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Charter Cities Podcast Episode 11: We Need to Work at Making Democracy Work with Professor Nic Cheeseman

Tocqueville said, “We need to work at making democracy work.” That is the springboard from which this episode begins.

Tocqueville said, “We need to work at making democracy work.” That is the springboard from which this episode begins. Kurtis Lockhart fills in for Mark Lutter as today’s host, and our guest is Professor Nic Cheeseman. Nic is a political scientist at the University of Birmingham, and was formerly the head of the African Studies Center at Oxford University. His research focuses on a range of topics, from democracy and elections, to development and institutional change, all of which we will discuss in this episode. Nic is the author or editor of ten books on African Politics, including Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform and How to Rig an Election. Nic shares with us some of the projects he is working on, and we discuss anti-corruption messaging, foreign aid, China in Africa, and redrawing African countries’ borders, as well as invisible election rigging, “sweet spot” strategies, and counterfeit democrats. Tune in today! Links mentioned in today’s episode can be found below the transcript.

Transcript (edited for clarity):

Mark: Hello and welcome to the Charter Cities Podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the Founder and Executive Director of the Charter Cities Institute. On the Charter Cities Podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city, from governance to urban planning, politics to finance. We hope listeners to the Charter Cities Podcast will come away with a deep understanding of charter cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them.

You can subscribe and learn more about charter cities at Follow us on social media, @CCIdotCity on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. Thank you for listening.

Kurtis: Hi. I’m Kurtis Lockhart, Head of Research at the Charter Cities Institute and I’ll be filling in for Mark as host of the podcast today. Our guest for today is Professor Nic Cheeseman. Nic is a political scientist at the University of Birmingham. He was formerly the director of the African Studies Center at Oxford University. His research focuses on a range of topics, including democracy, elections, development, and institutional change, all of which we discussed today.

He is the author or editor of 10 books on African politics, including Democracy in Africa and How to Rig an Election.

Hi, Nic. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Nic: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Kurtis: Great. To start, you do a lot, which I noticed in doing the background research for this interview. I want to start by asking you what projects are you currently working on today? What’s taking up most of your time these days and let you explain rather than me listing everything off?

Nic: Oh, thanks. Well, it’s been a busy time, partly because COVID has generated a lot of new and exciting questions for those of us who work on democracy. I’ve been working on policy responses to elections around the world with people like the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in the UK, and other organizations in Africa, in America.

One of the things I’ve been doing recently is actually working out, how can we do things like hold elections and do election observation in COVID conditions? For example, if you’re an international election observation body, but you’ve got travel restrictions, so you can’t travel to the country that you want to observe, can you do it by working in partnership with domestic groups? Can you do it by focusing more on social media and digital processes? Can you do a remote, or virtual observation that allows you to still play a significant role and deter electoral fraud? That’s one project I’m working on at the minute with a bunch of people and a great team with the British Academy.

Another project is that we’re just coming to the very end of our book, The Moral Economy of Elections, which is a book project that I’ve been working on for five or six years now, probably longer. We always like to minimize things at the end. It’s probably more like ten. With my great friends and colleagues, Gabrielle Lynch and Justin Willis.

Kurtis: Great. With that little introduction to your work, there’s a bunch more and we’ll get into it here. I wanted to start with some of your very recent work, a paper of yours just came out. A ton of money over the last several decades has gone into anti-corruption campaigns and into setting up anti-corruption agencies. Was this money well spent?

Nic: Well, the first thing I have to say to bookend  the discussion is that our research on corruption looks at a small part of anti-corruption work, or one part of anti-corruption work, which is anti-corruption messaging. We’re talking about the messages that might appear in newspapers, the jingles, the adverts that would go out on the radio, and the things that would go out on TV and so on to persuade citizens to be more resilient to corruption.

Of course, anti-corruption work might involve lots of projects with specific institutions and so on, but we’re not talking about that. It’s just those messages that are aimed at the public. Those messages make a lot of sense, right? The logic goes like this; leaders are unlikely to reform on their own, because leaders have incentives to create corrupt systems, because they benefit from the corruption. You need to change the incentive structure facing those leaders. By leaders, I mean politicians, presidents, national assembly members, etc.

How do you change the incentives facing them? Well, one way to do that is to change the citizenry, to make the citizen be more hostile to corruption, build anti-corruption norms, make people more likely to vote for anti-corruption politicians, make people less willing to pay a bribe, so that politicians got the signal from voters, there’s votes in being anti-corrupt, and then all of a sudden, you change the incentive structure, so leaders want to be seen to be anti-corrupt. All of a sudden, we start to see politicians falling over themselves to be the good governance candidate.

That all makes a lot of sense, intuitively. If we can shift the public, we can then shift the politicians, because they need to win the votes of the public. What then happens is you design messages that tell people, and often this is what happens, there’s a lot of corruption, the corruption is a big problem, the corruption being a problem is hurting our development, it’s hurting the economy, it’s hurting jobs. We need to fight corruption. It’s time for you to stand up.

The logic of that message is that the citizen goes, “Ah, I see now. I connect the corruption to the development problems in my country. I’m going to hold my leader accountable.” What we’ve found, and a number of other people have found in different ways, is that probably what that message actually does is it makes the individual think, “Corruption is a massive problem. I’m a small individual citizen in a very big system. The problem is too big for me to solve. Probably the most rational strategy in this situation is to go with the flow, rather than to resist.” In other words, “Why am I going to not be the one paying the bribe, not getting the health service I need, not getting the politicians who are going to give me the development that I need, when everybody else is going to do it, and me standing against the system isn’t going to make any difference?”

The way we found that out is that we went to Nigeria and we read these messages to 2,400 people. After reading the messages to 2,400 people, so some people got different messages, some people were in a control group that got no messages. After that, we asked them a bunch of questions about their attitudes to corruption and we also played a game with them, in which they basically stood to win more money, real money, if they were willing to pay a bribe.

What we found, which is consistent with previous studies that have been done in other parts of the world, is that the people who received the anti-corruption messages either had no effect, or they became more likely to pay the bribe in the game. In other words, anti-corruption messaging either had no positive effect, or it made people more likely to pay a bribe. That finding that makes us believe that the messaging is actually triggering a kind of corruption fatigue, or corruption apathy, you could frame it in different ways. It’s basically tapping into what political scientists would talk about as a collective action problem.

It’s actually reinforcing people’s sense that the situation is hopeless, rather than inspiring them to overcome the situation. Now obviously, this is one small test of the messages in Lagos, Nigeria with 2,400 people. As I say, it’s noticeable that we’ve actually got the same results coming out of other parts of the world, where the similar sorts of research have been done. I think actually, when you start to think about it, it makes intuitive sense, that messages might have that effect. That actually what you’re doing is reinforcing people’s worst fears and therefore, disempowering them, rather than actually making them believe that there’s something they can do about the situation.

