book review – When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa, by Robert Bates

I wasn’t a big fan.  For a more positive perspective (from someone who knows much more about African political economy than I do), see Mr Blattman’s comments.  Disagreement is – as always – welcome.

My thoughts:

an interesting model with a hodgepodge of evidence

In this short book (174 pages of text; 139 if you skip the quantitative appendix), Bates argues that state failure stems from predation on the part of the central government. His model, to put it briefly (and inadequately), is that governments can either take revenues from the people (1) in the form of taxes while providing services (such as security) or (2) in the form of predation. As long as the benefits of the former outweigh the latter (for example, when a government is assured of staying in power for a long time), the government will maintain security. However, if the long run is less certain, the government may sacrifice steady long-term gains in favor of larger short-term gains from predation.

Bates starts with an extended, insightful exposition of this metaphor (Chapter Two). Then he characterizes the conditions that prevailed prior to collapse in many African countries in chapters three (political trends), four (bad economic policies), and five (tensions between groups in the countries). In Chapter Six he describes the state failures. The conclusion sums it up, and the appendix gives some statistical evidence (the rest of the evidence is anecdotal or – Bates’s preferred term – narrative).

Overall I found the book slow reading (despite its brevity) and not as coherent as I’d have liked. The basic model is useful but I often found it unclear in the succeeding chapters how the many pieces of narrative evidence fit into the model. The clearest example of this was in Chapter Five, where three models of subnational tensions were presented followed by several examples that did not clearly fit the models.

Further, the form of narrative evidence (lots of different examples from various countries) felt less effective to me than either a detailed case study of one example or systematic statistical evidence. (If I had pre-existing intimate familiarity with the national histories, this would have been less of an issue) The statistical annex provides the latter but deserved more space: some integration of statistical findings with narrative evidence might have worked better. (As it was, the statistical annex left me with a number of clarifying questions.) Bates argues that he distinguishes himself from other work in the area by deriving his hypothesis from a theory rather than highlighting empirical “findings” (p8-9).* And yet Bates – in his empirical appendix – reports atheoretical findings such as the increasing likelihood of disorder over time (despite controlling for changes that should drive the changing likelihood) – p171-173. Finally, Bates doesn’t devote any time to states that didn’t experience state failure and why or how they differed, nor to rival theories and how they fare in light of the national narratives.

As a novice considering whether to read a book like this, the ideal would be to read at least two reviews: one from an expert (who can opine as to how this fits – or doesn’t – with existing knowledge) and one from a novice (who can tell how this may read to another novice). I fall in the latter category. In the former, Chris Blattman (an economics professor in Yale’s political science department) blogged, “It’s short, it’s readable, and it’s intelligent. Normally if I get just two of the three, I’m thrilled” [1]. A political scientist I know called it an “excellent primer.” And Nicholas Van De Walle (author of the highly esteemed African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, 1979-1999) wrote a brief review for Foreign Affairs, summarizing and concluding that “Bates paints in broad brushes and ignores the states in the region, such as Botswana, Cape Verde, and Mauritius, that have not followed this script but actually enjoyed stability, economic growth, and reasonably democratic politics” [2].

Perhaps this volume is most readable to the already initiated. But it is short and imparts a significant amount of valuable information; I recommend Chapters 2 and 6.

[1] Chris Blattman’s blog [easily searchable on-line], “When things fell apart,” 19 July 2008.

[2] Nicholas Van De Walle, “Africa,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008.

* I assume by this he means an explicit, chapter-long theory. Other work I’ve read in this area, by Collier or by Miguel, clearly has a theoretical basis even if not as formally stated as Bates’s.

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2 thoughts on “book review – When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa, by Robert Bates”

  1. […] I went into Robert Bates’ recent book When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa with high expectations.  His 1982 work Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies remains one of the best pieces of African political analysis I’ve ever read, displaying an admirable willingness to take African domestic politics seriously, and thereby producing a insightful overview at the process of agricultural policy-making.  (I must confess here that I thought this sounded like a resoundingly dull topic until I read the book, at which point I realized that Bates had captured many of the fundamental dynamics of African politics in the post-colonial era.)  At any rate, I fully expected the same insight from When Things Fell Apart – and was disappointed to put it down feeling like I had learned little of value.  The book is a decent primer on African politics in the 1980s and 1990s for the reader who’s unfamiliar with the topic, but it doesn’t even define “state failure” clearly, let alone provide an adequate metric for determining why some African states failed and others didn’t.  One could be excused for coming away with the conclusion that the entire continent imploded in the 1990s, which to me is suggestive of some lazy writing.  Such an important topic deserves a more clearly-written book (as other reviewers seem to agree). […]

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