Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What I learned about fragility

While in Bangui a couple of months ago I participated in a workshop organized by the World Bank assessing the factors that make CAR “fragile.”

[An aside: The previous terminology to describe state dysfunctionality (failed/collapsed/failing) seems to have fallen out of favor with all but the gang at Foreign Policy. In addition to sounding rather, ahem, judgmental to development “partners,” “failed” isn't a very useful analytical category because it describes nothing about the ways in which politics work and only what they lack (see this Alex de Waal lecture for a typically erudite explanation of how this impoverishes analysis). But always the critic, I'm afraid I have a bone to pick with the new “fragility” lens as well. This is because many of those states labeled “fragile,” such as CAR, are in fact quite durable in their weakness. They remain mired in a position of low functionality, receiving just enough aid to prop up the status quo; their negative (externally-granted) sovereignty makes revolutionary, democratic change difficult if not impossible to achieve. For a much more eloquent and detailed explanation, see Pierre Englebert's latest book, in which he shows the surprising resilience of the state form in Africa.]

The workshop gathered Bangui 'intellectuals' (I use the term in the broad Francophone African way to refer to people with a level of education that differentiates them from those in the fields). In more and less heated tones, participants decried and celebrated aspects of sociality in their country. Occasionally, thanks to having spent a fair amount of time in provincial towns and villages, I knew that the statements of these cadres, who themselves rarely leave the capital, carried only partial truth.

One man finally highlighted the Bangui-centric nature of their polity. In Cameroon, he said, Douala and Yaounde are weekend ghost towns – all the well-off return to the village to seek the benediction of their communities. In contrast, in CAR, those who have left the village almost never return. Whether a university student or a minister, all fear the “jealousy” of their compatriots. The villages are home to strong powers of witchcraft. (The country's terrible road network and lack of transport options don't exactly facilitate travel, either.) Some in the audience chuckled at this statement. But a friend who lectures in geology at the University of Bangui became exercised – “People might say they don't fear sorcery, but they're lying! Everyone fears it!” She went on to relate several famous cases, and I saw heads nod in acknowledgment.

While in Ndele, I got to know a Chef de Quartier whose son had been Minister of Defense a decade previously; he lived in the same kind of house as all his neighbors and wore the same beat-up flip-flops. What about “wealth in people” – the idea that wealth in Africa is determined by the number of people you support – I wondered? Few to no traces of elite beneficence grace CAR's hinterlands (unless you count the villa the disarmament co-president is building himself, or the monument to his mother the president constructed – both, incidentally, paid for with DDR monies, now used up before the program could even start...but I digress). But elsewhere on the continent, scholars have shown how the return of the successful to the village is perhaps the main means of city/village redistribution.

Claudine Vidal analyzed city-village relationships in Côte d'Ivoire in her Sociologie des Passions (1991). Her perspective spans several decades, which lets her show how these relationships change through time, partly as a function of economic fluctuations and partly due to the changing nature of honor and shame. In something of a reversal of the current CAR dynamic, she found that in the post-independence decade rural relatives begged their city-successful offspring not to build them new villas for fear of neighbors' jealousy, which would manifest through sorcery.

In the following years, displays of wealth became more lavish. Funerals, a kind of theater for enacting relations of dependence and power, are one of the main occasions for such displays. And because people are buried where they were born, these often take place in the village. The increasing need for ostentatious displays went hand in hand with growing feelings of shame attached to coming from a village deemed backward. Qualifying someone's village became a way of describing the person him/herself. For instance, a village (and its progeny) could be described as “pretty” or “have everything one could need”, but it could also be “disgusting” or “have nothing at all”; it was understood that the descriptor held for the person as well. As a result, ministers worked harder to fix up their villages, sometimes even against residents' wishes. (Ivoirian President Houphouët-Boigny's build-your-village campaign, of which his own village, Yamoussoukro, was the never-imitable example, probably contributed as well.)

Vidal's argument reminded me of Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book, The Honor Code. I've only read the op-ed versions of it that he published around the time the book came out, but in those he argued that “moral revolutions” occur when people's ideas of what constitutes “honorable” behavior changes. From the op-eds, I got the sense that Appiah views moral revolutions as generally progressive, and he seems to think that it is possible to push the evolution of the concept of honor (for instance, he discusses the possibilities for approaching the eradication of “honor killings” in Pakistan). Would shaming CAR's intellectuals about their villages' appearance, an economic upturn and better roads lead them to transform their communities of origin with no consideration of jealousy and sorcery? I'm not sure human relations are that rational-functional. Still, even if not so predictable, I'd be curious to see the results.

p.s. I've heard that the magnitude of urban-rural redistribution by elites has been quantified in Côte d'Ivoire but haven't found the citation. If anyone knows the details of these studies, I'd be obliged if you could pass them on.


  1. Dear Louisa,

    Just a quick technical question - leaving aside that I like the post very much - the link to Alex de Waal's lecture does not seems to be working. Is it just me?



  2. Hi,

    Try this one: