Week 10: Thinking Politically, Working Politically, Learning Politically


The Primacy of Politics

This was the last presentation of the course and it definitely felt as though it was a nice summary of what I felt to be one of the most useful courses I have so far taken.  Although half the class involved group discussions surrounding Brexit, its impact on students in the UK, and thinking politically about how to address concerns, the first half involved a presentation by David Hudson on learning to think and work politically.  I found this to be extremely useful because it outlines a more constructive way of working in international development.  Decisions need to take politics into account, as stakeholders, interest groups, and individuals all hold biases, interests, and views at heart.  In essence, the presentation strongly linked politics to getting things done.

David Hudson, having written a DLP paper with Adrian Leftwich, whose works I have read quite frequently, was obviously well-versed in TWP (Thinking and Working Politically).  They co-authored From Political Economy to Political Analysis (2014), a very useful paper on understanding how “politics shapes and frames developmental processes.” The key takeaway here is that politics absolutely matters in the field of international development.  In order to get things done, one needs to analyze the stakeholders and the interests and intentions of all involved and be able to work with that in mind.  One of the first books I briefly read authored by Adrian Leftwich was States of Development: On the Primacy of Politics in Development (2000). Although its main intention was to present the importance of the primacy of politics in development, the book also countered the insistence that democracy is an absolutely necessary precondition of development.  The book argues that politics plays a larger role in development than the technocratic notion of democracy as a necessary prerequisite for development.  Adrian Leftwich is able to counter the nation that international development is an ideological, technical, and simplistic orthodoxy and is instead a developing field that should recognize that practitioners needs to be politically aware in their work.

One of the main questions brought up during the presentation was about learning politics: can thinking politically be taught to an individual or organisation, or does one have to have an innate ability to do so.  The key is to present the concept of working politically as a necessary skill and to persuade professional to use it in their day-to-day dealings and experiences.  It might be true that not everyone can be political in their thought processes, but I believe that it can be introduced on an organizational level.

From Politial Economy to Political Analysis

Week 6/8: Political Settlements: Weak states, fractured nations


This week’s presentation and discussion was on political settlements and involved another useful DLP paper on the politics of inclusion by Alina Rocha Menocal titled Political settlements and the politics of inclusion (2015).  Another paper I had already read was Statebuilding without Nation-building? Legitimacy, State Failure and the Limits of the Institutionalist Approach (2009) by Nicolas Lemay-Hebert.  I had read it before for my Governance and Statebuilding course in the previous term.  The key discussion that I found most interesting, in both the presentation and the literature was on how to prevent nations from failing.  As my last blog post mentions, South Sudan is an interesting example of a nation that had high hopes falling into chaos due to failed political settlements. Interest from donors exists due to their role in developing nations and their interest in seeing stability in chaos-prone states.  A failed state, as in Somalia’s case, can affect surrounding nations and nations further abroad, directly and indirectly.  For example, Somalia’s Al-Shabaab has operating within Kenya’s borders, destabilizing majority Somali areas of Kenya.  Its radical members have also attacked Kampala in Uganda due to its contributions to the AU stability force in Mogadishu.

Going back to Menocal’s paper, I noticed similarities between it and Lemay-Hebert’s paper on state failure and nation-building vs statebuilding.  An important concept that I learned previously was the nationbuilding approach as a necessary precursor to successful statebuilding.  A common identity, ethnicity, or tradition falls under nationbuilding.  Nations do not necessarily automatically lead to states, as in the case of some ethnic minorities in nations they do not feel that they belong in.  State fragility often exists because of alienation or the lack of common identity, ethnicity, etc.  That means, in my view, that a state is not always recognized as such by its own people because there was no common approach to nationbuilding.  These two papers brought together governance and statebuilding and political settlements (politics) into an interesting hybrid concept.  Both rely on one another.  Take a look at South Sudan again and it’ll make more sense.  Ultimately, I believe that a successful state is one where inclusion is priority.  That takes a massive effort on the part of a state’s subgroups, be they ethnic, social, cultural, or simply rent-seeking stakeholders.  This inclusion really depends on the nature of a state, as every state differs in many respects.  There is no broad methodology behind political settlements that can apply to every state.  As Lemay-Hebert mentions, there is no proper state, or state legitimacy, without functioning state-social relations, and Menocal only reinforces that with the inclusion of political settlements into the debate.  Exclusionary politics only leads to internal fractures in the state.

