Unwarranted Advice That South Sudan Should Probably Ignore

A few days ago, David Leonhardt interviewed Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee about their new book, and asked them what advice they would give the new government of South Sudan if they had only a few minutes to speak to them. Duflo’s suggestions were quite general:

First of all, I would try to convince them that a key priority would be to invest enough money and talent in running good quality social services for the poor, including free access to good schools, preventive medical care, and hospitals. […]

Second, I think I would try to convince them to run anti-poverty policy in a more intelligent way than what we see in most countries. […] [T]hey will still have a lot more to learn about the best ways to achieve their objectives. So I would like to advise them to always keep some margin to experiment, in order to find the best programs to reach those goals.

Banerjee was a bit more specific:

[H]ere are two policies that I think every poor country should implement. A small universal cash grant to everyone over 12, based on biometric identification. This guarantees that no one has to face the humiliation of being totally indigent, and from our evidence, makes people more productive as well. Making it universal is important, so that they do not attempt to identify the poor (which is very difficult to do effectively in poor countries).

Second, a free universal health insurance policy that covers catastrophic health events, which allows people to go to private or public hospitals.

Chris Blattman declaring an intention to “be provocative,” argues that those should be the last priorities to implement. Rather, he says, the new government should focus on seven key goals:

1. Build compacts, possibly unequal and unsavory ones, with warlords and other big men, giving them a stake in continued peace, even if it means they control crucial ministries or development organs.

2. But for goodness sake try not to give up the ministries or development organs. There are non-pecuniary ways to buy people off. And spread it out so you get petty barons rather than oligarchs. They’ll be easier to deal with in 20 years when you have the strength.

3. Next, give every incentive for elites, especially the ones apt to war, to invest in fixed assets whose value depends on stability and growth. Make them entrepreneurs. Oil rigs don’t count. Property in Juba does. So do plantations and small factories, even if they need subsidies to operate at first. This is hard, and will require attention and dedication.

4. Aim for minimal corruption in twenty years, not two.

5. Create a minimally competent police force, one that is less criminal than the criminals. And a court system, with particular attention to the places where ethnic groups repeatedly clash over land or rights or respect. Target programs to these hotspots to buy some measure of content.

6. Train and educate the military like the bejeezus, and at all costs do not let it slip into factions.

7. Roads, roads, roads. Not only are they good for growth, they are good for exerting state control and building a sense of nation.

On balance, I think I’m more with Chris on this one. Of course, my first piece advice for the new government of South Sudan would be “don’t take advice from some random lawyer in New York who’s never set foot in your country or, come to think of it, even seen very many photos.” If they stuck around, I’d probably try my one-size-fits-all advice for all situations, which is “hydrate, and don’t let anyone boss you around.”

However, if for some reason I had to give governance recommendations – which I can only imagine would occur during some sort of state-building drinking game at South Sudan’s statehood shower – I would probably explain that as far as I’m concerned, states are supposed to do these four things:

  1. Deal with the problem of poop. Humans poop a lot, and unfortunately human poop also makes us very sick if we don’t dispose of it properly. Animal poop is also a problem. This is a hard problem for people to handle without central coordination. So, states should make sure that they have some sort of system in place to keep poop separate from people’s drinking water, food, etc. This is not a particularly simple problem to solve (you probably need a water system in addition to a poop-disposal system) but it also doesn’t necessarily require a modern sewer system.
  2. Make disputes resolvable by means other than violence. Without doing this, the state cannot have a monopoly on violence. If people have to use violence to get what they are promised, then they will spend a lot of energy trumping each others’ violent capabilities. A recipe for stability this is not – it’s likely to harden divisions between ethnic groups, families, religions, and any other societal divisions people can find lying around, because “us vs. them” is a good way to kick the amount of hell you can unleash up a notch from “me vs. you.” A recipe for stability that is not. This is a hard one to fix, and it will take a while, but it’s worth it.
  3. Ensure that people can feed themselves without having to actually grow their own food. Okay, that’s hyperbole. I really mean “make sure there are reliable enough roads that no part of your country becomes physically cut off from the rest of the world for any meaningful amount of time.” Reliability in this context means both that there is a physical, traverse-able road, and that it is safe to traverse it. Checkpoints at which merchants are extorted by bandits, (roving or otherwise), will cause you to lose points. Again, this is hard. I get that. But you’re forming a new state, what made you think it would be easy?
  4. Make citizenship meaningful. A state doesn’t exist in the absence of its citizenry. Define citizenship. Identify your citizens. Count them. Give them an ID or a certificate or something that they can use to prove their citizenship. Make it easy to register babies and marriages. Be clear about what rights non-citizens have. (I recommend “basically all of them.”) This is step 1 of the “you give me taxes, I give you state services” process. Don’t forget steps 2 and 3.

This is quite general advice, and I’m definitely not saying that South Sudan is winning or losing on any of those points. It’s not as if they’re solved problems for any nation – I can think of substantial ways in which the United States fails in all four areas, even though things here work quite well for the most part. However, they’re good goals to work towards.

Education and health care aren’t on this list. That’s not because I don’t think they’re important. On the contrary, I love that stuff! It’s just that education and health care are easier for people to get from the private sector or NGOs than the stuff on my list. However, if South Sudan have the means, they should definitely take education and health care out for a spin. They are so choice.

My expertise is primarily in the area of #2, but this post is extremely long already, so I don’t want to go into too much detail about that. In a nutshell, though: build your court system from the bottom up. Small claims courts are important. Don’t assume that you need career lawyers or judges to resolve disputes; we’re expensive and kind of annoying. Consider training paralegals and people who already occupy positions of authority in the community instead. Don’t let your police officers rape, rob, or kill with impunity. (Again, not really a solved problem elsewhere, but an important goal nevertheless.)

For the love of god, isn’t this drinking game over yet?

(via MR and Chris Blattman)

Amanda Taub


  1. "Forget all y'all, we're investing in agriculture!" – Baby RoSS

    "South Sudan officials say they will focus on weaning the economy away from oil by investing in the country's agricultural sector, which is among the most fertile in the region. But the world's newest country, hived off Saturday from Sudan, Africa's largest nation, still lacks basic health, education and roads, not to mention hotels, a decent airstrip and other essentials to accommodate investors."


  2. I love this post, I wish they had invited you to that statehood shower (and made sure they listened to you before getting completely pissed), I think it's a brilliant general recap of how to prioritise in situations post-conflict nation building, and I will make sure I remember the one-size-fit-all-solution in all personal crises from now on

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