Jim once asked a chief in Kono district what would happen if…
We should always be careful with the information we get when we ask one person one thing at one time. In the WNF post, Acemoglu and Robinson present “chiefs” as an institution holding back development, for their arbitrary allocation of land and their repressive nature. After conducting my own research on village headmen and chieftaincy in Malawi — where headmen also have power over land — I don’t walk away with the same impression as many other scholars who see a chief as a “decentralized despot.” Sure, the overwhelming majority of headmen in Malawi were not elected to their positions (only 14% in my sample) — but does that mean that they will rule selfishly?
Think about rule from the perspective of the headman. Under what conditions would he not want his village to prosper? Sure, it’s possible there are jerks who don’t want anyone to do well except themselves. But in my own experience researching headmen in Malawi, I spoke with headmen who would boast about the economic prosperity their villagers found just as frequently as they would discuss the hardships some of their villagers were faced with. Many of them were very proud of their appointment to act as custodian of the village and saw their position as a meaningful opportunity to improve life in the area.
Now, think about rule from the perspective of the villagers. Do you have no agency when the headman turns out to be a jerk who is trying to keep his people down? In Malawi, I learned of headmen and higher-up traditional authorities who were deposed for not serving the interests of their people. It was uncommon, but I attribute the infrequency to the fact that traditional authorities rarely ruled like selfish jerks. When they did, there was almost always an opportunity for a villager to complain to a higher authority. (If not in the line of chieftaincy, there are also “modern” avenues of reprieve, i.e., the police. Based again on my experience in Malawi, I’d be more confident in the traditional authority than the police to sort something out fairly.) Even if the villager did not take the complaint to a higher-up, there is also power in gossip, power in abstention from participating in village activities, etc. Villagers have a range of strategies to choose from when dealing with a headman who is a selfish jerk.
If we think about the relationship between the headman and the villagers as a strategic interaction, where the villagers have agency to make decisions that can affect outcomes, we can have expectations about how the headman will behave, considering he will take into account the potential strategies villagers could choose from. If his goal — like that of many politicians — is to stay in office, we should expect he will behave in ways that respect the power of ordinary villagers to challenge his rule.
Here is another quote from the blog post:
Chiefs also use their power to coerce youths to work for them on their plantations and in building roads and other local public goods.
First, in my research on chieftaincy in Malawi, I have never heard of a headman coercing anyone to work on his farm. There was a traditional authority I interviewed who had a great deal of land, and I noticed a number of villagers working his land. So I asked him (and them) about the arrangements. He had hired them as laborers and was paying a fair wage. Why would he do that if he could coerce them instead? Because he actually wants his crops to grow, and to do that, you’ve got to motivate people to do good work. But maybe the lack of coercion by traditional authorities I saw is another way in which Sierra Leone (from where the Acemoglu and Robinson story draws) and Malawi are different.
Second, I would hope that headmen would use their power toward the provision of local public goods. Public goods don’t provide themselves. In fact, there’s plenty of research that has shown just how hard it is to get people to act collectively. From what we know of rural Africa, there is most certainly a need for public goods, not just because there are few but because of the positive impact on development public goods can have. That doesn’t mean I think it’s okay for headmen to act like jerks to get people out to mould bricks for a new primary school. However, I do think it’s fair to fine villagers who fail to contribute to public works projects. The better-off villagers saw this as a tax they were willing to pay to forego participating in the village development activity.
I don’t want you to read this post and think I believe chieftaincy is the institution which will be key to Africa’s development. Rather, I think we should have a critical, dispassionate approach to studying institutions in rural Africa, even ones that might seem distasteful to Westerners who value competitive elections. As MSU Political Scientist Carolyn Logan has found, the influence of traditional authorities is “widely accepted as a given.” Instead of lamenting chieftaincy (and using a singular example to do so), let’s ask how the institution of chieftaincy can be a mechanism through which a country can develop. Or some other useful question.
A final blogging-related rant about Why Nations Fail— why would you have a blog without a comments section?