On Gidron’s plea not to abandon nationalism – I agree

Noam Gidron makes the compelling case that the left shouldn’t abandon nationalism. I agree.  In fact, in an act of cowardice, I wrote a short piece that makes some similar points using different cases, but left it fallow after one failed submission. Since it actually complements Gidron’s (much better) essay, well, I’ll publish it here, where I know the editor:


Why We Still Need (Ethical) Nationalisms

Donald Trump campaigned for and won the American presidency on a nationalist platform, one that frequently alluded to threats posed by “others” living in our midst from the near abroad. And as president, he has stoked nationalist sentiments with his anti-immigrant policies, to the delight of various extremist groups.

Such nationalist appeals are deplorable. And they resonate uncomfortably with several infamous exclusionary endeavors, including the German nationalism of the Third Reich, and the white nationalism of apartheid South Africa. Just like the rhetoric and mobilization around the “alt-right,” these nationalisms demonstrated the dark side of human nature: that exclusion can foster cohesion among their adherents. But they were also blights on humanity, leading to the loss of life and of dignity for millions of people. And their ruthlessness sowed the seeds of their own destruction.

So should we reject nationalism – loyalty and devotion to a nation above others – as a general principle? Is the very idea of a world of “nations” or “peoples” an inherently illiberal notion that is incompatible with contemporary realities, in which people can and should move across state borders in pursuit of new opportunities and away from threatening and difficult situations?

On the contrary, we cannot ignore the need for some type of nationalisms in the modern world as it is configured today. First, we live in a global system in which we take for granted that states are largely sovereign over “peoples” or nations. The very foundation of our world order relies on coherent nationhoods: The French state governs the French people; the Chinese state the Chinese; and so on. While not all manage to be “nation-states,” the 193 member-states of the United Nations are indeed states first, and their varied legitimacy largely hinges on the extent that they can claim to represent some underlying nation.

For citizens around the world, their willingness to be governed, to make tax payments for the provision of public goods, to share in insuring against the risks of wars and natural disasters, and to participate in democratic processes, these behaviors are predicated on an explicit recognition of a shared national political community. And the most unstable corners of the planet – for example in Central Africa – tend to be places where state weakness is associated with the absence of meaningful national identities.

Moreover, as social psychologists have shown us in countless experiments, humans are hard-wired to be “groupy”: We seek out meaningful social identities, and nationhood helps to satisfy that thirst. Trump-style, exclusionary and xenophobic nationalism is certainly one option, an ugly one, but it is not the only variety available.

History shows us that it is possible to develop nationalisms that are also consistent with modern notions of human rights — that all people are created equal, and entitled to dignity. In foreign countries I study, nationalism, while never perfect, has yielded concrete benefits: Both Tanzanian nationalism, rooted in the promulgation of a shared national language (Swahili) and a common set of ideas; and a strong sense of a “Tswana” nation in Botswana, arguably helped those countries to avoid the types of ethnic conflict and division that have wracked so many African countries. In Brazil, a strong sense of national solidarity in the face of a massive AIDS epidemic helped facilitate a coordinated and effective national response, a successful effort that became a source of Brazilian pride. Moreover, all three of those countries have been among the most tolerant in their respective regions with respect to minorities, foreigners, and even refugees.

While American nationalism has been a contested idea throughout our history, our most iconic iteration embraces a shared history of resistance to tyranny (at least part of the reason everyone loves the musical, Hamilton), and celebrates a history of poor immigrants making a new life, unifying ideals of liberty and justice for all, pride in our path to independence, and success in our struggles to repair a fractured nation at various historical moments.

Nationalism can be advanced in positive terms of who we are and aspire to be; rather than in harshly exclusionary terms or rigidly rooted in “blood-line” or place of birth. A strong nationhood can still provide a straightforward and humanitarian path for outsiders to gain membership.

