Evaluating the Failed States Index and U.S. Africa Policy

This post first appeared on Africa in Transition.

The Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy have released their 2012 Failed States Index. Fourteen of the twenty states listed as “critical” are found in sub-Saharan Africa. Among the highest scores (bad) are Somalia, DRC, Chad, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.

How predictive is the index? Well, it depends on how you define state failure. If you mean coup, clearly it’s not 100 percent accurate. Mali ranked number 79, which means that it is in danger, but not critical. And yet the country has been struck by interrelated crises—the coup in Bamako, Azawad’s secession and occupation, Tuareg mercenaries, jihadist camps—that fulfill most definitions of state failure. (Jay Ulfelder argues it is indeed possible to assess the likelihood of a coup, which could be considered one definition for state failure.)

But if you identify state failure not as a single incident but as a continuum of insecurity, alienation, and poverty, the Failed States Index provides a useful model.

The United States, therefore, might benefit by testing its foreign policy against the index’s findings, particularly for any “cognitive dissonance” between the USG’s image of a country that underpins that policy and the reality on the ground.

For example, such cognitive dissonance may be present when it comes to Nigeria, although this may be changing. The Failed States Index puts Nigeria in critical condition since the country struggles with Boko Haram in the North, MEND in the South, and sectarian violence in the middle belt—while Abuja’s finances dwindle. Yet, at least publicly, our stance does not always reflect this reality. (It does reflect Nigeria’s strategic importance to the United States, including oil.)

However, this dissonance becomes more troubling when you consider who is responsible for state failure. Daron Acemoblu and James Robinson write “these states collapse because they are ruled by what we call ‘extractive’ economic institutions, which destroy incentives, discourage innovation, and sap the talent of their citizens by creating a tilted playing field and robbing them of opportunities. These institutions are not in place by mistake but on purpose. They’re there for the benefit of elites who gain much from the extraction …at the expense of society.”

That sounds like what Nigerian critics say about their own elites. It is to be hoped that U.S. policymakers make use of sources such as the Failed States Index as they shape the bilateral relationship.

U.S. Policy: Reconciling Democracy Promotion and Counterterrorism

This post first appeared on Africa in Transition.

Yesterday, the White House released its new Africa policy. The top two pillars—support for democracy and economic growth—remain the same from previous policy statements. The new policy reorganizes conflict prevention, presidential initiatives, and transnational issues to reflect increasing concerns over terrorism on the continent.

Nevertheless, recent comments by Africom’s commander, General Carter Ham, that “countering the threats posed by al-Qaeda affiliates in east and northwest Africa remains my number one priority,” underscores how U.S. foreign policy establishment priorities can occasionally be at odds.

For example, counterterrorism efforts, unfortunately, do not always complement democracy promotion. Take Mali. Alleged international terrorist training camps in that country have most certainly caught the attention of the American counterterrorism establishment. And yet, who will it partner with after the March 22 coup and Azawad’s de facto independence (or as one interlocutor put it, “Azawad’s occupation”)? Should we collaborate with the military government, and how can we support the reestablishment of democracy?

Nigeria is another difficult case. Readers of this blog will know that there are questions about the legitimacy of Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan administration and its heavy-handed response to Boko Haram in the North. (Not to mention what Boko Haram actually is.)

Do we partner with the Nigerian government at the risk of attracting the ire of the hitherto domestically focused Boko Haram?

These are tough questions. And favoring one approach can easily undermine another. Think about constructive engagement with South Africa’s apartheid government—a policy that has not been forgotten in that country—but was particularly problematic given our own dark history of segregation.

The answer, I believe, lies in a principled approach. As Americans, we value democracy, human rights, and the rule of law above all else. U.S. foreign policy should reflect that.

Malawi: Justice versus Impunity and the African Union

This post first appeared on Africa in Transition.

Malawi has decided not to host July’s African Union (AU) summit because of demands that Sudan’s al-Bashir be permitted to attend. It’s a heroic effort toward ending impunity on the continent.

