#BookClub: Rural Democracy – Elections and Development in Africa

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In the latest in our popular #bookclub feature, Robin Harding shares the key insights of his important and path-breaking book Rural Democracy.

How have African rulers responded to the introduction of democratic electoral competition? The prevailing narrative of democracy in Africa is pretty grim, and as ever, where there’s smoke there’s fire; elections in many African countries are often marred by violence, fraud, corruption, and ethnic conflict. But while these unfortunate practices may be widespread this story is incomplete, because there is more to democracy in Africa than violence and vote rigging. In Rural Democracy I argue that African rulers have also responded to the introduction of electoral competition by seeking to win votes through the provision and distribution of public goods and services.

That is not to suggest that democracy is a panacea, nor that it is good for everyone. Democracy everywhere creates winners and losers, and the central claim in Rural Democracy is that across Africa the winners tend to be found in the countryside. This claim follows from a straightforward argument: in predominantly rural countries the introduction of competitive elections leads governments to implement pro-rural policies, in order to win the votes of the rural majority. As a result, across much of Africa the benefits of democratic electoral competition have accrued primarily in terms of rural development.

This claim is supported by an array of quantitative and qualitative evidence, the key findings of which are as follows:

Urbanites across Africa are less likely to support incumbents than are rural residents, all else equal.  They are also less likely to be satisfied with democracy, a measure which is closely related to incumbent support and less sensitive to issues of response bias. Evidence for this comes from analysis of public opinion data across twenty-eight countries, over multiple survey rounds. Leveraging variation in urbanization across countries and over time, I am able to show that the extent of urban incumbent hostility reduces with urbanization, as expected by the theoretical argument. What we also see is that urbanites are less likely to be satisfied with government performance over key issues (job creation and poverty reduction) than are rural residents. This goes someway to support the theorized mechanism, that urban dissatisfaction stems from the pursuance of pro-rural policies by African rulers who seek to win the votes of rural majority.

The introduction of electoral competition across Africa has led to improvements in key health and education outcomes, but only for those in rural areas. In particular, it has precipitated reductions in rural infant mortality rates, and an increase in primary school enrolment for children in rural areas. But democratic elections have had no such positive effect for urbanites. These findings are evidenced by analysis of individual-level data from surveys across twenty-seven countries, which again shows that the effects are conditional on, and decreasing in, urbanization. This provides further and more direct support for the argument that African rulers pursue pro-rural policies to win the votes of rural majority.

 Voters in Africa condition their support on the provision of public goods. While this may seem obvious to some, existing work on the determinants of voter choice in African elections has focused predominantly on issues of clientelism and ethnic voting.  Analysis of data on two types of goods, education and roads, provides robust evidence that voters in Ghana do in fact condition their electoral support on the provision of public goods. Demonstrating this lends crucial support to the book’s theoretical argument, because if voters in Africa do not engage in this type of evaluative voting, at least in part, there would be little reason to think that politicians should implement pro-rural policies in order to win rural votes. 

Rural democracy is not new, nor is it the result of temporally-contextual factors. The very dynamics expected by the theoretical argument played out in Botswana during the immediate post-independence period.  Qualitative historical evidence shows that despite its dominant position, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party responded strongly to losses of rural support with a major program of rural development policies implemented in the early 1970s. Interestingly, cabinet minutes document an explicit policy of prioritizing rural development projects that were both highly visible and likely to be completed prior to the next election, suggesting a strong role for electoral incentives. Importantly, this demonstrates that the link between electoral competition and pro-rural development is not simply the result of contemporaneous external forces, such as donor conditionality, that may have prevailed in the 1990s and 2000s.

Taken together, this body of evidence provides reasons to be optimistic about the operation of electoral accountability in Africa. African governments are responding to the accountability structures provided by electoral competition; in that sense, democracy in Africa is working.


Robin Harding is Associate Professor of Government at the University of Oxford.

Rural Democracy is out now.

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