My Research

Governance in weak states in sub-Saharan Africa

My broader research agenda investigates the conditions that underpin political order in weak states. In particular, I am interested in the circumstances that give rise to quasi-voluntary compliance by ordinary citizens in contexts in which the formal state's ability to enforce its decisions and deliver services is limited. My research often relies on a mixed-methods approach that combines oral history interviews, archival and administrative data, surveys, and quantitative causal inference. The novel insight of my wider work is that in the context of many developing countries, state building often involves cooperation with rather than elimination of pre-statist modes of social organization. While territories occupied by weak and fragile states suffer from a litany of challenges, they are not necessarily ungoverned or devoid of compliance. When does the interaction of weak states with non-state institutions such as traditional chiefdoms produce political order? Under what conditions do citizens comply when governments of weak states ask them to pay taxes, register property, or receive vaccinations? How does the combination of strategic and normative considerations drive the behavior of people living in areas defined by weak statehood? These are some of the questions that connect my published work, my book project, as well as my future research plans.

My methodological expertise stems from many months of work in the field in several African countries including Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, and Zambia. I enjoy designing and implementing original surveys and questionnaires, particularly in settings where data collection remains challenging and relies on face-to-face interviews with respondents. I like to include experiments in my survey instruments, obtaining more precise and less biased estimates of causal effects. I have also successfully used focus groups and semi-structured interviews to obtain a richer understanding of the phenomena I study.  Finally, I enjoy reading about the philosophy of statistics, though purely as an amateur.

Although I consume and engage with research touching on a wide variety of topics from across the African continent, I am most familiar with what is happening in Southern Africa. In particular, I closely follow economic, social, and political developments in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia. Over the years, I have cultivated an expertise in Namibian politics that has allowed me to publish over thirty articles in Namibia's largest daily the Namibian. Below you will find several thematic areas that comprise both my past and ongoing research.

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Traditional Political Systems in Africa

My dissertation and current book project explore why some traditional institutions, such as chiefs' councils or customary courts, perform better than others. Rather than deploying crude coercive measures, the best performing traditional institutions rely on habituated norms of respect that facilitate compliance.

Early Statehood and Support for Democracy

Is the legacy of early statehood good news for those hoping to build durable democratic states? It turns out that in sub-Saharan Africa, the answer may be no. One strand of my work explores how norms habituated by inhabitants of precolonial African states continue to shape ordinary people's attitudes towards politics.

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Long-Term Effects of Colonialism

The past is never dead, especially if it is the colonial past. Some of my work investigates the conditions under which the legacies of European colonialism, such as high levels of inequality in former settler colonies, persist.