Vulnerability Analysis and Policy Development in Democratic African States

The development challenges for contemporary democratic states of Africa are enormous. This somewhat sweeping phrase takes for granted the question of whether those countries claiming to be democratic are so in organisation and practice. For instance, only Mauritius was categorised as full democracy out of 44 sub-Saharan African countries evaluated in Democracy Index, 2010; 8 were failed democracies, 10 hybrid democracies, and 25 autocratic regimes (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2010). For the past five decades, the pervasive crises of governance, poverty, diseases, conflicts, overdependence on commodity export, haphazard economic ideals, disconnected visions of progress, policy failures and misapplication, climate change, uncontrolled population, low institutional capacity, regional disunity and generalised social disintegration have all contributed to this reality[1] [. Although some countries experienced economic growth in the last decade, the problems of poverty and social insecurity are still prevalent on the continent[2].


According to the African Human Development Report, more than one in four Africans is undernourished and recent rapid economic progress has not brought food security for the substantial proportion of the population still gripped by hunger. Also, the continent showed weak progress on creating more equality, employment generation, better health and qualitative education, and Africa is currently off-track in achieving critical Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of poverty eradication, reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health, and in combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.  Meanwhile, the political environment of most nations of Africa is also considered to be polluted with corruption and inefficiency and often too complicated to navigate due to bad governance.


Part of the concern in solving these multiple problems is that Africa had depended on external agents for too long for her policies, most of which failed as much as they worked. Fundamentally, these locally and externally-conceived policies suffered greatly from  insensitivity to the context that shape and create patterns of socio-economic relations and politics of Africa and generally disregard how “peculiar-internal constraints” to governance at the institutional level have worked against the establishment of robust and effective policy management principles.


Attempt is made in this paper to point out some of these peculiar internal constraints by analysing the challenges of policy development in democratic African states using concepts from vulnerability analysis as currently adopted in development discourse. The view expressed in the paper is that policy management principles of institutions in Africa are plagued by risky conditions that severely undermine their capacity to produce desired ends. It argues further that the integration of institutional vulnerability analysis into African development discourse will assist in policy administration across the continent.


Vulnerability Analysis in Development Thinking

Vulnerability analysis seeks to identify, quantify and prioritise vulnerabilities or risks in order to eliminate them – when possible – or mitigate their effects. It owes its development to many fields of study, including social science disciplines like economics, sociology, geography, environmental and conflict studies, and policy science. The concept had proliferated because of this and no generally acceptable meaning of it exists. While the spread of the concept derived from its flexibility and applicability under varied circumstances, differences in meaning, as well as approaches to vulnerability among the disciplines, is perhaps a function of tendency among practitioners to focus on different components of vulnerability[3].


In development studies, vulnerability analysis is widely applied in poverty research. Development experts draw on concepts in vulnerability to bring into focus the interaction among social, economic, political, and geo-environmental phenomena of inequality, gender, conflict, exclusion, climate change, age, etc. in determining poverty conditions and adaptations[4] . For instance, Triulzi, Tommasoli, and Montalbano[5], in their analysis of socioeconomic vulnerability within the context of conflict, explained that vulnerability should be understood, first, as a group of characteristics and tools that a particular unit (e.g. household, community, region, or country) possesses. They explained that vulnerability is the endogenous inability of the unit to face shocks.


In the work of international organisations such as the World Bank, Action-Aid International, and UK Department of International Development (DFID), vulnerability analysis, as adopted in poverty research, focused on two important areas. Whereas the first focuses on the “role of risk in the dynamics of poverty and the strategies households use to address the exposure to various sources of risks,” the second deals with analysis of “specific vulnerable groups that are characterized by limited resilience to avoid poverty and few opportunities to escape chronic poverty”[6], however, the underlying idea in both areas of concentration is the same: to identify risks, determine those at risk to what, when, and how, and use that knowledge to predict whether certain kinds of risk will impact negatively on people’s lives.


As presently conceived in development discourse, the central focus of vulnerability analysis are humans, the social, environmental, economic, political, geographic risks they face, how they manage these risks and their capacity to withstand negative outcomes as a result of the risks they were exposed to. Vulnerability analysis has assisted policy planners and donor agencies in capturing the array of preventive and mitigating strategies adopted by poor households in rural areas and in designing and implementing effective intervention programmes to improve rural livelihood and strengthen community resilience to shocks.