Kurtis: I think that aligns with a lot of recent behavioral and behavioral economics research as well. We think about this a lot at the office. Originally, I was of the opinion, “Oh, we definitely need a formal anti-corruption commission, or an ombudsman and auditor general’s office,” and the whole nine yards. The more we spoke to practitioners on the ground, the more the message came back that these explicit anti-corruption institutions don’t often work all that well. In fact, they may prime certain individuals, or citizens to actually, like you found, be a little more corrupt. Instead, we should try and embed a culture of monitoring and accountability into the individual agencies of the charter cities we work with.

Nic: Absolutely. There’s a lot of research as well, as you say, in the field of science, a lot of people in social science, in different aspects of political science and sociology, coming to the same thing. Alice Evans has looked at this as well, in particular in relation to gender, but also other things. She talks about I think, despondence traps situations, in which people believe that the situation isn’t going to get better, and so they don’t take steps to make the situation better.

I think it’s in those contexts, where this messaging can be problematic. My sense is that it’s not just corruption. There’s probably a bunch of big issues that we face significant challenges around where citizens are pretty pessimistic about our ability to deal with it. Reaffirming to them how big the challenge is is probably going to actually disempower them, and make them feel weaker, and make them feel less like taking action.

The work of people like Alice Evans, would suggest to us and others, that what we should be looking to do is to persuade people that people like them have already taken action and been successful. Because what people tend to do is they update their preferences and beliefs in response to their peer group.

If you can persuade people that lots of people in their peer group have already shifted, that might start to encourage them to think they want to shift to that set of beliefs or actions as well. If that’s then shown to be successful, do you then start to reverse that fatigue issue? The challenge I think when it comes to corruption is, how do we design messages like that that are plausible, when actually in most cases, it might be quite hard to demonstrate objectively that people like the recipient of the message really have shifted? That it really is something that can be solved.

To make that realistic, you probably need a coordinated attempt with both very different types of messages that emphasize the fact that individuals are doing things, and that emphasize that idea that your peers are already doing this, so why aren’t you? That will have to be matched with evidence that that is actually happening and perhaps, also top-down of, for example, high-level prosecutions of people who are being corrupt, to really be able to stand that up. Otherwise, people who are getting that message are probably going to think that that message isn’t very realistic and therefore it won’t have the desired effect. I think that’s certainly the way that we need to think about redesigning messages, if we want them to not have this really problematic, unintended consequence.

Kurtis: Back in June, the British government decided to bring DFID, the Department for International Development back under the oversight of the Foreign Office. DFID as it currently exists will cease to be an independent department in September of this year. What are your thoughts on this move?

Nic: I think there’s a number of things that I particularly worry about. DFID has been criticized from many different directions. But I’ve also worked with a number of tremendously intelligent, hard-working DFID people and I’ve seen DFID have a positive effect in a number of different countries. I think one thing that I worry about is that this is taken by people to be a criticism of DFID and of aid in general, and a recognition of the right wing attacks that we’ve seen, for example, in right wing newspapers against the aid regime and against the idea of foreign aid.

I worry that in that sense, it’s seen as a blow to aid and it reduces the UK’s commitment to aid. I know the government would say, “Well, we’re keeping the commitment to 0.7% of the budget going on aid. We’re still saying that we’re going to be a leading figure in the aid world.” But I worry that that’s been clouded and I worry that this is a first step towards moving back, in terms of our commitment to our expenditure on aid, and the significance of aid as part of our foreign policy.

My first concern is that this might be the thin end of the wedge. Further down the line, we’re going to see a bigger problem. The second is really, that I worry about the modeling of priorities and I worry about the fact that development really does require specialist expertise, and that DFID has done quite a good job, both in terms of funding research on development and also, in terms of trying to learn some of those lessons. Not always completely effectively, but for example, research that’s been done in the UK recently around the need to think and work politically in development, that we need to get away from this idea that development can be done technocratically, that we actually need to understand its political underpinnings and work in a much more savvy way, building coalitions for change rather than simply assuming that good development projects will be enforced.

No, DFID has been very good at encouraging that and, in some ways, trying to mainstream that within DFID itself. I worry that some of that will be lost, if DFID is merged into a bigger Foreign Office body, where that specifically trained expertise loses its focus. Then the third thing I think is really interesting. We published a piece in The Continent recently, by a great academic who had written about this.

The piece basically made a really good point, I think, which was really looking at the way in which this will be perceived around the world. The argument was the way that this will be perceived around the world is that you’re taking away what looks to be, even if it’s not always completely, an independent aid body and you’re putting it back into your foreign office. So, you’re using aid for instrumental purposes, at least more than you used to be, even if it was never entirely neutral.

That, the piece argued, is likely to actually result in a revival of feelings that this is a colonial relationship, rather than a partnership. In some ways, given the way that China has changed the game in terms of talking about partnership and trying to be implicitly critical of the colonial relationships of the traditional powers in Africa. That that is actually a bad move, not only for development and for aid, but for the reputation of the United Kingdom, and the ability of the United Kingdom to act as a soft power, sort of influencer in sub-Saharan Africa. I think that critique is a good one.

I think there’s three good reasons to be worried about what this means in the short term and long term. I think in addition to that, a fourth factor is this is going to be a very big reorganization. We’re told it’s not simply going to be moving DFID into the foreign office. It’s actually going to be a reimagining of a new vehicle for the two. That process will probably take quite a lot of time, quite a lot of resources. The restructuring will then take further time and further resources. It seems very pausing that the government will want to do that in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic when foreign office and DFID have so many other more important things to be worrying about than reorganizing internally.

Kurtis: On the China point, can you in some sense, see this as a move, similar to the US’s new emboldened Development Finance Corporation, as an attempt by some western countries to start to counter China’s huge investments in things like the Belt and Road Initiative and other aid projects of theirs in general?

Nic: I think the only thing that is really going to counter the significance of China in Africa effectively in the longer term is investing more money. Whether it’s through aid, whether it’s through trade, whether it’s through infrastructure projects, which of course, China has been willing to fund and the UK and US historically have been a bit more reluctant to fund. I think, unless you provide more funding and you match up more in terms of percentages of exports, imports, investment, no amount of tinkering with the structure of your aid in your foreign office is going to make any difference.

Of course, the UK government has consistently talked about being willing to compete. Theresa May famously gave a speech in which she talked about, when she was prime minister, returning Britain to one of the key economic partners of Africa. Despite those speeches, there’s ever never really any concrete reality behind them. We never really see the steps that you would need to do that. Of course, it would be really difficult for the UK right now to reassert a dominant position in Africa, given the extent of Chinese and American engagement.

I see a lot of that rhetoric, but I’m not sure that the UK government really believes it, or really has a concrete plan that would achieve that goal of closing the influence gap with the United States and China.