P.S. There should be no assumption that this is solely a symptom or issue that exists in developing states.  One only has to look so far as the Paris riots and at US race relations to see such relevant issues in Western ‘Weberian’ states.

Below is an excellent article on the European Union and how Europe might need to change the concept of nations vs states in order to succeed. I believe that the EU has been an exercise in separating the nation from the state and we have yet to see if it will continue to bear fruit.

The modern nation-state is and will likely remain the political space in which citizens recognize each other as equals – Carnegie Europe

Week 9: Post-Conflict Governance and Gender


Although this class in Development Politics involved a documentary on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, it brought up some important questions, not least did gender play a role in Liberia’s transition from civil war to democratic governance?  From background knowledge, I knew that women played a large part in ending Liberia’s civil war. They used various tactics, from protesting to gathering in markets to discuss events and ways to end the war. I do feel that these women’s groups played a large role in ending the war and did play a role in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s popularity and election, and it should not be forgotten. With her being the first female head of state in Africa, that alone shows how important gender actually is in this case.

What was even more interesting to me was the way in which the documentary was filmed.  For the first time I saw governance on a day-to-day level in a post-conflict developing nation, not from afar. The cameras followed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf around while she conducted her presidential duties.  What was also interesting is how her administration coped with few resources and a destroyed nation. She met one-on-one with important figures in society, including ex-militants. She also conveyed a kind of motherly nature in her dealings with people; she was able to maintain a clear but firm aura wherever she went. Ultimately the film showed me how difficult it is to meet broad expectations; although not too surprising, it was important to see how people expected so much within such little time. Uniquely, I cannot come up with a comparison to Liberia and its experiences. Previous blog posts have usually included some sort of comparison, but Liberia is unique in its experiences and current trajectory. Decades of civil war and instability eventually led to the empowerment of women, not only through their critical role in ending violence, but also in post-conflict reconciliation and governance.

Democratising Democracy: Feminist Perspectives (2005) by Cornwall and Goetz is useful in that it outlines the increasingly important role women play in politics. They not only play a larger role in electoral politics and government but also in broader civil society.  This relates to Liberia and its experiences in civil society development and post-conflict governance and the timing is interesting too; this paper was released in 2005, right during Liberia’s transition government; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would win the upcoming presidential election in a landslide.  The paper also goes on to say that democracy needs to be further democratized by opening up pathways for the inclusion of feminist politics.  We only have to wait and see if Liberia can continue its successful trajectory in gender-relations and politics, and civil society growth, especially considering that elections occur later this year and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is constitutionally barred from running for presidential office again.

Although I had not seen Iron Ladies of Liberia before, I had seen another documentary on Liberia’s civil war and the important role women played called Pray the Devil Back to Hell which can be seen here: Pray the Devil Back to Hell on Vimeo

Week 7: Reform Coalitions: Transition Governments


In this presentation, a general introduction to reform coalitions, rent-seeking, and politics of reform was introduced.  Transitional governments are often beholden to previous figures of power and can often be thrown off track by vested interests seeking rents. As such, processes for reform and transition are political in nature.  Different groups with differing vested interests and desires vie for influence in the processes of transition.  Understanding the key stakeholders in Myanmar’s transition is key to understanding the risks lying behind the process.  Having been a military regime since the coopted 1988 election, and having endured decades of one-party rule under a socialist (in name only) regime, Myanmar had not experienced democratic governance since decolonization.  With the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi and the gradual liberalization of the military regime, Myanmar faces an uncertain future.  If a successful transition is to happen, all need a say, including minorities who often face the military’s wrath.

