Development: The dictator’s handmaiden; Is bad aid almost always good politics?

I have just finished reading the Dictator’s Handbook, by Bruce Bueno de Mequita and Alastair Smith. I immediately reread some chapters. The book gives you an insight you feel you have known all along, but you just could not act upon it because you don’t want to be seen as a spoil sport, cynic and nutcase.

From reading the book, I think adding a power impact assessment (PIA) before committing to development interventions is necessary.

The book makes a very convincing case that political economy, driven by personal interest, is the major motivation for leaders and potential leaders (surprise). The main objective of a leader is to get and keep power. Good public policy is not more than a distraction in this pursuit.  Leaders ignoring their main objective, will have only a short stint at the top.  So the leader will try to get as much loot from the state and its subjects as possible, and pay just enough to his essential backers for them to stay loyal to him. The rest is preferably stashed away for bad times. She must try to rely on as few possible backers as possible, who should each always need to scramble to keep her favor. The formula is really quite simple, but please, just read the book, I will limit myself to ponder some consequences of this reality of power ( “the world like it is, and not how we would like it to be”) on development assistance.

Easterly is an optimist
The Handbook gives a very black view of the world. We all know a politician or leader who would never act this way. The book however comes close to predict the real choices made by most of the world leaders who manage to stay in power (unlike the gullible friends of ours).

This means that development money that is embezzled by the leader and its cronies is not a bug, it is the main feature of cunning leadership. The whole government ownership agenda is very misguided in this light. It is probably true that the local government knows best what can work and what not. However this is not very relevant if the interest of the local leader in development funding is limited to the use of these funds to help her to stay in power.
Indeed: if the objective of the able leader is to keep the money and distribute it only to his essential backers,  anybody who is not an essential backer will not get anything.

It is also a positive message: understanding this mechanism makes it possible to use strategies to change the incentive structure and change the system.

Forget Paris.

Some types  of development assistance will be very much in demand by autocratic leaders.

  • Infrastructure leads to  excellent corruption and patronage possibilities. Moreover, in the form of big dams, it gives the dictator absolute power on who gets power and who does not.
  • Military support is even better. You can pay your essential generals and distribute bribes. Paying the rank and file is optional: they can “harvest” their own salary from the population.
  • Basic services are necessary to keep the population just intelligent enough to work hard. This is only important in countries without natural resources or without big aid flows. Anything beyond primary education will only lead to emancipation and other trouble. The leaders love basic services provided by NGOs: it authorizes the leader to spend less on the poor and more on themselves. Moreover, it transforms education from a right that the government is accountable for, to a gift from a foreign benefactor.
  • Disaster relief provided through the government services. It authorizes the dictator to embezzle most of it, while giving the rest only to the essential coalition.
  • Dept cancellation will only lead to the dictator strengthening her hold. Dept cancellation should be more conditional to democratic reform, or even better, used after democratic reform happened.  Apparently dept cancellation only works in democracies anyway.

The writers seem to have written the Handbook from a very serious concern to improve the effects of development assistance for the real world, not for the world we would all love to live in.

Their main piece of advice on development is to go for “cash on delivery”. Pay a non-inclusive government only for goods and services it has delivered, not for the process. Indeed even simple processes as capturing a terrorist bring in more loot for the cronies if they are dragged on eternally.

From poverty to power

The main lesson  I take from the book is the need to expand the coalition in power. If the leader has to rely on a wider coalition to stay in power, the kleptocracy deludes into a state delivering public services for most of the people. Indeed by growing the coalition needed to reign, there is a tipping point when it is cheaper for the leader to provide public services than to pay a bribe to the ever-growing number of essential backers.

The book goes in detail on the issue of inclusive governance structures, and ways that are used to limit the power of the public to hold leaders accountable. It proves that the nuts and bolts of the democratic system we use matters, and this as well for governing a country as for a public company or even a club.
While in a democracy a Government theoretically needs the backing of more than half of the voters, in reality this is often much less. The writer explores how the leader can find innovative ways to limit the number of people with actual power in different systems. In a multiparty first past the post-system a group can grab power with as little as 10 % of the total population backing them, just by gaming the system.

All this means that we need a radical emancipation strategy to deliver on development, where expanding the essential coalition in a country is seen as the main goal of interventions. Delivering services in non-democratic countries will not lead to a long-term development agenda; widening the coalition to include the middle class and the poor does. If some services must be delivered, theoretically the cash on delivery system should work.

To take home
Power and incentives matter. In the real world, they might matter more than the moral high ground. However, just like the rational choice is too simple to explain all economics, rational dictators are probably too simple to explain power. It is a start, and it would help us to be less gullible.
This is why I propose to add to each intervention a Power Impact Assessment (PIA), just like an environmental impact assessment.

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