Kurtis: If history has a say, when aid or investment flows are driven by geopolitical concerns, or large power competition as it was in the Cold War, you’ve shown this doesn’t bode well for democratization.

Nic: Absolutely. We’ve written about this in a number of different books. In my book, Democracy in Africa, we touch on this and in a recent book, How to Rig an Election. The person who wrote that piece in The Continent whose name has just come back to me, Aikande Kwayu, she’s got a great book out which traces the history of UK relations through looking at DFID, looking at aid, and the way that the UK has given aid over different periods.

At various points, we’ve seen the attempt to create an aid agency and then it’s been taken away again, and then it’s been brought back, and then it’s taken away again. Then of course, with the Labour government, DFID came into effect. She shows over that period that the way that we’ve treated aid has gone through these cycles, this isn’t something new. This is something that’s happened multiple times over the years. She shows really well the way in which this affects negatively the way the aid is delivered and the way that aid is perceived. Aikande Kwayu. I would encourage people to go out and check out her recent book, which does a really good job of putting this in its historical context.

As you say, it also raises really important questions. What is your priority? Is your priority lifting people out of poverty, or is your priority establishing solid relations with a government? Or is it actually about to generating opportunities for British businesses? As we know, those three things might go together in a certain number of cases, but they’re going to go against each other in other cases. The nice thing about having an aid agency that’s separate is that you’ve then got a champion for aid, for poverty, for that side of things.

I think the thing that many of us worry about now is that that being subsumed into the Foreign Office and it being framed in that way, rather than the other way around, creates the clear impression that aid will now be made subservient to those two other goals. That generally speaking and historically has been bad news for things like poverty, things like inequality, but also bad news, I think, in terms of the way that people will view that aid.

Kurtis: You’ve worked in both academia, thinking about international development from afar, as well as “doing development” on the ground. From your experience, what do you think the international development community should prioritize more that they’re not currently focusing on as much?

Nic: Well, that’s a big question. I suppose my answer would be slightly different, which is that I think what should be attempted is to do less, better. It seems to me that we have an international development community and I include here both INGOs, big INGOs and I sit on the board of Oxfam GB. I’m a trustee of Oxfam GB, and organizations like DFID and USID. I think in general, one of the things that has happened over the last 5, 10, 15 years has been that within all of these organizations, there’s been a proliferation of activities.

That’s good in the sense that, that proliferation happened because people recognized how interconnected development challenges were and how much we needed to work across different areas if we were going to be able to resolve them. But I think it’s also meant that we have a lot of organizations and aid agencies that are really stretched, covering a remarkably broad set of projects, investing money in an incredibly broad set of countries. I think, one of the things that’s happened over the last 10, 20 years is that, as developing countries, for want of a better phrase, is developing countries budgets have gone up. As economic growth has increased, as tax revenues have gone up in those countries, the percentage difference that aid makes, whether or not we’re talking about DFID, whether or not we’re talking about a big INGO, is increasingly small.

What you can actually achieve in a country on healthcare, on education, is increasingly small, relative to what the government in the country can actually achieve if it does things better. I would say two things. One, I would really like to see the international community focusing on doing less, but doing it better for two reasons; one, I think focusing on a smaller number of projects in a smaller number of places allows you to demonstrate that development aid works, and not spreading yourself so thin allows you to have a bigger impact, which you can pick up in the way that you evaluate, you moderate – the way that you analyze and evaluate your projects.

That then allows you to prove to the British public and the American public and everybody around the world that this works and it’s therefore worth investing in. I think that’s a really important argument, because I think there’s a real danger that we lose the aid argument and that the people who are critical of aid, grow in number and grow in voice, and that we see, as I was talking about earlier, a cut in the aid budget. What we need is to be able to really demonstrate aid works.

Also I think, if we actually took projects that were achievable, invested really heavily to make them work, and made it sustainable, we would hopefully be able to move from a certain set of successes in a certain set of areas initially to then look at another set of projects in the second round, and in the third round. Rather than what I feel we’re doing at the minute, which is stretching ourselves so thinly, we’re continuously supporting a lot of different projects, in a lot of different areas, indefinitely, because we’re not investing enough to really make the difference to resolve that issue.

The second thing I think is really important, and maybe is a different way of answering your question, is that, given that aid as a percentage of income, or as a percentage of development, expenditure in countries, is going to go down as those countries become wealthier, as economic growth increases, and the tax take in those countries increases, I think one of the things that organizations like Oxfam, Save the Children and others, probably need to do, is to focus a bit less on doing and more on influencing.

If we could persuade, and Oxfam has done a lot of great work on this, if we can persuade 10 more companies to pay higher levels of tax, and if we can persuade 10 governments to invest that tax in certain types of public services, we can probably have more effect through that than most of the development work that we would do in those countries directly. Because the way that that would scale up through those companies and through those governments would have tremendous and lasting effects on those societies.

My two messages would be, let’s try and do a bit less, but have more effect so that we can demonstrate that aid works, and make sustainable solutions. Second, let’s try and influence governments and businesses and others so that we can see the kinds of policies that we need put in place to systematically reduce things like poverty and equality. That’s probably going to be a more effective way of using our time and resources in the future.

Kurtis: Moving on to some of your articles and books. One of your books is titled Democracy in Africa, obviously taking inspiration from Tocqueville for the title, and you even begin the book with a couple quotes from Tocqueville. I wanted to ask you about Tocqueville’s impact on you, because this struck me just reading through your work as a common theme throughout your work on democracy, this Tocquevillian sense that norms matter, that prior experience with collective local governance matters. You’ve written a lot about decentralization and devolution in Kenya, and that civil society matters. You write a lot about civil society in both Democracy in Africa and in How to Rig an Election among other articles. I’ll put it to you, what parts of Tocqueville’s thought most impact or help shape your thinking?

Nic: Thanks. I think there’s three things. The first is that I really like his approach to democracy, which is essentially, Tocqueville thought that democracy was a pretty poor political system in many ways. He went to America and wrote Democracy in America, basically to tell us how to tame democracy and make it less bad. We had a Churchillian attitude to democracy, which was basically it probably is going to lift up the majority of people and therefore, it probably is a system that we have to accept as a moral authority and it may well be inevitable, but it has all these potentially problematic consequences and what we need to do is work at making democracy work. It’s a constant project, making democracy work.

You don’t just build democracy and then it’s successful. You need to actually prepare the right citizenry to be able to make sure that we don’t have the tyranny of the majority, we don’t have government taking power from individuals who give it away, because they become disconnected from the political system. I like that focus of democracy as a constant struggle to bring out the best and to minimize the worst.

The second thing, yas you say, I really his focus on human beings being active politically and the importance of that to being able to place constraints on the government and that he saw that so early on. Remember, that in many ways he’s writing before the expansion of the presidency and central government in the United States to what it is today, but he saw that expansion. He saw that there would be that expansion of power. He was arguing that the way that you combat that is through local political associations, town hall meetings, civil society, etc. I think that’s very true and the message there is very true.