An article that was read for introductory purposes prior to the presentation titled The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition was useful in that it laid out all important stakeholders in Myanmar’s transition to democratic rule.  The key to a successful transition is navigating the politics of it.  Alienating large segments of society is risky in that is can spark further instability. Empowering one group over the rest is risky in that their rent-seeking ability might monopolize their own greed and power.  Ultimately, reform coalitions need to compromise when it comes to reform processes and all sides should see some sort of benefit.  Although this presentation was a good introduction to reform processes, it has certainly piqued my interest.  Being in the Governance and Statebuilding pathway, I feel that it an important concept to research further, and admittedly I had little background knowledge on reform coalitions and transitional governance.

Interestingly, this presentation also got me thinking about other nations that are in transition.  South Sudan keeps coming to mind, with it being in the news almost daily due to its civil war, atrocities, and status as the world’s newest nation.  South Sudan looked like a bright spot in a dark Central Africa, but it has ultimately fallen prey to the typical patterns of greed and failed transitionary politics.  In 2011, when the nation gained its independence through referendum, the world was eager to present it as a model of successful governance and reform.  Setting up a state from scratch looked possible. Ultimately it was not only ethnic strife that put it on a trajectory towards civil war; it was ultimately greed behind two competing elites that causes the conflict we see today.  These elites ultimately hijacked South Sudan’s promising future and dashed hopes of successful coalition building and compromise while also stoking historic ethnic tensions that have existed for some time.

Here’s a useful article by Vox on South Sudan’s downfall: South Sudan’s Crisis Explained

Week 5: The endless debate: what defines corruption? A western-centric tale.


Dr. Pfeiffer’s lecture on pinning down corruption was a useful insight into both the DLP’s work and into how corruption must be looked at as moving beyond greed and self-interest.  Corruption in many ways can be equated to politics and the methodologies of it.  Literature and debate surrounding corruption, in the western ethnocentric view of it, has almost always focused on reforming government in order to restrict greed and self-interest from taking place, an almost unrealistic task in that day-to-day government functioning requires politics and maneuvering for it to function in the first place.  It can also be debated that in western society, corruption has simply taken another form, one where these day-to-day dealing have been legalized or legitimized in different ways.  Take lobbying for example.  In the United States it is perfectly legal to spend millions of dollars on lobbying firms in order to get your interests across.  It is also just as legal to spend billions on an election campaign with hardly any of it being traceable, and the current administration is only rolling back anti-corruption protections further.

Here’s a video on lobbying and the blurred lines between it and bribery:

This presentation further reinforced the concept that corruption should be perceived differently in this day and age.  Corruption should be seen as a symptom of a badly functioning system, and American democracy is arguably in a struggle to save itself from dysfunction and the consequences of ‘legalized corruption.’  I personally do believe that corruption is not necessarily a universal concept; corruption is defined through a society’s norms, and our western ideals should not necessarily be forced upon other societies with their own traditions and standards.  Arguably, certain societies function better with what we see as corruption in the western world, and things arguable get done just as efficiently in some.  Moving on from corruption as a relative concept, I will in principle support the basic concept of corruption being the abuse of public office for personal gain and that bribery is a major scourge.  There is a point where abusing your post in government or your position in power will harm others and will damage the ability for a government to properly govern.   It is impossible to say that corruption in politics can be wiped out; politics in its very essence is dealing and compromising through power and personal interests.