The challenge for nation-builders around the world – political leaders, as well as intellectuals and thought leaders –  in the 21st century will be to put forth ideas about who “we are,” that are sufficiently compelling to form a coherent sense of identity, but that leave open room for others to join that group, particularly through a due process.

For those (like myself) who have the opportunity to travel often, feel comfortable moving across borders around the world, an un-rooted cosmopolitanism may seem like an appealing alternative to a retrograde nationalism. But in the absence of truly viable institutions of global governance, global citizenship is not a serious alternative to national citizenship. And the vast majority of individuals around the world still need what national states can provide, and those states need national communities to govern. Could those governments do better? Yes, but we lack viable alternatives.

Our most enlightened leaders need to help steer us towards ethical nation-building projects – those that recognize that beyond nations, we do share human interests and we have humanitarian obligations to people around the world. And yet, we also have a special interest in helping our own. And that is how progressives ought to articulate the politics of redistribution within state borders – not a punitive transfer from the haves to the have-nots, but as the natural and right thing to do when many of “our own” can’t make ends meet.

If ethical nationhoods are not on offer, those seeking meaning in their lives will almost surely gravitate towards the exclusionary variant offered by the Trumps and Le Pen’s of the world. We need alternative nationalisms that we can live with. Compelling ideas about who is “us” are needed to stem the tide of Xenophobic nationalisms in the United States and abroad.

Stiff-Collar Guys Confirm Democracy is Working in South Africa

Stiff-Collar Guys Confirm Democracy is Working in South Africa
SA Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan

Back in March, I was riding in an Uber car to my Johannesburg hotel. While most of the Uber drivers I’ve met in South Africa have hailed from Congo, Malawi, and Zim, this guy was born in Soweto. We were listening to talk radio, and the show was discussing the fact that the Moody’s regulators were in town, considering a downgrade on the government bond rating to “junk” status. The announcer said,

“If you see some of these guys — they are probably wearing button down shirts and looking down — why don’t you go buy them a beer?”


My driver could hear my American accent, and looked at me and asked if I was one of those guys. I smiled at him and said no, and he said, oh, I was going to give you a free ride and go buy you a few beers as a service to my country.

He was right to be concerned. It didn’t look good for the country. (And I would have felt bad taking the beer from him because the Rand was so weak that beers were practically free for me anyway.) In turn, I was pleasantly surprised when Moody’s last week confirmed the country’s Baa2 rating (still investment grade), despite a spate of bad news. And I think it was the right call.

While it is true that the South African media and the courts have raised some very serious and disturbing accounts of bribery and corruption in government in recent weeks and months, and President Zuma even stood up and pledged he would pay back the country for the use of government funds to improve his private Nkandla homestead… the fact that the media can report on these findings, that the court can cast judgment on the president, and that the president felt compelled to respond in this manner demonstrates that democratic institutions are actually working in this country! It is difficult to imagine, for example, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe conceding even an inch in such regard.

Similarly, when Zuma appointed an unknown and seemingly incompetent individual as finance minister back in December, he immediately faced a litany of bad press and intense pressure to reverse himself. Within days, Zuma reversed himself, and appointed the highly respected and experienced Pravin Gordhan to the job. Pessimists decried the whole episode as further indication of Zuma’s poor leadership. For those of us thinking about whether democracy has taken root, it looked like a healthy example of restraint on the executive. And while Zuma has rebuffed calls for his resignation, it is unimaginable to me (famous last words), that he has any ambitions for a third term.

With its warts and blemishes, South Africa’s democratic institutions have fared pretty well so far. And I’m glad that the Moody’s folks were broad-minded enough to see that. If they hadn’t, the already fragile economy would have taken a really big hit, in turn making it tough for democracy to survive.

The next big test will be the August 3 municipal elections. And of course, the other ratings agencies might not be so enlightened in their judgments.