The third thing I really appreciate really about Tocqueville is that he also reminds us that there’s a constant risk. I mean, I would say in some ways, he’s the first person that I’ve read that talked about the despondency trap that we were just talking about a moment ago. One of the things that Tocqueville is telling us is that in a democracy, citizens might come to feel that they are powerless, given that they are equal to all other citizens and none of those citizens has a particularly powerful opportunity to change the government. He thought that was a contrast to aristocracy, where that was true, you would have people who felt that they could change things because they were aristocrats, they had that land power, wealth, and impact. Democracy would take that away. We’d all be the same.

A lot of what he’s talking about is how do you counteract that apathy? How do you deal with that despondency? How do you stop people turning inwards and becoming insular, turning away from the political system? Because then he predicts, if we do that and the government asks to be given a bit more power, we say, “Oh, sure. Have a bit more power, because we don’t feel empowered to take decisions for ourselves.”

The despondency trap we were talking about earlier in connection to, for example, corruption is actually something he identifies very early on as a risk in the US system. I think most of us could see that today. When you talk to young people about politics, well, I just used the phrase “young people” as if I’m 80. When you talk to our students about politics, one of the things they will say is, “I can’t make a difference. Why should I bother voting? If I put something on Twitter, somebody else has already put it on Twitter. It will be crowded out.” That sense that “I can’t make a difference” is one of the things that disempowers people.

Very quickly though before we move on, we should add the caveat, which is that Tocqueville is being reevaluated in the US and around the world, because it is true, he said very many things, good things about democracy and insightful and important things, but he was blind in many ways to the racial inequality and slavery of the United States. I mean, not necessarily blind, but he didn’t use it as a way to condemn the United States. He’s very silent about it. He doesn’t write effectively about it at all.

Some of his writings about colonialism and empire are also very problematic. There’s been a recent critique of the love of many political scientists of Tocqueville, and of Democracy in Africa, which ignores his attitudes on race and ignores his attitudes towards empire. I think that’s a fair critique. We can’t just take one part of his oeuvre and celebrate it and ignore the fact that there were these other very problematic aspects, as there were with other thinkers of the time, but I do think it’s important for those of us who have championed Tocqueville for a long time to take that on board, and to read those other writings, and to come to terms with, and mention when we’re talking about this that there is this very problematic side of Tocqueville, as well as this side that is rightly celebrated.

Kurtis: You conclude Democracy in Africa talking about potential things that could help consolidate democratization, like some institutional design changes, like federalism, and political decentralization. The fixes you discussed presuppose that current African nation states remain largely as they are. Whereas others, for example, Jeffrey Herbst says, we may need to actually think about redrawing even some of these arbitrarily drawn border boundaries for some African states in order to make them more coherent political units. Do you agree with this? Herbst’s suggestion is a little more radical than yours, a little outside the system. Yours is a little within the system. Do you agree? Do you disagree with that proposition from Herbst?

Nic: I think Herbst’s position is a great provocation and I think it’s a great provocation to think with. I think the problem I have with it to start with is I don’t understand how we even get the ball rolling in that conversation. If you look at Africa’s maps, since independence, with the exception of South Sudan being created, we’ve seen remarkable stability in borders and in nation states. All of the attempts to change that, whether it’s attempts to create an East African federation with a common president, whether it’s attempts to build certain political federations in West Africa, Southern Africa, all of those are generally fallen by the wayside. The reason has almost always been the self-interest of the presidents and prime ministers in control of those countries.

If you want to create an East African federation of an East African president, who’s going to be the president? Well, Museveni wants it to be him. The others aren’t going to accept Museveni, it doesn’t happen. I guess, my question is how do we get this off the ground? How do we actually start that process? How would we go to a country like the DRC and say to the president, “We’re actually going to hive off four or five of the areas of this country to be independent states.” Once we’ve done that, how do we actually draw those boundaries?

One of the things we know that creates tensions and conflicts, if we look at Nigeria and the politics of state creation there and many other parts of Africa, is throwing open questions like, where will we draw the line? I see this as being a politically unfeasible route, even if we decided that it was academically, or developmentally favorable. I’m just not sure it’s going to work. Even if it would work, I think the years of struggle to bring it about might be so problematic that it’s actually worse than what we have now.

I don’t operate within the system, because I think the system is necessarily fantastic, but because I don’t really see how we can operate outside of it. I also think it’s true that we have seen some progress, significant progress, even in countries that share many of the features that Herbst would talk about as being countries that we might want to split apart. Nigeria has significant problems when it comes to development and democracy, but Nigeria has institutionalized presidential term limits and presidents have stepped down, and Nigeria has experienced a democratic transfer of power in 2015.

Now there are still reasons to be concerned about Nigerian democracy under President Buhari, there’s still significant battles to be won, but that’s quite considerable progress. If we were to go back 15, 20 years and talk about Nigeria under the PDP, we would have thought this was an authoritarian, basically one-party dominant state that was going to have no democratic progress over the next 10, 20 years. Where we are now is very different.

I think you could tell a similar story about countries like Kenya, which again have major developmental and democratic challenges today, but have made significant progress. Kenya’s 2010 constitution, a supreme court which has nullified presidential elections, the creation of the devolution. For me, I see a route that is more plausible, which is to actually look at those cases, to see what made them successful, and to try and strengthen that, rather than to do the thinking outside the box of splitting states up and allowing more succession, which I don’t really see as being a particularly plausible route.

Kurtis: Our team at the office, obviously we think a lot about institutions and how difficult and sometimes politically infeasible it is to get genuine institutional change at the national level, which is why we advocate focusing on, and pushing more local level reforms, especially at the city level. I think that dovetails nicely with what you said about one way that the international development community can make themselves more effective is by doing less, better.

I think by localizing, or focusing on city-level reforms definitely aligns with that. What does your work and your experience have to say about cities? I know you said you’ve been working on cities more recently?

Nic: Thanks. Well, I think cities are fascinating and I think cities is obviously one of the big new research agendas in Africa as people start to wake up to how significant city development is going to be to overall political development and economic development over the next 20 years.

The basic fact, that we need to make sure that everyone understands who’s listening, is that we’re talking about a continent that historically has been understood as predominantly rural, becoming a continent that will be predominantly urban over the next 20 to 30 years. That’s a fundamental change in the balance of politics. I edited a series, a book series at Oxford University Press called Africa Politics and International Relations and we published a great book by Robin Harding, called Rural Democracy.

Robin Harding’s argument is that basically, in the 80s, we talked about urban bias. People like Robert Bates talked about urban bias. The idea was African governments prioritize urban areas, because that’s where the riots and protests happen, so they keep food prices low to keep people in urban areas happy, which distorts the economy and harms rural producers, because they get less money for their food, but it’s great for the urbanites who get the food and it stops the riots and the protests. There’s a bias towards urban individuals.

