When poor countries build roads and schools, they are also building citizens

By Kim Yi Dionne

Welcome to the last instalment in our sixth annual African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular. 

In this column, we will look at the argument that when poor countries’ governments build roads, health clinics and schools, they are also building a citizenry. That is what Erin Accampo Hern argues in her new book, “Developing States, Shaping Citizenship: Service Delivery and Political Participation in Zambia.” Her central argument is that citizens’ political behaviour is shaped by their past experiences with government policies — especially when governments are delivering services such as education and health care. 

Hern’s book builds on what political scientists call “policy feedback” — the idea that social policy can affect political behaviour by defining which citizens are “included” (those who receive policy benefits) and educating citizens about their relationship to their government. But as Hern points out, much of the research on policy feedback draws on Western industrialized countries.

Hern corrects this gap by examining policy feedback in Zambia, a country in southern Africa where the government has a limited ability to deliver even basic services. Hern defines such governments as “low-capacity” states. 

Along the way, Hern offers a great political and economic history of Zambia. Even a reader with little knowledge of the country could understand Zambian politics and its citizens’ experience with public services ever since the country won its independence from Britain in 1964. 

The comprehensive historical overview is one analytical method (what political scientists call “comparative historical analysis”) she uses to understand the relationship between government policy and citizens’ political behaviour. Hern uses a number of methods — historical analysis, in-depth interviews with 172 citizens and an original survey of 1,500 Zambians — to examine how citizens’ experiences with service delivery shape their political participation.

In doing so, she finds that: 

In times and places where the government could not deliver public services, citizens were more likely to get politically involved as a community, including attending community meetings, joining with neighbours to solve local problems, or becoming members of a group or association. 
How well the government does at delivering services does not affect citizens’ political engagement as much as the perception that the government tried to do so. When governments demonstrate the will to provide health care, education, clean water or some other service, citizens were more likely to be interested in talking about politics or making efforts to follow current affairs in the news. Quality of service provision was less important than attempts at service delivery. 
Citizens felt empowered when the government did deliver services. These empowered citizens were more likely to get involved in politics, which Hern measures as contacting officials, identifying with a political party and voting in elections. 

While much of the book examines political behaviour in Zambia, Hern also examines data from across Africa to see if her findings travel. Using survey data from Afrobarometer, a Pan-African research network conducting national representative surveys in more than 30 African countries, Hern finds evidence consistent with what she learned from her data collected in Zambia. To be sure, her findings were not universally consistent across Africa, but the relationships Hern found between policy and political behaviour were widespread. 

“Developing States, Shaping Citizenship” makes an important contribution to our understanding of how providing public services affects political behaviour. The book is written for a specialist audience, so it may be more challenging to follow than some of the other books in this year’s series. Some tables and graphs may be hard to interpret for anyone without advanced quantitative training. Still, this is a useful book for anyone wanting to understand how low-capacity governments affect their citizens’ political involvement.

 

@The Washington Post

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