Major impediments to societal function, though, still remain and can be called corruption.  Ultimately, one needs to be flexible in what defined corruption, and certain practices are far more harmful than others.  As Dr. Pfeiffer’s presentation mentioned, measures of corruption are very shaky, in that perceptions are usually biased based on personal definitions of corruption and that corruption is only relative.  The presentation also mentioned that there is a rather universal belief that bribery is corruption, so even though it is generally relative across most countries, there are some things people agree upon.  My personal experience while travelling abroad have showed me that corruption is relative. I have been asked to pay bribes, yet always refused.  I encountered people who were far more open to paying them or even taking them.  But on the grand scale of things, a very rigid definition of corruption basically negates politics as a concept.

Transparency International’s main page on what defines corruption: What is Corruption?

Week 4: State legitimacy: can I rule through clean water?


A presentation on service delivery and state legitimacy in my Development Politics course was important in that it assisted in me building up my repertoire of knowledge about governance and statebuilding.  Having already taken the Governance and Statebuilding course, I had heard much emphasis on the theories of service delivery providing legitimacy to government.  Reflecting upon what I learned during this presentation, I admit that it bolstered my belief in legitimacy through the provision of services, including healthcare, education, clean water, sanitation, and other infrastructure.  I can point towards Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom as an interconnected example; humans know what they want, should have the freedom to know what they want for survival and day-to-day living, and if a government provides those necessities, from healthcare to security, people will enjoy further freedom to move onwards from simply surviving.  For example, the freedom to do business and earn an income requires a specific environment, one that is safe and a society that is sufficiently open.  True freedom of opportunity, according to Sen, requires that people no longer worry about the absolute basics of day-to-day survival.  How might a government earn legitimacy (the keyword here is ‘earn’ and not ‘demand’)?  I do believe one of the most effective ways is through the basic provision of services.  Otherwise, if the government does not lend itself to providing services, people will look elsewhere for necessary services, based on ability to afford them.  In Somalia, where the state has been virtually non-existent since 1991 (bar Somaliland or Puntland), people have turned to local traditional hierarchies for justice, international aid organizations for supplemental food and healthcare, and even more radicalized groups such as Al-Shabaab for income and basic services.

Many extremist groups are fully aware that they can legitimize their presence through service delivery; another such example is Hezbollah in areas of Lebanon, where people maintain a loyalty in exchange for services, a form of social contract.  I can also point to Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes, such as that of Nasser in Egypt, who maintained a sort of unofficial social contract with the population, in that they allow him to govern in a non-democratic manner in exchange for services and subsidies.  Modern Ethiopia, as briefly mentioned in one of my earlier posts, is another example of an authoritarian state that provides security, albeit lacking in human rights, in exchange for legitimacy.  To conclude, the presentation of service delivery in Sri Lanka further reinforced my belief that the provision of services is a basic precursor to the Weberian state that we know in much of the Global North, or alternatively a precursor to any sense of a legitimate state, be it democratic or not. One only has to look at how the LTTE maintained legitimacy in Sri Lanka’s northern regions for a few decades; services provided by the LTTE in this case undermined the right of the central state to rule in rebel areas, and that includes security. Unlike Ataturk’s quote in which he states that the right to rule and sovereignty are acquired through force, power, and violence, I believe that the right to rule is derived through a visible and generous state.

Week 2: Foreign intervention and the modern Congolese state

MONUC political cartoon

Having chosen the governance and statebuilding pathway of International Development and having always had an underlying interest in states, what defines them, and electoral systems, I found the presentation on ‘Engagement with Non-state Actors (NSA)’ in my Development Politics course to be quite enlightening; it also reinforced a lot of previous information I had gathered over the years from reading travel writing from various journalists and experts who had visited the DRC, ranging from Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz to Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through The World’s Most Dangerous Country by Tim Butcher, a well-regarded journalist. Other than reading various books on the country and its history, other background information came from watching Lumumba, a film on the nation’s first prime minister’s life and from reading various biographies and history books. Much of this background information also included detailed, but almost always out-of-date information on rebel groups that have operated in the country’s eastern regions from the First Congo War (1996-1997).  Although this is only a brief summary of the situation in the Eastern Congo and how much of the state is actually visible in that region, more substance about what defines a state can be found by reading Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty (2012) and Thomas Risse’s Governance Without a State?: Policies and Politics in Areas of Limited Statehood (2011).

