12 November 2019
We are delighted to be welcoming leading scholar of the politics of development, Prof Catherine Boone, to deliver the Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture today. Here she gives a fascinating insight into the research at the heart of her talk on spatial inequality in African countries.
A few decades ago, conventional wisdom held that socio-economic inequality was low in Africa. Recent data overturn this view by revealing the dramatic extent of both interpersonal and regional economic disparities in most African countries. Not only are some of the world’s highest levels of income inequality found in sub-Saharan African countries, but levels of spatial inequality in most African countries are also extremely high. Dramatic variation in levels of economic development and wellbeing are visible not only across the urban-rural distinction (as expected), but also across the predominant rural regions of most African countries. These high levels of both interpersonal and spatial inequality are actually persistent features of African economies, going back as far as the existing econometric data can reach. Given these high levels of inequalities, which economic cleavages are likely to become salient in national politics? Will latent forms of distributional conflict structure national politics?
Existing work on politics in other world regions argues that institutional structure is critical in shaping inequality’s political expression and effects. As political scientist, Melissa Rogers, argues convincingly, where strong regional inequalities are overlaid by strongly territorial political institutions, including electoral institutions, geographic inequalities will be accentuated. Political competition is likely to play out as a distribution game across geographic regions. My ongoing research suggests this insight, which combines analysis of economic geographic with an understanding of state institutions, goes far in unlocking puzzles of inequality politics in African countries. The territorial structure of the state helps explain why spatial inequalities so often trump income or class inequalities in politics.
Most African countries are marked by strong geographic disparities and territorially fragmented institutions of political representation and policy implementation. By some measures, economic disparities across regions in most African countries are much higher than they are in textbook cases of high spatial inequality featured in the comparative political economy literature – including Spain, USA, Mexico and Argentina. In most African countries, spatial economic inequalities are also much higher than they are in today’s UK, where regional economic disparities and resulting policy tensions between England’s southeast (including London) and the north, and between England, Scotland and Wales, are potent drivers of national debates over Brexit and internal splits within the leading political parties.
In most African countries, local land tenure and property institutions reinforce localism and political territoriality, contributing to great economic disparities across the large national majorities (over 60 per cent of national populations, on average) that live in predominantly-rural regions. Geographically fragmented rights of access to land, pasture, forest, fisheries and other resources may protect local collectivities, but they constrain the inter-regional mobility of labour and capital. The magnitude of spatial inequalities can be dramatic, as they are in Kenya, for example. Estimated incomes in the better-off rural regions are almost three times higher than they are in the poorest rural districts.
Political dynamics at work in territorially divided countries in other parts of the world are starkly visible in many African countries. Regional logics often structure political coalition-building; regional cleavages inform competition around economic policy; there is strong localism in distributive politics; and levels of inter-regional redistribution are low. These effects are visible at the level of provinces, and thus transcend the local ethnic concentrations that one finds at the district and constituency levels. In many countries, regional cleavages that first surfaced in the nationalist era of the 1950s are still major fault-lines in national politics. As historians, Paul Nugent and John Lonsdale, and political scientists, Eun Kyung Kim, Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai and Colin Poulton and Karuti Kanyinga, have shown for Ghana and Kenya, conflicts of interest around the scope of markets (particularly land markets), the extent of national redistributive policies, and sectoral economic policies are sources of political debates that cleave national polities along regional lines. In Zambia, the spatial arrangement of partisan alignments juxtaposes Southern province with its commercial agricultural vocation to the Copper belt, long dominated by mining unions and conjoined with the poor, labour-sending regions of the North and Northeast. This maps onto a provincial and socio-economic cleavage that dates to the 1950s. In Ghana, Kenya and Zambia, this is much as scholars of sectional and socio-economic cleavage in Europe would have predicted for societies wherein levels of industrialisation are low and agrarian interests play a powerful role.
These arguments can also help explain variations in how economic inequalities drive politics across African countries, and over time. Zambia is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most urbanised countries (43 per cent of the population was urban in 2017), and the strong pull of the cities is clearly reflected in the rise of urban-based populism in national politics and the salience of urban-rural policy cleavages. In South Africa, strongly territorial institutions and strong spatial inequalities co-exist with sub-Saharan Africa’s highest rates of urbanisation (64 percent), and with what are some of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. Here, class politics and programmatic social policy demands are front and centre in national politics, with spatial inequalities and the politics of interregional redistribution playing as secondary themes.
I argue that economic geography and institutional explanations thus combine, to generate insight into phenomena that much of Africa-focused political science has attributed to the strength of ethnic identity alone. One implication is that good governance and inclusive ethnic representation in national governments is unlikely, in itself, to mitigate tensions that are fuelled by economic inequalities that that find expression in regional tensions. Economic growth strategies that build regional coalitions are required as both cohesion policy and industrial policy. Where inter-regional redistribution and infrastructural development promotes investment and new forms of accumulation in lagging provinces and districts, the interests of nation-building are served. Demographic change, climate change, trade openness and open-door investment policies, and deeper structural economic changes in coming decades are likely to exacerbate uneven development. In the absence of deliberate measures to mitigate territorial inequalities, the political sustainability of national projects may be at risk.