Despite explicit statements that Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, was concerned about offending international donors, her position in support of the ICC’s arrest warrant for al-Bashir is principled. Malawi is a signatory to the Rome statute and intends to fulfill its obligations.

Of course, when your country’s budget is dependent on aid (40 percent before donors cut off support last year), international opinion is a real concern. But as Peter Fabricius writes, “(Banda) probably intended to mollify Malawians, who are very annoyed at losing the summit and the business opportunities that would have gone with it.”

As any Africa watcher knows, one of the biggest holds on sub-Saharan economic and political development is impunity. So any champion, particularly one in a position to benefit from impunity, should be supported accordingly.

The AU does face a conundrum though, which can easily be lost on ICC supporters. As Simon Allison writes, due to AU’s own internal governance, all heads of state must be invited.

But Malawi, rightly, has chosen to value its commitments to justice over AU rules, even if it makes her unpopular in Africa. “By taking the opposite view, Banda – a relatively young, female leader in a group of old, grumpy men – is openly defying the African consensus, something sure to make her unpopular amongst her counterparts,” notes Allison.

While it will certainly lead to some grumbling, I doubt Malawi’s decision will do any serious long-term diplomatic damage. And, in turn, perhaps other African countries will follow suit to help bring al-Bashir before the ICC.

Why NOT to Designate Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization

This post was coauthored with John Campbell.

A group of Nigeria watchers, including myself, has sent the secretary of state a letter urging that northeastern Nigeria’s “Boko Haram” not be given a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation.

Boko Haram is different from other FTOs, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, or the Tamil Tigers, which have an organizational structure and a unified goal. Boko Haram is a highly diffuse movement with little, if any, central organization. In fact, the name “Boko Haram” is a label applied only by the Nigerian government, press, and security services, usually to describe the violence occurring (daily) in the north of the country. Most watchers agree that this violence is perpetrated by a myriad of actors, including former followers of the murdered preacher Mohammed Yusuf as well as criminal and other elements.

The uniting feature of Boko Haram is its focus on Nigeria. Its rhetoric does not include international jihadist themes. With the isolated exception of the UN headquarters bombing in Abuja, which is viewed in Nigeria as a collaborator with the Nigerian government, its targets have all been Nigerian, usually police, military, places of worship, and drinking establishments. Notably, most of Boko Haram’s victims have been Muslim.

An FTO designation potentially discourages political solutions, which are needed most. Given the current animosity between the government and the north, third party intermediaries—such as Nigerian or international NGOS—are likely to be necessary. An FTO designation would inhibit their involvement.

The financial implications of designations could also impact on foreign remittances, which accounted for almost $10 billion in foreign exchange in 2009. In the words of our recently published letter, “thousands of Nigerian-Americans would face fear of prosecution for sending money home and, as a result, many transactions would be at best delayed or, worse, ended, compounding the suffering of their Nigerian families.”

Conversely, it may encourage the Nigerian government’s current, unsuccessful security-centric approach, which has included the arbitrary arrest and occasional killing of Nigerians, and progressively alienated the northern population.

FTO designation could also have the perverse consequences of enhancing the prestige of Boko Haram and promoting its consolidation. For example, it could lead to, in the minds of northern Nigerians, a closer association between Washington and Abuja, making the United States a legitimate target. It could also increase the incentives for globally focused terrorist groups to seek deeper linkages with groups in the North.

ICT, Africa, and the 90/10 Rule

This post first appeared on Africa in Transition.

Last week, SAIS hosted a conference on information and communication technology (ICT) and political participation in Africa. Participants explored the potential of ICT to improve governance in Africa by promoting dissent, organizing opposition, enabling large groups to express shared concerns, and reducing communication transaction costs; as well as improving government effectiveness by streamlining administrative functions (bureaucratic listservs or mobile courts for example), opening channels of communication with constituents, and improving service delivery.