Robin’s argument is that basically, the reintroduction of multi-party politics changed all of that, that all of a sudden we saw a massive shift towards rural areas, because the majority of the population in most countries is in rural areas. Rural voters are also easier in some ways to mobilize. They have less access to information. They might be more dependent on clans, they are more dependent on traditional leaders. Ruling parties typically refocused to prioritize those voters.

As a result of that, they disinvested in urban areas. Urban areas actually started losing out, so we had rural bias as opposed to urban bias. Now what’s really interesting to think through all of that is well, what happens next? If all of a sudden, countries that were previously mostly rural become mostly urban, that trajectory would tell us that we should start to see governments actually refocusing on mobilizing urban electorates, which would see actually governments pulling resources out of rural areas into urban areas in order to be able to win elections.

The fact that we see this urbanization is going to have a profound effect on the relationship between government and supporters. Also, we find in Harding’s work and work that I’ve done and others have done, that this process that he’s talking about has a profound effect on the attitudes of urbanites. People who live in urban areas, I think he shows us are something like 7%, 8% less likely to think the government are doing a good job. There’s something like 7%, 8% less likely to vote for the ruling party. They’re more likely therefore to be sympathetic to the opposition. This is one reason why opposition parties tend to do better in urban areas than rural areas in almost every African country I’ve done research in.

There’s something really interesting here about urban areas as a cauldron of oppositional critical thinking and action. Rural areas is the vote bank for ruling parties, but that process shifting. Are ruling parties going to have to start to re-engage with their urban electorates that they’ve neglected for so long and try and mobilize there? And what policies can they use to do that? I think these are the really interesting questions that are coming up.

The things I’m interested in are really, why do people in urban areas, why are they much more likely to vote for opposition parties? Is it because they’ve got more information? Because they’ve got better access to the Internet, access to the international community? Is it because they’ve got better access for education? Is it the mechanism that Robin Harding is talking about, that effectively we’ve seen a drift of resources into rural areas and underinvestment in urban areas?

Also, drawing on the Latin American literature, which emerged around the urbanization there, are cities going to be the fulcrum of new ideas about citizenship, about what it is to be a good citizen, about what it means to have your rights? Is this where the movement in favor of human rights, of reducing inequality, of pushing back on government waste and corruption is going to come from? Out of the cities, we’re going to start to see new forms of political expression, new forms of political party.

I’m always wary when people say, “Oh, this will be the next thing that will give us policy-based politics, or non-ethnic politics, or non-communal politics.” I’m always wary of that idea, because of course, it’s very easy for political leaders and parties to subvert and capture constituencies, and we’ve seen them do that successfully over time. William Reno’s work on places like Nigeria shows us how that can be done.

I think it’s also true that one of the things we might start to see in these urban areas is things like populist politics become much more effective. Perhaps overtime as the rise of the middle-class continues and the expansion of education continues, a transfer of that populist politics into something that looks more like a sustainable left-of-center politics. I think that would be a really significant political development in a number of different African countries, and could happen over the next 20 to 30 years.

My interest is in how all of that connects the economic development aspect of that, how that shapes the views of voters, how voters send signals to parties, and whether or not ruling parties are really going to try and chase the urban votes. If they do, what that will look like.

Kurtis: Full disclosure, Robin is my PhD supervisor at Oxford, and I’m ashamed to say that I have not read his recent book yet. I will plug it now though and hopefully, that he therefore forgives me. Buy Robin’s book, Rural Democracy. Nic says it’s great. There, hopefully I am forgiven.

On the topic of cities, Lagos has been pretty successful recently in implementing some very substantive reforms, especially in their tax system. That’s provided a lot more revenues to channel towards public goods and needed infrastructure. What makes the Lagos case so successful and what’s the potential for replication in other African cities?

Nic: Thanks. As you say, I mean, a lot of people have been interested in this, because it creates that opportunity, which you guys are interested in, which is exactly what you’re doing, which is to see innovation from the bottom-up. If we’re frustrated with governments that aren’t actually doing things, that are stuck in their ways, maybe the answer is that we see the innovation from below, and cities become the new source of that.

Particularly in places like Nigeria with a federal system, where a lot of power and money is at the local level, or the state level. You think that can be the driver of innovation. If one or two states or cities start to do this, others will follow suit and then that will have a contagion effect. Others will want to follow suit, because they see it being successful. That competition between cities or states for investment will drive the take-up of really effective innovative strategies.

I was really interested in the Lagos case. I worked a bit with the government of Babatunde Fashola, the second governor since the reintroduction of modern party politics to do some surveys and research, to try and understand attitudes of people in Lagos towards their government, and towards things like paying taxes, and how you could actually turn around a place that, for a long time, people felt was a classic example of a corrupt, predatory government and a population that didn’t want to engage with the government, because they felt that it wasn’t on their side.

What we found was really interesting. What we found was that, basically, the best way or a number of ways to encourage people to want to pay taxes, one of which of course is that people are more willing to pay taxes if they approve of the performance of the governor, if the governor seemed to be doing an effective job. Another was that one of the drivers of being willing to pay taxes in Lagos was being in receipt of public services. The more people felt that they were in receipt of services that were provided by the Lagos State government itself, the more they were willing to pay taxation to that government.

We were able to show in a number of different ways through panel surveys that people being persuaded, either people being delivered more services, or people being informed that the services they were getting were from the Lagos State government, made them more willing to pay their taxes. That story that we’re telling about willingness to pay tax is mirrored in Lagos by a significant increase in the amount of tax collected by the government from PAYE, from income tax. That significantly increases over time and you and others will know the story, that Lagos, if it was counted as a country, I think would be the fourth or fifth biggest economy in Africa on its own.

That success story has been driven by changes made at the Lagos State government level and through the Lagos Inland Revenue Service, but it’s been underpinned by an improvement in the willingness of individuals to pay tax in response to the effectiveness of their government providing public services.

The conclusion that we’ve reached from that is that you can build that social contract relatively quickly, even in contexts which are ethnically and religiously diverse, even in areas where the government has historically been seen as being predatory and corrupt. You can get that social contract off the ground relatively quickly with a government that clearly signals that it’s willing to do things differently, makes some high-profile changes, and delivers more services more effectively to citizens. That social contract can be generated within 10, 15 years. That’s a good reason to be optimistic.

Then you’ve got to ask the second question. The second question is why did it happen? That’s another paper that I wrote with Diane de Gramont, who was a fantastic masters student of mine and did brilliant research on this. After she left, we put together some of that in a journal article, which came out a few years ago on what actually happened to enable this in Lagos.

In there, we basically point to a few different dynamics. One, you have a political elite that is attracted to what Jeff Scott would have called high modernist ideals. Modernizing the city, bringing in really high-level, high-class development, turning Lagos into an African equivalent of New York, something like that. Really big, expensive development plans, but real commitment to those amongst a political elite.

