Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Complex insights

I know a professor of comparative politics who thinks that this sub-discipline of political science is too complex for an AP course and too difficult for high school students.

This article probably presents a case study to support his opinions — especially if you're teaching the AP course in one semester.

Carl LeVan and giraffe
Even if you don't teach about "veto players" (it would seem to offer insights into the politics of several of the AP6), there are some good ideas here and some good information.

Kim Yi Dionne, who teaches governemnt at Smith College interviews author Carl LeVan about his new book.

What are the drivers of Nigeria’s ‘ups and downs’?
Why are some African governments better at enacting polices that benefit the country as a whole while others engage in pork barrel politics that only benefit specific communities or interests?

That’s the main question driving Carl LeVan in his new book, Dictators and Democracy in African Development: The Political Economy of Good Governance in Nigeria. Most comparative studies of Africa blame poor government performance on ethnic diversity, foreign debt, authoritarianism or resource-dependent economies. Carl’s answer is different…

KYD: Your book closely examines trends in Nigerian policy, arguing that good government performance depends on how political power is distributed… How well does Nigeria represent the rest of the continent?

CL: The challenges to good governance in Nigeria are in many ways characteristic of the complexities in other African countries. It’s a country where colonial rule created regional disparities and artificially enhanced the power of certain ethnic groups (in Nigeria, the Hausa-Fulani). It has a dark history of military rule and coups, and its post-independence economic development has been full of promises betrayed by elites. It is also incredibly diverse…

What makes Nigeria especially challenging to study is that so many of these complexities come together all at once in one place…

KYD: Your book’s argument draws on a theory of “veto players,” a term coined by political scientist George Tsebelis… How can veto players theory transform the study of African governance?

CL: There’s an empirical problem and a conceptual problem… I think that veto players can help us understand some of the structures underlying such regimes…

KYD: You find that an increase in the number of veto players impedes “the delivery of national collective goods…

CL: Ethnicity is obviously still an important part of African politics. But I started my research tracing my dependent variable (outcomes such as court performance, fiscal discipline and classroom size) over time. I then wondered: How can there be so much variation in public policy performance since the 1960s, if the number of ethnic groups is basically the same? That’s the kind of question generated by a single-country study…

One thing that has held Nigeria together… is that any sectional attempt to dominate politics doesn’t last — it just faces too much pressure from other segments of society. Some of this pressure is from ethnic groups and traditional organizations, which are still largely geographically concentrated in their respective “home” regions. But no single group is large enough to dominate the others, leading to coalition building across regions…

KYD: Just a couple of weeks ago, we featured Branch and Mampilly’s book, Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change. Their book and that post suggest a great deal of political power is also held in the hands of ordinary people, even if popular protests only slowly or incompletely deliver political change. Your focus on veto players — actors who can block or facilitate policy change — almost by definition focuses on political elites. What does that mean for popular protests aimed at initiating political change?

CL: Scholars who use veto players typically focus on formal institutions, in part because most such studies seek to explain patterns across different countries…

I’m trying to push that theoretical discussion by describing conditions when we can juxtapose such broad-based social forces with, say, a particular faction of the military. And that’s precisely what I think happened in the early 1990s, and again right after Nigeria’s transition in 1999. So I take institutionalist tools of political science…

KYD: In Nigeria’s election earlier this year, former head of state Muhammadu Buhari was elected president. Granted, it’s still early. But do you have predictions for the coming years in terms of whether we should expect the Nigerian government to pursue public policies for the benefit of the country as a whole?

CL: Buhari’s presidential campaign capitalized on two frustrations: escalating violence by Islamic insurgents based in the northeast, and widespread corruption that has prevented benefits of recent economic expansion from trickling down. Then within days after being sworn in, his transition team reported that the country is $60 billion dollars in debt, and the governors asked for a huge financial bailout. It immediately reminded me of the way I discuss Buhari’s first weeks in office in 1984 in my book, when he said his predecessors had failed to “cultivate financial discipline” and relied too much on external borrowing. He refused to bail out the states then, and it looks like he’ll do the same now.

Now of course, he faces electoral accountability — perhaps the strongest since independence, given that the 2015 elections went pretty well. But it’s going to be difficult to reduce corruption and deliver the public goods demanded by voters…

Fiscal discipline is a priority for Buhari, and this is difficult under any regime. But Nigeria’s problem isn’t simply spending — it’s spending on budgetary priorities that do not reflect citizen demands and that are not sustainable in the long term…

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