Speakers also presented challenges, expanding the “digital divide” between those who have access to technology and those who don’t, which takes many forms: rural/urban, male/female, old/young, or working within difficult political contexts.   One theme came through in particular: “ICT-enabled, not driven.” Pretty obvious, right?

Turns out it’s not.

As speakers as well as audience questions attested to, it is easy to get caught up in the ICT component of a project and allow it to overshadow the desired outcomes. The existence of a deployment becomes the measure of success.

One speaker brought up the oft-cited Ushahidi crisis mapping initiative during Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010 to crowdsource information for “disaster-affected populations.” They were able to roll out and promote an SMS short code that Haitians affected by the earthquake could text to report problems in their vicinity, yielding a large amount of data plotted on a map.

A major challenge Ushahidi Haiti organizers encountered, however, was the difficulty international responders had integrating this crowdsourced information into their own operating procedures so they could actually use it.

This isn’t all that surprising. It’s tough to get large organizations to change the way they operate. And the Ushahidi project was reportedly set up within two hours of the earthquake, seriously limiting the available preplanning stage.

The impact of citizen monitoring using mobile phones and crisis mapping platforms in the 2011 Nigerian elections, which I have a written about previously, was also limited, in a different sense. While electoral failures were recorded and reported, weak institutions and/or lack of political will has, so far, undermined the judiciary’s ability to prosecute electoral malfeasance. Another speaker echoed this point, that after the elections, there was no one to hold accountable.

So how do we ensure these tools are being used to their full potential?

The rule of thumb, espoused by more than one presenter, was the 90/10 rule: 90 percent on planning and 10 percent on the technology. Excellent advice and an important guiding principle to ensure that thought is first put into the desired outcome—helping first responders do their jobs better, making governance more transparent, reducing information transaction costs—and then figuring out how ICT tools can help achieve those outcomes.

(And finally, if your desired outcome happens to be to educate about ICT projects on the African continent, then I think the Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative and Hubs in Africa have a done a good job. I found this interactive break down of the Nigerian budget particularly useful.)

Human Rights Watch Condemns Mali Rebel Atrocities

This post was coauthored with John Campbell.

Further to my post yesterday of continued military control of Mali’s south, Human Rights Watch has released a troubling report on atrocities committed by Tuareg rebels in northern Mali. The catalogue is grim: rape, use of child soldiers, pillaging, summary executions, and amputations. The abuses appear to be centered on Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal.

The report is based, inter alia, on interviews of over one hundred victims, religious authorities, medical practitioners, traditional leaders, and other credible witnesses.

Complicating any response is the number of independent, although loosely allied, players implicated in these abuses: the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Islamist Ansar Dine, an additional unnamed local ethnic Arab militia, and other unidentified armed groups as well as opportunistic locals and prisoners recently sprung from a local jail.

And we cannot forget the region’s simmering food insecurity, which is likely to have a disproportionate impact on the estimated 284,000 refugees and internally displaced people uprooted by the conflict.

The Human Rights Watch report presents a horrific picture of conditions in northern Mali. As is characteristic of its reports, this one is dispassionate, clear, and credible. It is a wake up call to the international community about what is happening in a remote part of Africa.

Kony 2012 “Cover the Night” a Flop?

Update: I was recently interviewed on NPR’s “On the Media.” You can listen here.

When Invisible Children released its call to “make Kony famous” on April 20, Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker about the inadequacy of social media to affect social change came immediately to mind. The Kony 2012 video, with its eighty million plus YouTube views, could easily be seen as a litmus test for his hypothesis: can online networks translate into offline action?

If we are to believe press reports about Friday’s “Cover the Night” event, I can only imagine that Gladwell is feeling at least a little vindicated.

The 80 million YouTube viewers didn’t turn out to plaster their cities with images of Joseph Kony. Nor did many who RSVPed via Facebook to local events.

So yes, from that perspective, it was a failure. Characterizations of “slacktivism” are apt.

