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2 March 2012

I could tell from the title I was going to take issue with a recent blog post at Why Nations Fail, a new blog written by Acemoglu and Robinson. It was when I saw this, that I shook my head:

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.

Village Headman proudly displays the village's register of births and deaths. Mchinji District, Malawi (2008)

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?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. josh busby permalink
    2 March 2012 10:08 am

    It sounds a little bit blase to me about how local actors can use their authority for personal gain, from the village level all the way up (am thinking of Jackson and Rosberg’s classic piece on Personal Rule). Maybe there is something about the immediacy and familiarity of village governance that will curb self-aggrandizing behavior, but if you are right, then something else would have to account for persistent poverty across much of the continent (local institutions are fine but effects of colonialism, geography, poor terms of trade, etc.).

    • 2 March 2012 10:19 am

      “but if you are right, then something else would have to account for persistent poverty across much of the continent…”

      Yes, to be fair, in my critique of Acemoglu and Robinson’s post on chiefs, I don’t offer an alternative hypothesis for what — in the place of the repressive rule of chiefs — would be driving the persistence of poverty. And I hate it when scholars bring up problems without offering solutions. I don’t have evidence that chieftaincy impedes or encourages growth. It could be either, or it could have no effect. My point is to say that I would need a more convincing test of such a hypothesis, especially in the face of evidence that village headmen are not inherently despotic (both my work and that of Carolyn Logan’s).

  2. 2 March 2012 10:13 am

    Very interesting points. I suppose you could argue that the real issue is: how responsive are local leaders? Many elected leaders do a fairly poor job of representing their constituents – see my latest rant – whilst maybe some hereditary chiefs do quite a good job, although I presume you also have a fair collection of examples of Malawian chiefs hardly being models of noble enlightenment. Good leadership will support local development, whereas Acemoglu and Robinson’s less than revelatory insight is that bad leadership is … well … bad for development too!

    ps. The blog looks disappointingly like a promo for the book with lots of little tasters such as you get when an author is interviewed on TV, rather than a serious journey into the interactive world of the blogosphere.

    • 2 March 2012 10:22 am

      I do have examples from Malawi of “bad” traditional authorities (TAs). But in those examples, there were consequences for the TAs. In one district in the same year, I saw a village headman and a higher-level TA be deposed. The former for simply not “providing for the village” and the latter for being a drunkard who didn’t take his position seriously.

      But, generally speaking, the position of headman is really important. Villagers don’t take the appointment of a headman lightly. Because the appointment is for “life”, you can bet they’re going to take their time to develop the next leader and to finalizing his ascendance.

  3. 5 March 2012 1:50 am

    Good points mostly. But shouldn’t we be a little more cautious about even discussing the role of “traditional chiefs” since they doesn’t actually exist? Malawian chiefs exist, Sierra Leonian chiefs exist, or even Tumbuka chiefs and Wolof chiefs exist, but general “African traditional” chiefs don’t. Though I love Sean’s blog, Africa is NOT a Country right? Many cultures and forms of traditional leadership exist in Africa. Lumping them all under “African chiefs” or ust chiefs is rash to put it mildly. You could both be right. Chiefs in Sierra Leone could be playing a destructive role there but in Malawi the picture may be different. Lets not get caught up in abstract debates about categories that don’t exist. Talking specifics is usually (always?) better.
    Also, fining villagers who don’t participate in public works projects is fair? It should depend on the process by which that public works project was deemed necessary shouldn’t it? Locals in my area recently told their chief to go to hell when he asked them to mold bricks free of charge in order to put an addition onto the local post office. Good for them I say. Here chiefs usually get their authority solely from the willingness of locals to accept it because of traditional cultural reasons. And that is all fair and good so long as the locals are accepting that authority without undue coercion from my point of view. It’s their culture not mine and I have no reason to interfere and demand “full” democracy. But the moment that those villagers decide they no longer want to live under that non-democratic system I will support them 100% and one of the ways that villagers in my area are signaling that they want change is by disobeying their chiefs when he demand contributions to “public” works projects that they have deemed necessary.

    • Maduka permalink
      5 March 2012 7:12 am

      There is no such thing as an “African Chief”. The British ran into that problem when they tried to rule Nigeria via chiefs (indirect rule).

      Certain cultures were amenable to indirect rule (i.e. the “chiefs” performed the functions the British had in mind to the letter). They even attempted to export some of those chiefs to other areas to administer different peoples – this of course led to riots.

      Other cultures were more democratic. For example, in my part of Nigeria, there was no tradition of a powerful chief or a chief at all. Villages were administered democratically via age grades, cults and elders. The British attempted to circumvent this unwieldy and complex system by appointing “warrant chiefs” (my great-grandfather was a warrant chief), but that again wasn’t even that successful.

      If you want to grapple with the complexity and diversity of cultures in Africa, read Lugard’s memoirs.

  4. 15 April 2012 2:52 pm


    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Speaks to a lot of the ideas I encountered when working with traditional leaders in Karonga through the District Water Office to explore the potential of how those structures of authority might influence community behaviour around waterpoint repair.

    On a personal note, I realize that you must be through Lilongwe semi-frequently and wondered if you might be interested in getting together for a drink sometime. I work for Engineers Without Borders Canada on their water and sanitation team, and I believe you referenced my blog ( at some point for the Chitumbuka language guide I have posted there. With our mutual interests and involvement in Malawi, I think it could make for some interesting conversation.

    Let me know if you’re passing through and are interested in meeting up.

    Kind regards,
    +265 99 310 0756


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