The Kenyan Tenderbox

Pithy quotes about globalization have taken a beating recently.  Last year, Tom Friedman’s statement that no two countries with McDonalds franchises have gone to war was falsified when Russia invaded Georgia.  This New York Times article about Kenya suggests another famous pronouncement might be in doubt: Amartya Sen’s claim that no famine has ever occurred in a democracy.

Sen said the reason was that famines were avoidable, and no democratic government would allow one to occur because it would be bad for the incumbents’ re-election prospects. I am not sure what qualifies as a “famine,” but when the World Food Program four million Kenyans (10% of the population) are in urgent need of food, the “famine” threshold is surely either imminent or crossed.  However, it now looks like the democratic government of Kenya is doing very little to alleviate widespread hunger caused by a drought.  If the reporter is to be believed, the political elites are consumed with in-fighting and preparing for the 2012 election and are not paying attention to what is happening amongst the people.

Two points here: 1) Natural resource-based disasters have a very high likelihood of becoming ethnic conflicts.  Robert Bates has written extensively on this.  The reason is simple: different ethnic groups usually occupy different geographic areas, and disasters like droughts affect some areas more than others.  This leads to inter-regional conflict that is then “ethnicized” because ethnicity is such as an easily mobilized cleavage.

2)  Why are democratic incentives not operating to get elites to focus on the problem as Sen says they usually do?  Only a Kenya expert could really say, but I might float a few possibilities.  One is that Dambisa Moyo is right that foreign aid flows have thoroughly distorted elite incentives.  Aid operates not unlike oil in creating a source of money separate from constituents, and elites shift their focus accordingly.  However, here it looks like aid flows have been shut off because of poor governance, undermining this reason’s plausibility.

Another reason is that elites may have determined that the next election will not be decided by voters, and they are competing with each other over how exactly the election fraud will proceed.  This sounds an awful lot like the sort of factionalized democracy the Political Instability Task Force found so likely to end in state failure.

Add the ethnic conflict together with the factionalized politics, and you have to say Kenya is looking like a tenderbox.


About Jake Wobig

I teach international relations and comparative politics at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina
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