Clientelism and state capacity: Persistence and change in Sierra Leone and Colombia

Governments of developing countries frequently lack the ability to control or organize their territory, and their politicians often lack incentives to make socially efficient decisions for the country, especially regarding the provision of essential public goods such as law and order, infrastructure and education.

Western countries such as the UK or the US faced similar challenges, and an important element of their economic success was a change in political institutions which altered the incentive structure confronting politicians. States then developed greater capacity and politicians began to provide more public goods.

Understanding these institutional transformations – what triggers them and what stops them occurring – is a major policy priority. Conflicting interests are one key obstruction to institutional change, and exist on two levels. At the first level, institutions distribute power and wealth differently, leading to disagreement when groups or individuals with diverse interests seek to determine the distribution of power and therefore the nature of the institutions. At the second level is a simpler conflict concerning who benefits from the control of a given set of institutions. A central transition occurs when the second type of conflict changes to the first.

Our research investigates the process of institutional change and persistence in Colombia and Sierra Leone, two countries previously characterised by political elites focused on nurturing a key group of supporters via the distribution of patronage. In both cases, governments had little incentive to provide public goods.

The resulting grievances, caused by the exclusive nature of politics and the absence of public goods, had profound implications for both countries. In Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front unleashed a civil war. In Colombia, disenchantment led to the formation of Marxist guerrilla groups the FARC and ELN, active since the 1960s but growing in stature in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sierra Leone has been at peace since 2002, and conflict in Colombia is waning. What is striking is the divergence form the two countries institutions have taken. In Sierra Leone, the political system of the 1960s has re-asserted itself with the democratic return to power of the All People’s Congress Party, the party in charge of the country between 1967 and 1991 and whose policies precipitated the civil war. That conflict appears to have left no lasting political legacy and the pre-1991 politics has emerged unscathed. In Colombia, on the other hand, the traditional parties have collapsed and been replaced by myriad new forces mobilized by the conflict, many closely associated with paramilitary groups who have found their leader in President Álvaro Uribe.

The political dynamics of Colombia and Sierra Leone provide an unrivaled opportunity to formulate and test hypotheses about institutional change and persistence. In particular, we ask why the political forces leading to change in Colombia did not appear in Sierra Leone, as well as asking how we should interpret the nature of Colombia’s changes. We are also investigating the changes in local politics in Colombia in the context of the civil war and asking whether the mobilization of new political groups has led to a qualitatively different type of politics, more focused on public goods.

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