Interestingly, vulnerability analysis has not been extensively accommodated in the analysis of institutions where the concept may also have some practical relevance. Suffice it to note that although institutional vulnerability analysis is being incorporated in the work of some organisations to assess aspects institutional capacity in conditions of environmental uncertainties and climate change[7], the linkages between policy management, the vulnerabilities of implementing institutions to social forces and development is yet to receive the level of attention it deserves. For African countries particularly, the absence of consensus on the “real” causes of policy failures makes institutional vulnerability analysis a viable frame of reference for providing alternative explanation. In a situation where commitment, or lack of it, to policy is not enough to account for institutional failures in terms of policy development and implementation[8] , it is necessary to explore other plausible explanations which may prove useful in envisioning how best to tackle Africa’s developmental challenges.


Re-affirming the Relevance of Institutions in Socio-Economic Development

The relevance of efficient and effective institutional governance to national development is not in doubt although opinions differ on whether capable institutions are sufficient. Sachs et al. for instance, with respect to sub-Saharan African countries, maintained that their crises require a better explanation than governance alone and that more policy or governance reform, by itself, will not be sufficient to overcome Africa’s seemingly intractable problems[9].


The Breton Woods Organisations have been criticized for their fixation on institutions in a continent that is too poor to build and run sustainable institutions[10]. Regrettably, the prioritisation of aid, as panacea for Africa’s development challenges, over strong institutions masks fundamental issues of relevance. First, aids cannot be effective without focused, strong, transparent and properly administered institutions. Second, but most importantly, institutions matter for planned and sustained economic growth and social development to be possible. The central idea on which our plea for institutional vulnerability analysis in Africa, later in the article, is incorporated within the second issue of relevance stated above, and so deserves further consideration.


Institutions are lifeblood of any society and it is basically within them that goals for progress are conceived shaped and modified from generation to generation. Here, institutions included all economic, social and political structures present in a given society at any one point in time within which individual values and relations of exchange are casted and harmonised to achieve collectively defined objectives. As such, the structure of an institution has direct ramifications for the specific sphere of society to which it is related while having indirect impact on other spheres.


For example, the advocates of development economics known as the New Institutional Economics (NIE) were vocal in claiming that the difference between high-performing and low-performing economies of the world was the structure of their economic institutions[11]. They insisted that the economic institution of societies, such as structure of property rights and presence and perfection of market, was of primal importance for economic outcomes. Acemoglu and colleagues can be criticised for presenting a capitalistic idea of economic institution as the good one, and for giving higher hierarchy to economic institution amongst other institutions, including political and social institutions, as the greatest force determining economic success or failure, but the main proposition in their thesis, and the entire school of NIE, is no less useful. While critics have not found a common ground for deciding on which form of economic institution is the good one, they nonetheless accept the key premise of NIE which states that institutions do indeed matter for growth to occur and for development to happen[12]. The relevance of the framework for our purpose is that it recognised that economic change and development are both products of institutional environment and arrangement and for its admittance of the fact that culture, historical experiences and ideology can influence the social, political and economic outcomes of a society and the capacity of those living in that society to manage change.


In explaining developmental challenges of Africa, therefore, it is necessary to analyse the institutions within the continent and see whether the environmental context is constraining to the evolution of relevant development/growth policies or not; and also find out if institutional arrangementsin African countries were, by default, configured to succeed or fail in the adminnistration of policies.


The Context of Africa’s Institutions and Policy Development

Policy performance in any given society is dependent on the context of the institutions that created, and that will manage, that policy. Therefore, the unsatisfactory experiences of African countries in terms of policy development for the past decades must be explained within the context of its institutional emergence. In other words, the understanding of the nature of institutions should be of major concern as current exercise is  to explain  why Africa had performed poorly in initiating locally-relevant development policies or why the continent, for the most part, constituted a tragic failure for policies that seemed to have succeeded in other continents. We shall proceed with this task by providing some background information on the origin and nature of states in contemporary Africa since the institutions we intend to describe are reflections of the states themselves. In what follows, the intersections of colonial legacy, ethnicity, militarism and personification of power, political clientelism, and kinship and patrimonalism are particularly focused on as descriptive elements of states on the continent, and ultimately their institutions as well.


With few exceptions, almost all the countries in Africa were colonised by Europeans following the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885. In pre-colonial times, most of the thousands of ethnic nationalities that formed new independent states from mid-twentieth century operated patrimonial societies, rulership was dependent on ancestral lineages, and power was diffused, with large empires maintaining loose control over distant provinces[13]. Colonialism replaced this system of administration by establishing a more centralised rule that covered distant provinces. Existing structures of control were also seconded to European laws and judiciary. The adoption of indirect rule in British-controlled territories also afforded some local elites the opportunities to be free from direct control of traditional authorities and a chance to not be accountable to their people. Accordingly, colonial indirect rule, notes Platteau  affected the social and political structure of African societies[14].