But did we realistically expect that our cities would be inundated with protestors demanding Kony’s arrest, that Times Square would be blanketed with images of the warlord, or even worse, that well-meaning but ill-informed young people would start trouncing off to Uganda in search of Joseph Kony (not that anyone suggested the latter)?

Despite the no shows, I would like to offer an alternative perspective–that the interest in, and debate about Africa that it inspired, even if just for a handful of young people, is a success in itself.

In my (limited) experience, Africa does not inspire the masses of Americans. The “dark continent” remains dark for most. As a result, I spend a lot of time trying to get people to listen.

The Kony video was remarkably successful at this. For fifteen minutes, people were talking about Africa. That’s not bad considering how hard it is to get the continent on anybody’s agenda.

And a few people, many of whom were not previously interested, did indeed show up for events or put up posters (these notwithstanding). So, in this case, I’m not sure we need people to go out and “do” something. Instead, we should hope that they have been inspired to go beyond Joseph Kony to discover Africa in its diversity and energy, and perhaps, eventually choose Africa as their course of study or vocation.

IPaidABribe in India and Kenya

My attention was recently called to a neat online anti-corruption tool–Ipaidabribe.com (h/t Debbie McCoy). As the name implies, the original founders set up a crowdsourcing website to report and track corruption in India.

It is probably too soon to judge whether the site has had an impact on corruption (an oft cited success is an invitation to the founders from the Indian transport commissioner to brief her staff on corruption in the transportation department).

However, despite the difficulties of actually measuring corruption due to its illicit nature, Ipaidabride has successfully gathered a wealth of data, including fairly concrete numbers of how much money is going towards bribes. Most striking is that the police demand bribes almost three to one over other public agencies.

What does this have to do with Africa? A group in Kenya has also set up an Ipaidabride.or.ke website. It has received far fewer reports than its Indian predecessor, although it was only established just over a year ago. Nevertheless, of the 252 reports of paid bribes, 56 percent went to the police. This figure corroborates a Transparency International study from 2009 that asserts that the Kenyan police is not only the most corrupt agency in Kenya, but also in East Africa.

I really hope this catches on, in Kenya as well as other parts of continent. The challenge will not only be getting the word out that this resource exists but showing people that reporting their experiences is worth the time. This means addressing a culture of impunity by holding perpetrators accountable. Without it, people likely will become more apathetic, akin to recent findings that knowledge of a politician’s corruption leads voters to withdraw from participating. Or even worse, they will lash out, as has been the case in Nigeria.

That the police, supposedly there to “protect and serve,” are so deeply involved, in both India and Kenya (not to mention Nigeria), highlights the challenges of overcoming such impunity.

Corruption’s Impact on Voting in Nigeria and Mexico

This first appeared on Africa in Transition and the Future Forum.

John Campbell has regularly made the point that from 1999 to 2007  increasingly bad elections led Nigerians to withdraw from the political process. Despite official proclamations, the 2007 elections were thought to have had an extremely low turnout.

A recent paper (PDF) by the National Bureau of Economic Research (h/t to Chris Blattman), “Looking Beyond the Incumbent: The Effects of Exposing Corruption on Electoral Outcomes,” provides what could be some empirical evidence from their randomized experiment in Mexico to support this observation.

To conduct their experiment, researchers deployed varying levels of information on candidates’ corruption to different groups of voters in municipal elections in Mexico–and then measured voter behavior. Specifically, the researchers were interested in whether knowing more about corruption would cause voters to cast their ballot for the opposition candidate or not to vote at all. They found that “exposing rampant corruption leads to incumbents’ vote loses, but it also leads to a decrease in electoral turnout, and a decrease in challengers’ votes… Thus, under some circumstances, information about corruption disengages voters from the political process.”

Underlying their findings is the idea that “flows of such information about corruption are necessary but not sufficient to improve the governance and responsiveness because voters may respond to information by withdrawing from the political process rather than engaging to demand accountability.”