Seemed obvious then, just sad now: U.S. PEPFAR Program Spent $1.4 Billion To Stop HIV By Promoting Abstinence With No Impact

Seemed obvious then, just sad now: U.S. PEPFAR Program Spent $1.4 Billion To Stop HIV By Promoting Abstinence With No Impact

Back in the 1990s and early 2000’s, when I was doing a lot of research on the politics of AIDS policy, it sure seemed hard to believe that billboards, classes, and other initiatives telling people in Africa to abstain from sex would actually cause anyone to abstain from sex. And alas, new research shows that all of this money — that might have been spent on AIDS treatment or on anything else — was squandered.


Billboard asks Ugandans to abstain from sex until marriage. The photo was taken in 2005 in Kampala. (via NPR: Per-Ander Pettersson/Getty Images)



The money was part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. It went to sex ed classes and public health messages in Africa. Effective or not? A new study offers a clear verdict.

Source: The U.S. PEPFAR Program Spent $1.4 Billion To Stop HIV By Promoting Abstinence. Did It Work? : Goats and Soda : NPR

Trump’s media power, even in South Africa

Trump’s media power, even in South Africa


Words appearing in articles that contained the word “election” in mainstream SOUTH AFRICAN news sources (via


Words appearing in articles that contained the word “election” in mainstream U.S. news sources (via

We all know that the Donald has dominated the news cycle in the U.S.

But even in South Africa, where a very important local election is scheduled for August 3, “Trump” was the 5th most prominent term that appeared in that country’s news media within articles mentioning “election.” He beat out all South African politicians, including President Zuma. I really wasn’t looking for him, but there he was…

(word clouds based on articles available at mediacloud from April 18-May 3 as of May 3.)

Successful Twaweza evaluators’ workshop

I am on my way home from the Twaweza evaluators’ conference in Dar es Salaam… literally on my way, posting this on the second leg of my air journey to JFK, having departed Dubai around 4am… which suggests that now even international air travel offers no respite from the distractions of the web. But I digress.

The meeting was really extraordinary in so many ways. Twaweza’s Learning, Monitoring, and Evaluation manager, Varja Liposvek, brought together several evaluation teams — including the “LPT” team (Lieberman, Dan Posner and Lily Tsai), the AIID team from University of Amsterdam (Chris Elbers and Jan Willem Gunning), and James Habyarimana, who represented his Georgetown-based team. And a new JPAL/IPA project was presented by Twaweza’s Youdi Schipper. The approximately 40 attendees included various managers from within the organization; and a host of researchers and development specialists, including from the World Bank, Innovations for Poverty Action, Oxfam, the International Budget Project, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, and DFID.

Although the room contained many distinct perspectives, the conversation was unified around a willingness to rigorously question every proposition, including how to conceptualize and to measure the intervention and associated outcomes, and how to judge the quality of evidence. I have attended many similar events, in which the attendees also came from different perspectives, and this one was remarkable for the unified willingness to engage constructively.

The first day of the conference involved hearing from the various evaluation teams, including ours, and in all cases, the studies are not yet complete. LPT and AIID have actually been evaluating Twaweza’s work, in the case of LPT by focusing on their education initiative, Uwezo. The other projects have initiated RCT’s to test related propositions that will inform future work. It was an extremely useful discussion and rewarding for us to see the care and attention with which our client was listening to and keeping track of these studies and thinking about ways to incorporate the findings into their mission.

Along these lines, more extraordinary from my perspective, was the second day — in which Twaweza’s director, Rakesh Rajani, announced to us all — look, we remain devoted to Twaweza, we know that these evaluations are not complete and only evaluate parts of what we do… but we also know from these studies, and from our experience and intuition to date, that much of what we are doing is not having the impact we would like. So let’s not simply keep doing the same thing; let’s make some substantial adjustments to better position ourselves for success.

In this regard, Twaweza is in a uniquely favorable position as compared with most NGO’s. I don’t know all of the specifics, but Twaweza’s donors appear to have a pretty long and patient time horizon. Unlike the average NGO, which is constantly fighting for its own survival, and under severe pressure to demonstrate quick results, Twaweza can afford to admit they didn’t have all the right answers before they started.

