Book Review: Prosperity and Violence by Robert H. Bates

In Prosperity and Violence, Robert H. Bates explores the relationship between political structures and economic development. Political institutions, in his definition, are formal and informal structures that hold a monopoly on violence in a particular area. Bates reflects that early societies established privatized violence rooted in families and feudal communities. But as societies grew and families began to emerge as monarchs, the state materialized as a formal monopoly on violence – not for peace, but to “tame” violence in a way that best fit the interests of the rulers and (sometimes) the ruled.

When these institutions, both formal and informal, are inefficient, violence creates an environment where economic growth is stunted. Bates cites post-independence Uganda as an example. Formal institutions imposed by British colonial rule, as Douglass North would argue, were mismatched with the existing informal institutions. Big-man rule is a common informal institution in many African countries that has often taken precedent over the formal mechanisms of democracy. In Uganda, from 1971 to 1979, President Idi Amin’s “reign of terror” led to hundreds of thousands of state-sanctioned murders and war.

Bates reflects on his experiences in Uganda post-Amin. He found that the proliferation of small arms in villages across the country led to “cycles of violence and retribution” because the state failed to tame violence efficiently (32). In this climate, it is hard to envision investment or economic growth. Imagine a world where poor Americans were asked to start new businesses in their impoverished neighborhoods without access to credit. Very few entrepreneurs would have the incentive to try, knowing they would likely fail. Now imagine removing all the police from these neighborhoods. The likelihood that existing businesses would survive is slim; the chances that new investment would occur is nil. On page 33, Bates asks tough questions:

“In the midst of violence, how should they best raise their children? How do you teach a child to work hard, to go to school, or to be honest, when that child may die young? And why should a child, or anyone else, do without today, when there may not be a tomorrow?”

One key argument in Prosperity and Violence is that without an efficient state to tame violence, societies will primarily engage in consumption rather than investment. They will think about dinner tonight, rather than breakfast tomorrow. How can we blame them? In places where stability has rarely existed, the future is always uncertain. Survival demands that people remain risk averse in these environments. It is only when the symbols of tamed power reemerge and hope of lasting peace returns that people begin to strategize for the future again. However, we should not assume that those who have experienced instability and violence, who are still experiencing it, lack hope. Africans are the most hopeful people I know. Speaking to Rwandans and Congolese, their hope is striking considering the brutalities they have endured. They have dreams and ambitions that most Americans would be afraid to voice, for fear of being labeled as unrealistic. Bates admits this too. He argues, “Members of agrarian societies can and do seek to invest…In such societies, however, the pursuit of improvement is checked. As noted by my Ugandan counterparts, when the future is uncertain, investment, though desirable, may not be a rational act (33).”

According to Bates, the inefficient state that fails to monopolize power in a way that encourages investment and economic growth should be blamed for the lack of development in many parts of the world. He argues that when the state fails to tame violence, people are more likely to consume for today than invest in tomorrow. This is a compelling thesis. My own anecdotal experiences in D.R. Congo show a similar trend. As stability began to ferment in Kisangani, the subtle hints of progress began to emerge in the form of new restaurants, supermarkets, and freshly painted buildings. Like a fine wine, time also plays a large role in stability-driven investment, producing the variety of flavors that suit individual tastes and preferences.

But how does Bates explain the persistent poverty and slow investment in Uganda today? Last week, 25-year incumbent President Yoweri Museveni was reelected. While some would argue he embodies the same Big Man institution as President Amin, under President Museveni’s NRM government, Uganda has seen stability for longer than at any other time in its post-colonial history. Parts of Uganda have experienced untamed power, especially in Acholiland where the Lord’s Resistance Army has killed, maimed, and raped in the name of a holy crusade against the present government. But in recent years, even this violence has become somewhat tamed as the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces pushed the LRA into D.R.C. and South Sudan. Uganda has seen economic growth over the past two decades, but this growth has made a limited impact on the rural communities that Bates refers to in his text. Only in Kampala are sure signs of investment visible, but even there, residents still experience potholed roads, significant barriers to education, and inefficient healthcare systems.

When applying Bates’s paradigm to my own anecdotal experiences, I am left with more questions than answers. How long does it take for stability to lead to economic investment? Is the investment that grows out of state-tamed violence limited to small-scale changes in localized communities? Or could it be possible for a country to develop simply because the state provided stability? While the example from D.R.C. shows that people in a particular community are keen to reach toward tomorrow given that stability has lasted today and yesterday and the day before, Uganda presents a complex challenge to Bates’s model. What are the limits to stability alone? And what other factors combined with stability can ensure investment in tomorrow?


Former rebels who have been rehabilitated in the FARDC, Kisangani, D.R.C, Summer 2010

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