Admitting this never wins me too many friends, but I’m not a huge fan of democracy in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong, the empirics indicate that it leads to better results than other systems, much of the time. When that’s true, I’m a big fan, but I don’t see much intrinsic value in having elections. At the end of the day, what matters to me is that the roads are in good shape and the streetlights are on at night and that people have freedom of conscience and speech, not that there are free and fair elections.
Sometimes democracy simply doesn’t work. It’s been a while since I pretended at being a political scientist, and even then I had little exposure to domestic US politics, but my anecdotal view is that local politics are pretty much a catastrophe in America. People don’t vote in local elections, unless there’s an important headline race to draw them in, and they have no idea who their local representatives are. Creationists are able to sneak their candidates onto school boards in order to try to strip evolution out of textbooks.
Not only don’t elections for local government in the US seem to work, I’m not convinced that local government itself does a very good job. For one thing, it’s never all that local: the lowest level of government still covers many thousands of people. There is no government official in Ann Arbor that has any idea who I am. I could fix that by befriending people at government buildings, I guess, but what matters is the principle. The actual policy outcomes seem pretty bad too. When I lived in San Francisco, they had a system of parking permits that created a sharp discontinuity on my (non-permitted) block, driving everyone else without permits to park there. The City of Ann Arbor recently shut down the largest thoroughfare through town to build a parking lot. For two years. Another recent accomplishment was the City Council’s attempt to block a development by declaring some houses on my block to be “historic Germantown”.* This gambit resulted in the building of a fairly hideous structure that neither the developer nor the council wanted.
Fine, those are pretty bad outcomes. Does Malawi really do better, at the local level? Given the context, I would argue that it does. Malawi’s lowest level of government is still the unelected headmen* who run individual villages. In much of Southern Malawi, village headmanship is inherited through the mother’s bloodline, just like ethnic affiliation; some men in line to be a village head will take their mother’s surname (which I believe is how things were always done before the British showed up) in order to strengthen their claim. Village heads exercise power through control of land, which they are free to allocate to people from their village. Villagers can claim title to the land they are working by paying a fee to the government to lease it, but this is usually uncommon.***
Village heads don’t tend to have any real budget to work with, so the role of local government in Malawi is pretty different from e.g. Ann Arbor’s city council. A lot of what they do is to serve as conduits for the dissemination of information and the implementation of government and NGO programs. They are tapped to organize the distribution of Malawi’s fertilizer subsidy coupons, for example, and to nominate needy individuals to receive food aid. One aspect of this is that village heads tend to know people and local geography really well. The sampling strategy for my current data collection effort relied on finding out the basic details on every person in every household in each of the 70 villages in the study. There’s no way we could have pulled that off without the help of well-informed village heads; we actually did visit a couple of villages with out-of-touch chiefs and it was a big pain. We rely on village heads in other ways, too: when stories spread that we were coming at night to steal people’s blood, they provide the best way of spreading accurate information to fight those rumors. There are tons of important things that probably could not happen without the aid of these most local of local officials.
I’m not the only researcher who has come to this conclusion, either – it seems to be pretty common for people who have done fieldwork in Africa to have a high opinion of village heads. When Tristan Reed presented his paper “Chiefs” at WGAPE this past spring, many of the political scientists in the room leapt to the defense of village heads, worried that the paper would be used as ammunition by people who dislike them. (It shows that public goods provision drops when there are fewer checks on their power, but also that a measure of “social capital” goes up, implying that some heads are capturing local social structures).
This view is challenged by recent work by Mansuri and Rao, who show that development aid is more likely to be wasted or stolen if channeled through local governments than national ones. But that’s not the right comparison, really – the question is whether we can do better. Would an elected local government be less corrupt? Are local goverment officials in the US more above-the-board than village heads in Malawi? We don’t know much about the answer to the former question, at least in Malawi. As for the latter, if you’re leaning toward “yes”, there are several million Chicagoans who would like a word with you. Corruption sucks, but I’m not convinced that moving to village-level elections would fix it, and am worried about losing some of the practical benefits of hereditary village heads in terms of logistics and social networks.