalisation), and the natural resource wealth most African countries are endowed with, all combined to explain the decline of state order, and the rise of disorder (or failed states), often with devastating consequences. The analysis draws on several examples, showing how each case corresponds with the theoretical model. And given the success of the model to explain past failures, it also points to important trends that might help predict, or avoid, such disasters in the future. This is a book that is worth reading to anyone, but perhaps Cambridge University Press can send a complementary copy to each of the 54 heads of African states and their members of parliament. Understanding the past – in this case, the causes of state failure – remains the best way to navigate the future successfully.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 2, 2012 at 14:49

4 Responses

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  1. Hopefully a complementary (not a complimentary) copy, giving the critical nature of the book?

    Nic Spaull

    February 11, 2012 at 09:01

  2. Would you venture a prediction on what the analysis means for SA?
    Public revenues?
    Rewards from predation?
    Specialists’ discount rates?

    Waldo Krugell

    February 2, 2012 at 16:31

    • Waldo: I think the most pertinent point in the book, and the most relevant for South Africa, is the distinction between nationalisation and privatisation. Bates notes that in many African countries “nationalisation” entailed the enrichment of only a small elite, which is actually just “privatisation” but with new (unproductive) owners, exacerbating inequality. Nationalisation would have at least replenished state coffers, but in many countries these economic profits were curtailed by a few officials.

      Johan Fourie

      February 6, 2012 at 07:43


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