Again, particularly gratifying from the perspective of development/evaluation researchers was the stated commitment (and I’ll report back to see if this happens) to incorporate evaluators to a much greater extent in both the theorizing and design of their work going forward. (That willingness was not part of the first stage…) We now all have a basis for thinking about what doesn’t work and some intuition about why, and hopefully, this will allow both Twaweza and the evaluators to make some better and more focused bets about what might have the desired impact on the key outcomes of citizen agency and service delivery.

I learned a great deal from the workshop. That said, I wouldn’t yet bet my home that Twaweza will achieve its goals or that we or any of the other evaluation teams will be able to detect any treatment effects from research that we might design going forward. The core mission of trying to increase citizen agency and improve development outcomes through information provision is a challenging one. But I think that Twaweza has already set a valuable example for researchers and development practitioners in terms of how to engage in a manner that sparks careful, creative, and critical thinking, incorporating necessary theoretical and practical concerns. I’m glad that 50 hours of flying and brief abandonment of my family was not in vain.

Sadly avoiding Nairobi this week…

I was scheduled to fly out to Nairobi this Saturday night to do 3 days of work, including some social science research methods training to the Uwezo staff, before heading to Dar es Salaam for a multi-day conference with the various teams that have been working on the Twaweza initiative. In light of the awful attack on the Westgate Mall, a place I have frequented several times, and the fact that it was not absolutely essential to be in Nairobi, we decided to bypass Kenya altogether. I’ll go “straight” (i.e., with two other layovers) to Tanzania instead. Notwithstanding the pleas from the Standard Newspaper against international travel advisories… my inbox piled up this morning with lots of them and frankly, I just couldn’t justify to myself or to my family a good reason for entering the fray in the midst of all that’s going on, especially since it would likely be impossible to be very productive. But I’m disappointed to not be going to Nairobi, and more so that Kenyans are taking it on the chin once again.

Meanwhile, I know it’s 2013, but I’m still dumbstruck by the ubiquitous nature of communications technology and social media during a terrorist attack. Seems as if many citizens at the scene, despite threats to life and body, have been using their smartphones to broadcast images from the mall. Shabaab and the Kenyan military have been exchanging public tweets about who has the upper hand in the standoff. CNN writes, “ Are you in Nairobi? Send us your images and experiences, but please stay safe.” Unfortunately, the spectacle and global stage of violence almost certainly makes it a more appealing strategy for the very groups who perpetrated these heinous acts.

P.S. I know I have been a delinquent blogger for quite some time. I really don’t know how these folks with full time jobs can manage to blog so frequently… but perhaps the Fall will bring greater inspiration and speedy fingers in generating blog-worthy posts. I am likely to tweet more frequently at @evlieb

Learning about citizenship in Rural Kenya

As part of our ongoing work with Uwezo in Kenya, Dan Posner, Lily Tsai and I commissioned two great Ph.D. students — Brandon de la Cuesta (Princeton) and Leah Rosenzweig (MIT) — to help us learn more about what citizens in rural Kenya are doing (or not doing) to exercise their rights as citizens, particularly in the primary education sector. Much of our initial research during the first couple of years of our work on this project has showed virtually no effects from information campaigns, and we thought it was important to get a fuller understanding of the range of actions citizens can and do take. But we concluded that additional closed-ended surveys would not be the way to go, because frankly, we were concerned that we might not be asking the right questions.