While clearly Mexico and Nigeria have distinct political, economic, and social contexts, I think the authors’ findings fit the pattern in Nigeria. The Giant of Africa’s well-known culture of impunity, coupled with an increasingly disenchanted (and even alientated) electorate, culminated in what came to be known as Nigeria’s 2007 “election-like” event. (It would be interesting to replicate their experiment in Nigeria. Among other difficulties, we don’t have much information on how much money local government areas receive or spend, which researchers did have through Mexico’s Federal Auditor’s Office.)

While Nigeria’s 2011’s electoral turnouts were considered better (and in some cases, too high to be credible), this can be at least partially explained by a newfound credibility bestowed by Attahiru Jega’s INEC leadership as well as the end of “zoning,” (power alternation between North and South) and overt appeals to ethnic and religious identity.

Read the paper here (PDF).

New Figures on Facebook and Twitter in Africa

This piece is coauthored with Melissa Bukuru. It first appeared on Africa in Transition and the Future Forum.

Like mobile statistics (which Asch wrote about yesterday), information on social media use can also be thin. A communications firm, Portland, has set out to address this deficit and measure just how prevalent Twitter and how it is being used across Africa. They analyzed about 11.5 million geolocated tweets across the continent (including North Africa).

Unsurprisingly, South Africa dominated the African Twitter landscape with over five million geo-located tweets (not users) in a three month period. Nigeria came in third, with just over 1.6 million tweets in the same period, putting it behind South Africa and Kenya.

While the 140-character missives have been lauded for their role in building social movements, in Kenya, tweets are being used for a smaller but also important impact. Francis Kariuki (@chiefkariuki), the administrative chief of a Western village in Kenya uses the medium to warn the area’s residents about crime and other happenings in the area. The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that the tech-savvy chief once tweeted about a robbery in progress at 4am, and “within minutes residents in this village of stone houses gathered outside the home, and the thugs fled.”

Chief Kariuki also uses Twitter for more optimistic purposes by tweeting the residents inspirational quotes (“We’ve been destined to live in victory, destined to overcome, destined to leave a mark on this generation”) or encouragement to get involved in government proceedings (“Our MP is coming today at 2:00pm to issue cheques to some CDF projecst [sic] at DO office Gathioro. U R WELCOMED [sic]“).

So, not really the stuff of revolutions, but still, Erik Hersman, founder of the popular Ushahidi, a non-profit software company based in Kenya (which our own Nigeria Security Tracker uses) concluded from Kariuki’s tweeting that “if a chief in upcountry Kenya is able to use and have an impact with his constituents by using tools like Twitter, it’s not too long before we see a massive movement in the country with these types of social media.”

That said, lacking from Portland’s analysis is the number of twitter accounts on the continent—a number that we were unable to find as Twitter is famously private about its user data. (If anyone has any good estimates, please send them our way.) We do know that many users surveyed in the study said that at least half of the accounts they follow are based in Africa. This might plant the grains for what Hersman is alluding to.

Facebook statistics, on the other hand, are more abundant. The continent boasts over 38 million users, but North Africa accounts for more than fifty percent of those users. And Egypt is by far the dominant user with almost ten million users.

Add Nigeria’s four million users and South Africa’s five million users with North Africa’s usership, and you can account for 80 percent of all Facebook accounts on the Africa continent. (North Africa plus Nigeria and South Africa account for about 37 percent of the continent’s billion plus population.)

If we look at per capita, Tunisia tops the entire continent with 30 percent, followed by Egypt with about 12.5 percent, and South Africa at about 10 percent. While Nigerians compromise the greatest absolute number of Facebook users in sub-Saharan Africa, its gigantic population means that only about 2.5 percent of Nigerians are using it.

Nevertheless, as these tools become more entrenched, as access to mobile phones and internet improves, and Africans become more aware of their potential, we think we will continue to see continued rapid adoption across the continent.