The presentation on NSA’s included a quick look at what defined the state, especially in the Congo’s case.  With more than half a century of kleptocratic rule, much of the nation never received any semblance of social services, and those that did exist in the security sector were made up of corrupt officials, often placed in remote cities by the central government in Kinshasa.  In the Congo today, most people would openly admit that they simply do not trust government forces and police, as they are as corrupt and if not as brutal, as the various rebel groups operating in the country’s east. Beyond acknowledging that the security services can be considered to be both inept and unreliable, another key point is the involvement of surrounding nations in Congolese affairs. Beginning with the downfall of Mobutu, and not including earlier intervention in the 1960s, surrounding nations played major roles in both Congo wars, between 1996 and 2003. These interventions, many of which continued to be funded by the Rwandan government, both indirectly through rebel groups and directly through Rwandan military forces, continued to impact the strength of the Congolese state in eastern regions.

To conclude, it being quite apparent that the Congolese state is viewed on par with the various rebel groups, it can be surmised that interacting with NSA’s might be productive in that they play an important role in remote areas of the DRC.  In smaller communities, Mai-Mai self-defense groups operate with the claim that they provide security where the state and rebel groups do not operate. As with more organized rebel groups, they also collect taxes through roadblocks and forms of resource extraction; much of the funding behind rebel groups comes from mining.  I feel that it is apparent that donors and other outside actors might find it more productive to reinforce civil-society groups who are not connected to armed NSA’s and work through them to reach local populations in Eastern Congo.


Week 3: The nature of illiberal democracy – common trends in Africa


Although this presentation was not new to me – it had been a component of my Governance and Statebuilding course – it was certainly useful to hear again.  Parts of the presentation were buttressed further through class discussion, ranging from what defines liberal democracy vs. illiberal democracy, and how it differs from totalitarian states or non-democratic authoritarian state structures.  Although the focus was on Angola and its illiberal democracy, where civil liberties are restricted and human rights, in the Western sense of the word, are not prioritized components of rule, I want to compare it directly to Ethiopia and its experiences in building an illiberal democratic state. I re-read McFerson’s Governance Without a State?: Policies and Politics in Areas of Limited Statehood (2009) and realized that it also was similar to another book, titled A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa by Howard French, which I had read, about corruption in Angolan politics and the collusion of Western corporate interests with Angolan elites in transferring vast amounts of money out of the country. One can summarize this by looking at how the formerly Marxist regime gravitated out of centralized state control of the economy and gradually handed out lucrative resource contracts to current and former military generals.  In that sense, it can be said that Angola is an illiberal democracy with a façade maintained through unfree elections, where ultimate control over finances and business interests lie with a small elite that emerged from the military and from Angola’s decades of civil war.

Ethiopia also experience a surge of illiberal statebuilding in that it also emerged from a civil war where a Marxist regime was overthrown, only for it to be replaced by a new non-ideological elite seeking to concentrate wealth amongst themselves. Ethiopia and Angola both maintain facades of democratic governance in that they do not follow norms of Western liberal democracy, where civil protections are key to democratic rule and where governments are beholden to the people.  Instead, both nations hold unfree elections that are largely ceremonial in that the ruling party maintain an iron grip on control and everyday affairs of the state. The ruling parties in this case are one and the same with the state bodies of power; in Angola, the state oil monopoly is a purse for ruling party members and the small elite within.  To conclude, I believe that illiberal democracies in Africa provide a sense of stability to nations that were wracked by instability in the past and are better than the alternative; one only needs to look so far as the DRC or Central African Republic to see one alternative.  At the same time, I believe that illiberal democracy should still only be a stepping stone on the way to liberal democracy and governments responsive to their own citizens.  How that might happen is still a mystery and a topic for further debate. Just to note, that doesn’t mean I think other nations such as Kenya and Ghana, with more ingrained aspects of liberal democracy should revert to illiberal democracy once again.