At the same time, you’ve got a group of people who are fairly confident that they can stay in charge of Lagos itself, in terms of Lagos State government, in the near future, which gives them a long time horizon. They’re not thinking that they’re going to lose power tomorrow, so they’re not necessarily thinking, “We need to get everything we want out of this in one year, two year, four years.” They’re thinking, “This can be a long-term project, because we can retain control of this at the local level.”

You’ve got that belief that it’s worth investing, and it’s worth building systems that will pay dividends in the future, because you believe you’re going to be in control in the future. You’ve got an elite that’s actually willing to do things, like invest in tax systems, when the benefits might come two or three years down the line, when potentially you might be out of power. There’s the belief that it’s going to be a similar elite in power in the future to what’s in power now, and so you get that investment, but that investment and that long time horizon within the Lagos State context is combined with the fact that this is an opposition grouping, which is in opposition to the national ruling party.

Therefore, you’ve got the external threat that you sometimes need to really focus a political elite’s mind and attitude. Often in literature on developmental states, for example developmental states in parts of Asia, you see the idea that an external threat was really important in focusing minds on long-term economic growth, which was necessary to protect the country, so it becomes almost a point of national security. In Lagos, we see an existential threat, which is you’ve got an opposition grouping within a dominant PDP national government, which wants to do well, to be able to demonstrate that it can do well, but also needs to do well because it needs to be able to survive independently from the central government, which it worries might one day want to wipe it out.

It’s that tension between being locally in control, but nationally in opposition, combined with the focus of this elite on a high modernist set of values that generates this desire that, “Okay, what we’re going to do is we’re going to transform Lagos, and we’re going to build a new social contract around principles of tax payment, principles of greater delivery,” bringing in some low-hanging fruit, so beautification of certain areas, improving certain kinds of transport. That package turned out for a while to be very successful.

I think the question that we had when we were doing the research with Fashola, was he was seen to be a credible leader who was more of a bureaucrat or technocrat and he led things very much personally from the front. The question we had towards the end of our research was, “Can that be sustained? Is that something that the new governor,” because when we were working with him, it was his final term in office, “Is that something the new governor will keep going? Is that something that the governor after that will keep going? Will this become institutionalized into a really long-term story? Was it also possible for the corruption and patronage elements of this to be maintained?”

One of the things that we think happened, as part of this, is that, one of the ways that the elite basically made it pay, was that they found a way to effectively make institutionalizing processes pay for the political elite, as well as for the people. That was by investing, essentially allowing a private company to take over part of the tax collection process.

A company that it’s believed is owned by some of the political elite, who then in collecting the taxes generate revenues and profits for the elite, as well as generating far more money for the state itself. The state is generating more money over time, but as it does so, it’s also generating profits, which are going into the pockets of the political elites, enabling them to strengthen their own political networks.

In other words, it’s not to say that there is no patronage clientelism, or problematic politics going on, but the political elites managed to find a way of structuring it, so that that was productive for the state and building institutions, rather than completely eviscerating them, as it has done in some other cases.

Kurtis: Turning to your more recent book, How to Rig an Election, obviously this is very topical right now. There’s been democratic backsliding across the globe in recent years. We currently have a US election going on with an incumbent populist, in the midst of a pandemic. I wanted to ask, in the book, you outline your methodology in the appendix and it says, and I’m going to quote here, “Though we have interviewed autocrats and their allies, they rarely admit to specific tactics,” which of course leaves open the fact that some have told you some things, that admitted to certain tactics.

I’ve got to ask, during your interviews with some of these competitive authoritarians, or counterfeit democrats, was there a particular story of rigging that stuck with you? That struck you as especially bizarre, or even ingenious, or creative?

Nic: I think one of the stories that really struck with me, which we did talk about with a leader, was what an interview that my friend Brian and co-author, Brian Klaas did with the former Madagascan president, Marc Ravalomanana. One of the strategies that was done here was basically – it’s a great story. It’s worth going into a little bit of depth. It’s in Madagascar.

Effectively, the president has to work out how to exclude his rival. Now the rival has left the country and gone into exile, and wants to come back to lodge his nomination papers for the presidential election. Now due to a quirk of Malagasy law, you have to actually lodge the papers yourself, personally. You can’t have someone do it for you. The president realizes this, realizes that his main rival is potentially coming from exile into the country, and closes down all the airports. Closing down all the airports is actually a legal move, because the president does, I think, have the power to close the airport under certain states of emergency.

I think this happens once on a commercial flight, maybe from France. Once it happens on another flight. The opposition candidate, I think, once hires a plane and tries to come in that way. I think it’s three times, three times, the president closes all the airports in the country, so that the plane can’t land. Plane can’t land, so the candidate can’t get in the country. Candidate can’t get in the country, so he cannot lodge his nomination papers. Therefore, he’s not allowed to stand.

Now this was actually taken to the courts. The courts, I believe, ruled that this was a case in which, although it was clear that there had been significant politicization of the issues, the president did have the power to close the airports. It was the candidate’s responsibility and not the president’s to present the papers, and so the courts ruled that the election could go ahead without the candidate.

Brian knows Madagascar much better than I do, and has done things like election observation there, but I believe what happened in the resulting election was that the president won in a landslide, because his main opposition rival was not allowed to contest. Now there are two significant points there. One, obviously this is a way of rigging an election well before the election. If you rig an election like this, you don’t need to bother with rigging on the day, because you’ve basically taken out your main rival. You can actually allow the process to be relatively free and fair.

What does that mean? That means that what most observers see around the election is actually not so bad. Quite a lot of observation groups did not condemn the election, because the process around election day was pretty good. The counting process was pretty good. The result was what was voted. The problem was of course, there was not one of the main candidates on the ballot. I think, this is one of the things that I would say in general that we as an international community, if we’re concerned about elections and democracy, need to take more seriously.

The election observers do now have long-term observers in place. All of the big observation groups will have someone in the country three months before, and they will hire political experts on the country to advise them. It’s not the case that they’re blind to these issues at all. They’re very well-informed about them. I still think as an international community we don’t necessarily prioritize them as much as we should. We’re still looking for the smoking gun of fraud on the day, and we’re not looking at how the combined effect of gerrymandering, under-registration of certain communities, exclusion of certain candidates, subtle intimidation, harassment, subtle censorship of the media, how that creates an environment that effectively means that, by the time you’re going into election day, the president should be winning with a 10%-15% majority and therefore, doesn’t need to commit the election day atrocities that would make the front pages around the world.

That more subtle and intelligent form of rigging, I think is one of the biggest challenges to contemporary democracy. I think we need to step up by really focusing on that and condemning that as much as we would someone stopping the ballot box.

