(L) Francis Fukuyama at the discussion of the role of public policy in private sector development.photo by Zoe Cornell Wolter

Ann Crotty

Every country, even the most modern and democratic of states, should be alert to the threat of political decay and the reassertion of patrimonialism, world-renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama told a South African audience recently.

Fukuyama warned that patrimonialism, which sees people in authority favouring their family and friends, was a powerful tendency because people were programmed for it and had been inclined to do it since the beginning of time. He described it as the “default form of human sociability”.

“Patrimonialism is constantly knocking at the door… particularly in societies that have experienced a prolonged period of relative stability and prosperity.” In such situations patrimonialism reasserted itself in the form of the rich getting richer as was currently happening in the US and in many developed countries.

Fukuyama said that in the context of the US and other rich countries patrimonialism manifested itself not just in terms of income inequality, but also “in terms of powerful interest groups managing to embed themselves in the political system in ways that make impossible collective decisions for the common good.”

He referred to the crisis in July, when US President Barack Obama was prevented, until the very last minute, from raising the US government’s debt ceiling, as an example of powerful vested interests capturing the state.

Fukuyama was in Cape Town last week to present a course, developed by the recently established Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice (GSD), titled The Role of Public Policy in Private Sector Development. During the four-day intensive course he took time out to give a public lecture at UCT on the theme of his new book, The Origins of Political Order – from prehuman times to the French Revolution.

Fukuyama told the UCT audience that a central developmental challenge in sub-Saharan Africa had been the absence of strong states. He noted that when European colonists arrived in Africa only about half the continent was organised into states, “the rest were still at tribal levels of organisation with highly distributed power”.

He attributed this to Africa’s physical geography and its low population density. The situation was exacerbated by what Fukuyama described as “a cheap model of colonialism” used by the Europeans, which involved indirect rule through tribal chiefs.

“This may have something to do with the subsequent rise of ‘big man’ politics in post-colonial African societies,” Fukuyama said.

He noted that the colonialists set borders that were completely irrational in terms of the underlying cohesion of the societies and that the countries created in this way were deprived of the long period of nation building that, in Europe, had produced culturally homogenised territories.

“Modern France where everyone speaks French is the product of a 400-year-long process.”

Fukuyama was also critical of the international donor community’s approach to state-building in poor countries, which essentially focused on trying to make poor countries look like Denmark because Denmark has democracy, prosperity and low corruption and scores well on almost every measure of human happiness.

“The problem is when the donor community thinks about poor countries and what they would like them to look like they think Denmark… they want Afghanistan, Somalia and Haiti to look like Denmark,” said Fukuyama, adding: “It’s a tremendously ambitious programme and always disappoints us.”

He contended that the thinking was essentially flawed because nobody understood how Denmark got to be Denmark. “The root to modern institutions was actually long, violent, unpleasant and extremely painful,” Fukuyama said. People living in countries with strong institutions took them for granted and had forgotten how long it takes to build them.

The objective of GSD, which will be located in the commerce faculty of UCT, is to assist the institution building required in the creation of modern democratic states in Africa.

Alan Hirsch, who is the deputy director-general of the President’s Policy Co-ordination and Advisory Services and who is one of the three members of the project team that established the GSD, told Business Report that the focus of the new school would be the professional development of strategic leadership skills of senior public servants throughout Africa.

“In South Africa, we have good policies but poor implementation… we are trying to get to the heart of this problem to determine where and how the implementation is inappropriate.”

The thinking behind the school is influenced by the belief that the governance and accountability reforms that have been completed so far in Africa are mostly the relatively easy ones that can be undertaken through political will at the top and a few highly competent officials.

The ‘micro-reforms’, which involve social and economic policy, infrastructure improvement and the business environment require a larger number and wider range of skilled officials and political leaders.

The complexity of the challenge means that a narrow technocratic approach by public officials inevitably has limited effect. Instead they have to think and act strategically about how to move their societies forward, “taking into careful consideration the political, cultural and social constraints they face, as well as the obvious technical obstacles”.

There are three aspects to the school’s activities: executive short courses such as that led by Fukuyama last week, a Master’s degree programme and the provision of services that will make the school a hub for public sector leaders in Africa.

In addition to Hirsch, the project team members are Brian Levy, the head of the secretariat responsible for implementing the World Bank Group’s governance and anti-corruption strategy, and Judith Cornell, the co-ordinator of the project team, who was previously the deputy executive director and director of policy and technical support of the International HIV/Aids Alliance.