Herbst’s States & Power in Africa – the heavily abridged version for the concentration-challenged

Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa has been recommended to me by various sources, not least of which is Chris Blattman’s recommended reading in Africa list.  But while everyone tells me it’s excellent, I haven’t made much progress.  It’s too dense for my pleasure reading (hello Wizard of the Crow, which I’m still reading), and too off the topics of my own research to read for work.

So today I was pleased (more than pleased: almost giddy) to encounter Harvard professor James Robinson’s ten-page review of Herbst from the Journal of Economic Literature.  Better yet, this ten-page review has a two-page summary of the book in the middle (as well as some interesting analysis).  If you’re not sure you want to invest in Herbst (or if you’re just lazy like me), I highly recommend the Robinson article.  I reproduce an abridged and highlighted version of the two-page summary here:

The starting point of Herbst’s analysis is that Africa is plagued by “state failure.” A state is meant to provide certain public goods in society, such as law and order, defense, contract enforcement,
and infrastructure. Yet in Africa most states provide very few of these.  They are unable to exercise control over much of their territory; they do not provide order or public goods. The literature talks dramatically about state “failure,” even “collapse.” What then is different about African states that leads them to diverge so radically from our ideal?

Nation states are characterized not just by borders and citizens with national identities, but also by bureaucracies, fiscal systems, and representative institutions such as parliaments. … The central idea of this literature is that the high population density of Europe made land relatively scarce and valuable to control, particularly from the late Middle Ages onward. This and technological change in the methods of warfare (e.g., more sophisticated battle tactics and firearms) drew states into continual conflict. But warfare is costly, and early modern states required resources to attack and defend. Kings were therefore in a continual battle with lords and commoners over taxes.  To get money for wars, kings had to build bureaucracies, gather information, and map their territory and people.  They also had to make concessions- such as creating regular parliaments where citizens could have a voice. An alternative to concessions was to crush domestic opponents who resisted the demands of kings. All these things were necessary to survive.  If a state did not become “stronger,” then typically it became extinct.

This process created the modern system of nation states with their familiar institutional infrastructures that consolidated in Europe in the nineteenth century.

Africa is different because the structural conditions that led to the path of
state formation and institution building in Europe were absent in Africa. Unlike
in Europe, land was and is not scarce in Africa. Rather, labor was scarce. Thus
in the precolonial period, states did not fight over land, but rather people.
explains why property rights in people (slavery) are well defined, but those in land were not (to this day most land in Africa is held communally). This meant that precolonial states had vague borders and were often very “weak.” Without the constant necessity of defending
a well-defined territory, states did not need to invest in bureaucracies, censuses
of their populations, tax collectors, or permanent militaries.
Herbst also argues interestingly that this explains the absence of precolonial mapping in Africa. This absence of external threats coupled with low population densities persisted.  During the colonial
period there was little fighting over borders between the colonial powers. The
conference of Berlin in 1885 largely determined which European power would
have which bit of Africa. This meant that, like the precolonial polities, European
colonial powers had little incentive to develop state institutions. Instead
they focused on commercial exploitation and outright plunder of the
mineral and natural wealth. The exceptions to this are the settler-colonies of
South Africa, Rhodesia, and to a lesser extent Kenya. Following independence,
the situation could have changed but did not, because the international state
system and the United Nations decided to enforce the colonial boundaries that
had largely determined the form that the new nations took. This trend was reinforced
by Cold-War politics. Thus African states were still able to survive
without having to engage in the type of institution building that occurred historically
in Europe. When the borders were threatened, such as when Libya invaded Chad, they could rely on the United Nations or European powers to send troops to the rescue.

Herbst argues that the lack of development of African state institutions helps explain many aspects of modern Africa. Since states never had to fight to survive they never had to build effective fiscal institutions. Therefore they have no tax bases and instead have to engage in highly distortionary methods of raising taxes (such as taxing trade) or redistributing income (for example via employment in parastatals). Since states never had to fight to survive, rulers never had to consolidate their rule and
crush domestic opposition; hence the incidence of warlordism so evident in countries such as Angola, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.  States never had to make political concessions to their citizens, hence the lack of functioning domestic political institutions such as parliaments
and the completely unconsolidated nature of democracy in Africa. Moreover, the lack of these institutions can help explain the extent of venality and state corruption in Africa since these institutions provide key checks on such abuses. 

Finally, this set of institutions has been further encouraged in the last fifty years by foreign aid and development assistance. These transfers give states valuable resources that allow them to stay in power without having to develop indigenous state institutions to
raise taxes. Thus the incapacity of African states was reinforced not just by Cold-War politics but also by less cynical attempts to help.


1 thought on “Herbst’s States & Power in Africa – the heavily abridged version for the concentration-challenged”

  1. Thank you so much for this! I’ve also had this book recommended to me but I, unfortunately, can’t seem to find the time to read it. So glad to find this site!

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