So, we sent Brandon and Leah off for a few months of field research, working with our senior project manager, Jessica Grody, and various Uwezo staff, to conduct more open-ended interviews, conduct focus groups, and simply observe what is going on, in order to try to generate some better ideas for our ongoing research concerning what types of information might drive active citizenship. Their findings will help drive our future research agenda on this project, and in the meantime, they just shared with me a few pics from their days in the field.

students reading in class
students reading in class
primary school children with their head teacher in Nandi East
primary school children with their head teacher in Nandi East
Brandon speaking with the chief in Nandi East at a Baraza for farmers
Brandon speaking with the chief in Nandi East at a Baraza for farmers
posters from a classroom in Meru South
posters from a classroom in Meru South

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.

A bittersweet farewell to the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa)

The Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa played a pivotal role in that country’s transition away from apartheid rule. Two “white liberals” – Alex Borraine and the late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert – left their jobs as members of parliament in order to meet with exiled members of the African National Congress in various remote locations. Out of the spotlight of the media and everyday politics, they helped negotiate a series of ice-breakers between the white and black elites, initiating a set of discussions that would pave the way for Mandela’s release and the writing of a new constitution. Of course, many factors made such meetings possible, including the challenges and protests of so many ordinary citizens in South Africa and abroad, but few serious observers of that country’s history would discount the importance of these early, secretive, get-to-know-you retreats.

Following Mandela’s release, the unbanning of the ANC, and the first multi-racial elections, it was not exactly clear what role various anti-apartheid organizations might play given that their core mandates no longer seemed relevant. In the case of Idasa, it transformed itself in name (but not acronym) to be an organization that would help South African citizens build this new democracy with various information, awareness and monitoring functions. (Steven Friedman correctly highlights that the simple bridge-building work of the original Idasa is still needed today.)

Back in the early 1990s, I was lucky to meet a few of Idasa’s key program managers, including Robert Mattes, who would run the Public Opinion Service; and Warren Krafchik, who directed the Budget Information Service. These projects conducted pioneering research on citizen attitudes and the emerging budget process, and they communicated their findings to scholars, policy-makers, and ordinary citizens. A few years later, while I was a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, these folks kindly allowed me to serve as an intern in their units, provided me a desk and an internet connection, and most importantly, allowed me to be a part of the organization.

idasa cape town

My year was personally and professionally inspiring. The period 1997-8 was surely the height of the post-apartheid “honeymoon,” the year following the Springbok win of the Rugby World Cup (now of Invictus fame). Idasa had purchased a marvelous old building at 6 Spin Street, right around the corner from the nation’s parliament, the national library, and several key offices of the bureaucracy, including the South African Revenue Service. Each day the building’s corridors came alive with art and performances, as leading politicians and scholars from around the country and around the world stopped in for visits. At morning tea time, as I developed a taste for Rooibos tea many years before it would become an American rage, I learned so much from my colleagues about their respective cultures, and from their work in trying to consolidate democratic practice in this divided society.

In the years to follow, Idasa continued to generate a great deal of research, including in the area I began to study – HIV/AIDS policy – and the organization would extend the scope of its activities to the entire Southern African region. More recently, I discovered that the Cape Town office closed, and all of the operations were consolidated in the Pretoria office. The organization’s stature was clearly in decline. It was certainly not an activist organization, barely a monitoring organization, perhaps a research outfit, but not quite a think-tank. If donor support fell away, perhaps it was because the organization’s mission had simply become too ambiguous. In late March, the director announced that Idasa would close due to lack of financial support.

Idasa shopOn the one hand, I am so sad to hear of this great institution’s fall. I retain just a speck of hope that some angel donor will come in to resuscitate this once giant. On the other hand, perhaps I should just pay tribute to its incredibly important legacy, which gave hope to the most brilliant political story that I’ve observed in my lifetime – one which continues to animate my own life and career to this day. In just a few weeks, one of my old Idasa friends, Albert Van Zyl, who now works for our old boss, Warren Krafchik, will present the work of the International Budget Project to my class of Princeton undergraduates learning about the Politics of Development.

I am very proud to have been associated with this distinguished organization. Despite its current lack of a Wikipedia entry(!), I hope its role in contemporary South African history will be sufficiently recognized.