Research on ethnic-based preferences in Africa

I’m happy to report that this article, co-authored with Gwyneth McClendon, was recently published in Comparative Political Studies and is now available for your reading pleasure. I paste the abstract below, but the punchline is that even when we control for all sorts of individual-level and contextual factors, African citizen policy preferences vary quite systematically along ethnic lines. We think this has important implications for how we understand the working of ethnic politics, and the challenges of governance under certain types of ethnic diversity.

Of related interest, a few articles on ethnic categorization and violence, co-authored with Prerna Singh, can be found at our project website.

The Ethnicity–Policy Preference Link in Sub-Saharan Africa

Evan S. Lieberman

Gwyneth H. McClendon


Scholars have begun to investigate the mechanisms that link ethnic diversity to low levels of public goods provision but have paid only minimal attention to the role of preferences for public policies. Some argue that ethnic groups hold culturally distinctive preferences for goods and policies, and that such differences impede effective policy making, but these studies provide little evidence to support this claim. Others argue that preferences do not vary systematically across ethnic groups, but again the evidence is limited. In this article, we engage in a systematic exploration of the link between ethnic identity and preferences for public policies through a series of individual and aggregated analyses of Afrobarometer survey data from 18 sub-Saharan African countries. We find that in most countries, preferences do vary based on ethnic group membership. This variation is not merely an expression of individual-level socioeconomic differences or of group-level cultural differences. Instead, we suggest that citizens use ethnicity as a group heuristic for evaluating public policies in a few predictable ways: We find more persistent disagreement about public policies between politically relevant ethnic groups and where group disparities in wealth are high.

Health and Human Rights blog

I recently wrote a piece for the Health and Human Rights blog on the governance of infectious disease.

So who should be responsible for governing the threat of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria? As the “old” paradigm of strong centralized state public health programs was found to be outmoded, a new set of governance models emerged in its wake, all involving greater devolution of authority and more horizontally organized reporting structures. In particular, a few appealing terms have buzzed about during the past three decades of the global AIDS crisis, including “multisectoral,” “synergistic,” “partnership,” “mutual accountability,” and “coordination.” Who could argue with any of these?

You can read the full post here: Health and Human Rights

Scary secrecy bill in South Africa

A so-called secrecy bill was almost tabled before the South African parliament this week, and if it is eventually passed, that would be a scary step for democracy in that country. The bill proposes lengthy prison sentences for whistleblowers who do not include a “public-interest defense.” Understandably, to many South Africans, this smacks of the police state that was apartheid, and substantial protests have erupted outside the constitutional court (see M&G). So at least for now, a vote has been postponed. Hopefully it will be canned for good.

Of course, one can’t be naïve about the need for discretion. Almost anyone who has run a sizeable organization would probably agree that some conversations need to be held behind closed doors — otherwise, fear of embarrassment or retribution would keep knowledgeable and authoritative individuals from speaking up. The Wikileaks scandals shed light on the types of “frank” exchanges within the corridors of power that certainly would not have occurred if those individuals knew that their words would be made public.

But democratic government implies that the people govern, and they have a right to know about what’s going on in their own country. One of the “dilemmas” of democracy is that such freedoms can sometimes hamstring effective government action, but that’s a cost people are willing to bear. And virtually all “whistleblowing” is in the public’s interest, which makes the bill itself largely nonsensical.

At the moment, South Africa’s press still remains vibrant and information circulates freely in that country. But in recent years, the state has launched several attacks with loose charges of treason against various journalists and news outlets. The ANC has not liked media spotlights on corrupt practices and the lavish lifestyles of some officials. When it comes to policy, it would certainly be easier to make decisions about environmental, security, and other interests without public scrutiny. But ugly revelations from years of post-apartheid “truth and reconciliation” should be a reminder of what can go wrong when state power goes unchecked.

New Research on Governing Infectious Disease in South Africa

How should the response to infectious disease epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria be governed? That is, which authorities – ranging from local governments to national governments to global governance institutions –  should be in charge of setting policies, developing budgets, and ultimately serving citizens who need information and resources for prevention and treatment?

This is a question that has too often been answered with polemics, but with little solid research. And yet, as important as good bio-medical knowledge may be for protecting the health of people, so is the mode of implementing such practices, particularly in democratic contexts.

The “old” model of leaving national states 100% in charge, holds little currency these days, and for good reason: in low- and middle-income countries, “the state” is often weak, inefficient, unresponsive to citizens, and especially unable to reach the most vulnerable. As an alternative, a new model has emerged — what can be described as “Polycentric governance.” While this model (in form, but not name) has been advocated as a best practice for addressing public health issues in developing countries, there is good reason to believe that the model contains features that may simultaneously impede efficiency and democratic accountability. The journal Social Science and Medicine recently published the results of my case study of polycentric governance of infectious disease in South Africa, which highlights these limitations.

My study raises more questions than answers for policy and institutional design. It does not recommend a new “optimal” governance model. But it does suggest that much more research needs to be done that takes seriously the motivations of political actors and service providers, whose concerns are not always with the general welfare, but with (often understandably) parochial issues, such as ensuring the next round of funding, or satisfying other constituent or party priorities.

In the country with the largest number of HIV-infected individuals in the world, polycentric governance needs to be re-evaluated as the best solution for providing prevention, treatment, and support.