For an excellent look into Angola’s past and its Marxist history, I recommend this documentary: https://itvs.org/films/cuba-an-african-odyssey


Thoughts and Facts on the U.S Mass Incarceration Crisis

I decided to do some spontaneous research on the incarceration crisis in the United States after reading about mental illness in the prison system while sitting at Starbucks (how cliché).  Below are some of my thoughts along with facts I picked up along the way from various sources.

If you have any questions about any of the sources I used please don’t hesitate to comment or contact me. The majority come from government sources and various news articles from credible sources, although credibility is simultaneously an individual and academic judgment.  I also found an excellent set of graphs, maps, and charts that illustrate the crisis through much needed visuals on VOX.com:

Mass incarceration in America, explained in 22 maps and charts – By German Lopez

I plan on expanding on the mental illness section of my post in the near future.

There are more jails than degree-granting colleges and universities. The majority of offenders currently in jail and out of jail are non-violent. Alabama allows the incarceration of debtors merely for failing to pay debts and fines owed to government. Other states also do. $80 billion is spent on the correctional system in the US, more than entire national budgets for what I would approximate to be a quarter of the world’s nations.

40% of the male prison population in the US is non-Hispanic African-American while they make up approximately 6.1% of the population when calculating for gender. This is all while statistics show a fall in crime over the past two decades. By age 23, 50% of African-American males and 38% of white males have been arrested at least once. In some rural counties, prisoner populations can account for 30%+ of the population.

In 16 southern states, the elderly prison population increased 150% between 1997 and 2007 and has generally increased since then as well. Most of these southern states spend around 10% of the corrections budget solely on housing and health-care for elderly prisoners; they cannot apply for Medicare or Medicaid. Overall, the average cost of incarceration for anyone, for a year, is $32,000 and in New York state that rises to $60,000 a year. New York City spends $168,000 a year per prisoner (Independent Budget Office).

Fees accumulated from before, during, and after incarceration have increased over the years. Courts are increasingly imposing costs on current inmates and released inmates simply to cover court expenses, jail expenses, expenses involved in the service of warrants, and police department expenses. This is a vicious cycle for inmates; the vast majority come from poverty or end up in poverty. And some wonder why recidivism rates are so high.

A 2010 study by the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that almost 70% of inmates released in 2005 were rearrested within three years of release. 77% were rearrested within five years. 50% had a parole violation that led to re-imprisonment within three years of release. Of those released under the age of 24 (at time of release), 85% were arrested again within five years. There is an apparent snowball effect when an increasing number of inmates were added to the prison system when not including imprisonment due to recidivism.

Another issue is that of the mentally ill. The percentage of inmates with mental illness has steadily increased since the 1990s, more than quadrupling between 1998 and 2008. Most inmates do not get close to enough mental health support from prison systems. According to Human Rights Watch, the increased use of solitary confinement only aggravates the issue. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, there are currently three times more seriously mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals in the United States. This is the criminalization of mental illness itself.



A quick introduction. Statement of purpose.

Just one big idea. One big idea, and we can change the world.

After a few failed starts in the blogosphere and after being inflicted with quite a severe case of writer’s block, I have finally decided to start a personal WordPress page with professional information and some of my thoughts and analyses about social justice and human rights, international development, travel, and general global affairs.

For some years I have wanted to begin something online, possibly a blog or a professional webpage, but struggled to come up with a valid website subject, so this time around I have decided to create an “about me” WordPress site with an integrated blog component.  Feel free to add opinions or constructive discussion through the comment sections on each post within the blog area (home page).  I welcome all walks of life, all opinions, all input, as long as things are kept constructive and polite.  It’s a darn simple concept.