In This Review

When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa
When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa
By Robert H. Bates
Cambridge University Press, 2008, 216 pp

What accounts for the economic and political collapse of so many African states since independence? In this pithy book, Bates offers a general explanation that emphasizes the material and political needs of state elites in the region. Deeply gloomy about the region, Bates argues that small government revenues in what are relatively poor states, and their heightened volatility after the mid-1970s, shortened the time horizons of politicians and lessened their incentives to act for the public good. By stealing from the public till to ensure their own survival in power, they progressively destroyed their countries' economies and destabilized politics; different ethnic groups then started competing for increasingly scarce resources, and rebellions emerged in the countryside. Bates concludes that the wave of democratization of the last two decades is unlikely to promote political stability since incumbents will react to this new threat to their hold on power with more corruption and violence. Bates paints in broad brushes and ignores the states in the region, such as Botswana, Cape Verde, and Mauritius, that have not followed this script but actually enjoyed stability, economic growth, and reasonably democratic politics. The argument is supported by anecdotes, and a more sophisticated quantitative analysis is provided in a brief appendix.