Kurtis: The stuff, those more subtle actions that take place before the election even happens, you guys call it “invisible rigging” in the book. You have this maybe continuum, or graph of different techniques. I think there’s six different techniques that you and your co-author, Brian Klaas, outline in the book. Can you talk about the “sweet spot?” The techniques that you and Brian found were extremely effective?

Nic: Yeah. The idea of the sweet spot is, and a lot of this comes from talking to some of the people who advise presidents on how to manipulate elections, who especially, if they’ve been sacked recently, are more willing to give up their secrets than the presidents, or the presidential advisors themselves.

One of the things that they will often tell us is, “Look, you’re looking for a strategy that’s likely to win you a lot of ground, but is unlikely to be found out, or if it is found out is unlikely to be condemned.” There’s some stuff you can do that they know doesn’t actually win them elections. Vote buying doesn’t usually win you an election. It’s very expensive, but especially if people think their vote is secret, people will often take the money and vote for who they want to. Vote buying is often something you have to do, because otherwise you might risk alienating a community, but it rarely actually wins you the election.

The stuff that wins you the election, the real sweet spot stuff, is stuff you can do months in advance. Gerrymandering is a classic example. Fixing electoral districts so that you can win more seats with fewer votes and control the legislative assembly, even if you win 40% of the vote nationally. That’s a natural phenomenon in some countries, because of the way the first past the post-Westminster system works. We see in a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the legacy of gerrymandering, of the early multi-party period and of the one-party state, where, effectively, ruling party areas have many more constituencies than opposition areas, and so they can win more seats with fewer votes. That’s a classic strategy that really works.

The exclusion strategy is also really effective. The Madagascar case we were talking about a moment ago is high-profile and in some ways, ridiculous. You can also find other ways of excluding a candidate. You can exclude them on the accusation that they’re an ethnic candidate, or a religious candidate. A lot of countries in Africa have legal provisions against explicitly ethnic or religious parties. You could potentially veto someone that way.

You can get trumped up charges against them of corruption, or of some criminal offense, and have them arrested and detained. There are lots of other ways of trying to exclude your main rival candidate that aren’t just stopping the airports from allowing somebody to land.

One of the things that we really found talking to some of the people who’ve been in this game for a long time was that, in their opinion, if you’re rigging the election close to election day, you’re an amateur. You haven’t really learned how to play the game. If you’re doing it properly, you’ve got the election sewn up a few months ahead of time, you can coast to election day knowing that it’s quite unlikely that you’re actually going to face a significant challenge. That’s what I found really interesting.

The other thing I think that’s worth thinking about a little bit more now, and this comes from research I did in Zimbabwe in the run-up to the last Zimbabwean election, is the effectiveness of what some people in Zimbabwe who were interviewed about this, called subtle violence, subtle intimidation. The idea here is that if you go back to 2008 when ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe were trying to hold on against the MDC, the Move for Democratic Change and Morgan Changaray. He clearly had the majority support. He clearly was going to win a runoff election, having beaten Mugabe in the first round, but according to electoral commission not got over 50% of the vote in the first round. The wave of violence was explicit, it was extreme, it was condemned around the world, led to negotiations, it led to a power sharing arrangement and so on.

It was basically something that kept Mugabe in power, but it led to a lot of costs. The costs were they had to accept power share and they had to accept Changaray as prime minister. They had to have the complication of governing with the MDC, because of the international condemnation of the violence used in the election.

Fast forward to 2017, they’re in a very different situation. President Mnangagwa has replaced Mugabe, and the new regime wants to look like a democratic regime. Partly because it knows that’s the way to reopen access to international financial institutions and international financial flows, but also because it wants to make sure that people don’t think it took power in a coup, which of course it did.

“Military-assisted transition” might be the favored phrase at the moment, but effectively the military took control of the country, eased out the former president, eased in Mnangagwa. By doing so, it significantly increased its political influence.

It was important for them to deliver a good quality election that didn’t look like the Zimbabwe of the past, as a way of moving people on, basically drawing a line under the transition, asserting Mnangagwa as a more democratic leader. The way that they tried to do that was effectively by not using the violence of the past, but by using this more subtle form of intimidation.

Something that is sometimes referred to as “shaking the matchbox.” If you burned someone’s house to the ground once, you don’t need to do it the second time. You just need to stand outside their door shaking a matchbox. Their people would talk to us about people outside of uniform, but known to be military figures, who turned up in villages wandering around, just asking people how they were going to vote.

Nobody was punched in the face, no one was hit deliberately. They were basically intimidated through threats, through language, through being reminded of what happened in 2008, and the implication being that it could happen again if they didn’t vote the right way. Now at the time, I think that was pretty successful. I think that contributed to Mnangagwa’s election victory. I think it enabled him to basically maintain control of a situation in which, actually, there was relatively little public support for him at the time.

What’s happened since of course is that that’s exploded. Basically, the government seems to reverted to type, we’ve seen a horrendous abuse of power and repression, including the abduction of journalists, including my friend Hopewell Chin’ono who was abducted and still being held. The government seems to have completely abandoned that strategy now. There was violence around the results of the elections being released and the shooting of protesters and so on, which was horrendous. That’s all been abandoned subsequently.

That strategy that was used in the campaign itself was a very clever one. It effectively enabled Mnangagwa to retain control without doing anything that could really be condemned internationally as the human rights abuses that were experienced in the past. What I worry about is that we’re going to see more governments learning that trick, that you can actually intimidate your population without hurting people, in the way that allows journalists to take pictures.

You can do it as a psychological form of torture, rather than as a physical form of torture. That becomes then very difficult to track, to monitor, to record and for observation groups, etc., to condemn. One of the things I think we need to do, as an international community, again, if we care about the quality of elections, is to be much more vigilant and aware of that and then to find ways of monitoring that and addressing that, rather than allowing that to become established as a new form of electoral manipulation.

Kurtis: In the book, you talk about, you label them “counterfeit democrats.” That concept strikes me how much that concept applies across a lot of realms in international development, above and beyond democracy, and above and beyond Africa. Just for example, counterfeit aid, right? Political leaders saying they’ll meet donor conditionality’s, but really doing the bare minimum to just continue to get as much aid as possible. Counterfeit decentralization. You’ve written about devolution in Kenya and other places.

Some could even say, counterfeit civil society. You wrote a lot about civil society and democracy in Africa and how trade unions and churches and religious organizations have often been co-opted by the state. This notion of “counterfeit” seems to apply widely and aligns with Lant Pritchett and some co-authors wrote about state capabilities, where there’s this disconnect between form and function, between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. How do you go from high-level thinking about institutions to actual on-the-ground implementation when you constantly have to worry about counterfeits?

Nic: It’s really tricky. I think one of the things that’s obviously required is a tremendous amount of understanding the context and the nuance. I don’t think that’s something that’s impossible for outsiders and international academics and donors, etc., to do, but I do think it’s something that tremendously benefits from actually empowering more local voices.

I think one of the things that I would really like to see over the next 10, 15 years, and I’ll hopefully work towards this myself, is that we not disempower some of the international forces, like myself who’ve been banging on about this for 10, 15 years, but that we focus increasingly on strengthening those voices of people in African countries who understand the context, who live it day by day, and the domestic civil society organizations, the journalists, the people who are being currently harassed and detained in countries like Zimbabwe.

I think that’s the only way really to square the circle. That’s the only way to actually be able to constantly expose and challenge the attempts to do counterfeit processes. I think some of the accusations that are made against international donors, international election observers, I think sometimes are a little bit too strong. There are significant challenges and there are significant ways we need to strengthen. I think they have gone a long way in terms of trying to understand local context much better.

I think that we need to go beyond that. I think, in order to make these things sustainable, we also should want to be able to remove the international support for democracy in elections and to have that last. We should be able to be in a position, where we remove international election observation, and elections are fine, because domestic monitors are so strong and so respected that they can do the job. We should be able to remove international groups, like Amnesty International and others, and have domestic voices on civil liberties, etc., that are still powerful and strong. Not because there’s anything wrong with Amnesty and those organizations, but because that’s how we build long-term sustainability, where African countries own their own democracy and own their own processes and they are genuinely domestically sustainable.

I think the answer to how we do this is that we transfer control of the evaluation of democracy, from international observation to the way that Freedom House and others to decide how democratic countries are for their indices, that we transfer as much of that as possible away from the north and to the south. That I think is one of the agendas.

If you think about a combination, an intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Black and the Ivory movement within academia, along with the complaints that are being made about developments being too white, northern, and male. If we put all of those together, the common central theme is that we need to move not just the work around this but the power around this, the power to set the agenda, the funding, the access to knowledge and information, from the north to the south. Both of them are horrendous terms, the north in the south. For want of a better phrase as a shortcut.

I think in a way, what works for actually doing a better job of exposing some of the counterfeit processes, and what’s required from the point of view of global knowledge inequalities and responding to the need to create more equal access to knowledge, and information, and research funding, go in the same direction. I think one of the things I’d really like to see, as all try and do, this is big funding bodies in academia, big development agencies, big charities, big INGOs, is to increasingly try and make that process work.

That’s difficult, because it means giving up control, giving up some control over resources, giving up some control over the ability to set the agenda. That’s going to be very difficult for some governments and some charities to do. It’s a very painful process, having been used to doing that for a long time. I think it’s the only way really to build locally sustainable civil society groups that reflect domestic priorities, rather than international ones, and are able to do that exposure.

Kurtis: On that note, strengthening domestic voices, you are doing some work with local journalists and such as part of this new, The Continent, local journalists and giving voice to that. I think it’s a partnership with The Guardian as well. Then you do publish some blog posts and other articles on democracy in Africa. Do you want to chat about that a bit?

Nic: Sure. The Continent is a fabulous new venture by the Mail and Guardian in South Africa, but it’s got an existence well beyond that now, where effectively it’s free. It’s a free, fabulous newspaper that comes out every week. You can get it via WhatsApp. It’s been specially designed to look great on a mobile phone and to be shared via WhatsApp.

The idea is to try and get news and information and access to information to people who might normally get it, both by making it free, but also by making it something that can be shared by mobile phone. In principle, anybody with a mobile phone that can get a PDF on WhatsApp can access this newspaper. There’s a major commitment here to publishing African journalists, but also to publishing African researchers.

My group, Democracy in Africa, we have a formal collaboration with The Continent. Every week, we basically bring the views of a brilliant African researcher on a topical issue to a much wider audience, hopefully by publishing it in The Continent. So far, we’ve done, I think, eight different collaborations of eight fabulous researchers on topics from, as we were talking about earlier, the role of foreign aid, to the repression of journalists, to the way that the pandemic is being manipulated, to the role of fake news, and so on.

I think it’s just one of the things that we have to do much more systematically now is to really do anything we can to strengthen voices. Yeah, Democracy in Africa, my website, we try and promote and publish as many authors as we can, and we try and make sure that we publish a majority of authors from the African continent, bringing through, hopefully, young authors who’ve got journal articles, or books out who are interested in communicating them to a wider audience, helping them to write their blogs and publish their blogs. Hopefully then, that’s a stepping stone, maybe they write for Democracy in Africa, then we work with them to write for The Continent, and then from The Continent, they might write for The Conversation, or another blog, and then perhaps, for other newspapers. From there on, they can take it for themselves.

It’s an attempt to generate that sharing of academic knowledge to a much broader audience, because I think one of the things that many of us are aware of is that we can write books and spend a lot of time spending public money on writing books, which are then sold for £60 in libraries, and appear in a small number of libraries, and are available to a small number of students, all of whom are based in northern institutions.

I think it’s difficult to change that entire publication model and the cost structure of that, but we can work on that. While we’re doing that, we can publish those findings in easy, accessible format for free. In that way, share our research much more effectively. I think, we all have an obligation to do that. Hopefully, Democracy in Africa does that. It’s an extent for politics research on Africa and hopefully, The Continent does that for journalism in Africa and research on Africa more generally.

We’ve also started the new podcast series as a discussion space podcast series called The Resistance Bureau, which has been fabulous and had a lot of excitement. We’ve had some major politicians there. Great civil society and journalist leaders. Again, hopefully that’s going to be another opportunity to focus on, and prioritize, and amplify these voices in this research. What we’re doing is a very small gesture in a much bigger campaign and movement being led by many other people. Hopefully, we’re playing our part. I hope that we can see, over the next few years, as institutions around the world respond to these movements, that this will start to be mainstreamed in the way that, in general, everybody tries to operate from the big university presses, all the way through to the academic journals.

That there is an increasing focus on both making things open access, getting things into Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world, where, at the minute, there isn’t a great supply, for example, of books from some of the top publishers. Also, getting those things out there in much more accessible form, so that they can be consumed by a much bigger public than the people who are sitting in the ivory towers.

Kurtis: Great. Well, Nic Cheeseman, that is all the questions I had. Thanks again so much for joining us today and for the great discussion.

Nic: Pleasure. Thank you very much.

Mark: Thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit Follow us on social media @CCIdotCity on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter and thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast.

Links mentioned in today’s episode:

Prof. Nic Cheeseman

Prof. Nic Cheeseman on Twitter

Democracy in Africa

How to Rig an Election

Democracy in Africa

Democracy in Africa on Twitter

Democracy in America

The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa

Department for International Development

Regional and British International Development Policy

Jeffrey Herbst

The African Affairs Reader: Key Texts in Politics, Development, and International Relations

Rural Democracy

Cheeseman and de Gramont on Lagos

Decentralization in Kenya

Building State Capability program

The Continent by Mail & Guardian

The Resistance Bureau Podcast

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