New political elites learned to value the sense of invincibility that accompanied absolutism and freedom from accountability. The manner in which public policies were adopted and abandoned without consultation is an indication that colonial discretionary powers were imported almost wholly into post-colonial institutions. In Ghana, Senegal, Guinea, Tanzania, Nigeria and other countries across Africa, nationalist argued for, and in some cases deployed, socialist, authoritarian form of governance, claiming that they understood the need of their peoples even when the people had different ideas of how the new states should be organised. While some level of political stability could have opened up the public space for more inclusive/consensual debates on public policies, decades of intermittent military interference in politics were decisive in blocking out any form of dissention.


Put together, these realities in post-colonial Africa coalesced into a form of power that, in practice, rose above, and determines all that occur in all, the structures and institutions in most countries. Thus, as political officeholders initiate and implement unilateral decisions, their counterparts in other public institutions and agencies followed suit – in so far as the decisions made by the latter cohered with the position of the absolute masters. The implication of these for policy development is easily discernible. For one, absolute power is antithetical to good policy practice. Social/public policies that work are almost always not imposed but negotiated. A policy process that ignores important stakeholders will most likely meet with resistance, perhaps running the risk of failure on arrival. Such failure may occur even if authoritarian regimes were committed to the letters of the policy because success also depended greatly on collective ownership at the community level. The best example of a policy that suffered from lack of ownership, and, as a result, failed, and still failing, in most African countries is the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP): the people resisted the programme not because it lacked practical usefulness at the time but due to the fact that its origin and intentions were not trusted and African governments were not able to convince them to believe otherwise through open debate and consultation. Countless other macro-level social policies in individual African states suffered similar fate, especially those related to poverty reduction, population control and rural development because they were formulated and implemented using a top-bottom approach that ignored the views of those directly affected by the policies. Suffice it to note that the prevalence of absolutism just described is being sustained in contemporary democratic African states where political power and economic resources are over concentrated in the central state at the expense of the federating units[15] .


African states are also multi-ethnic. The continent is home to thousands of ethnic groups that are perhaps as distinct as they are related and this single factor remained a constant in public sphere. While ethnicity played an important role in selection of tribal leaders that served in colonial administration[16]Orji observed that ethnicity is still the most dominant form of identity in contemporary Africa, and that the public sphere is basically “ethnicised” such that the relations between the ethnic publics are usually conflictual because the rhetorical contestation among the ‘publics’ is a part and parcel of overarching struggle by the ethnic groups to capture and dominate the state[17]. Orji asserts further that marginal groups contest the primacy of the dominant groups, while dominant groups attempt to undercut any proposed alternatives and block pressures for reform.


For the most part, independent African states have focused more on maintaining “ethnic-equilibrium” than on the actual business of nation-building and development. Policy planners and administrator alike have struggled to sustain fragile co-existence among ethnicities that relate on the basis of mutual suspicion, and who perceive politics as a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all. This fact has made it extremely difficult to encourage every group to support collective vision. Rather than strive towards integration, African states created systems of political relations that incorporated unhealthy oppositions that camouflaged as political consensus. In countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria, ethnic nationalism was accorded a special status and was especially accommodated to an extent that it implicitly makes demands on the state and questions integrative agenda that have potentials for creating stable and progressive communities.


In Nigeria for instance, the Principle of Federal Character relegated meritocracy to the background and undermined the idea of citizenship because it institutionalised ethnicity in employment[18]. Since 1991, Ethiopia had operated a political system of “ethnic federalism” that constitutionally established structure made up of ethnic-based territorial units and provides for an option of secession in case any of the ethnic group in the union gets tired of being Ethiopian[19]. Even in relatively old democracy like Botswana without explicit rules that accommodated ethnic group interests, ethnically distinct groups were nonetheless suspicious of public policies especially in circumstances when they feel that political decisions were reached in order to benefit dominant ethnic elites[20].


Institutional ethnicity had worked against policy development in Africa and had for many decades frustrated the realisation of conditions that may have enhanced good policy practice on the continent. It continues to drown meritocratic procedures while also influencing official decisions on who gets (and becomes) what. And because of this, low-skilled ethnic appointees were able to secure policy administering institutions which would normally require highly-skilled personnel to manage. Indeed, low capacity at institutional level is one of the most enduring problems that policy planners and administrator and international donor agencies have had to deal with in African countries since most institutions are now used as sources of ethnic patronage and as tools for satisfying kin’s demands on political officeholders.


Managerial and administrative deficiency of local regulators created loopholes for multinationals to exploit terms of public –private-partnership programs and agreements. Regulatory agencies and institutions are particularly vulnerable to manipulation by more informed and business wise foreign partners. In nascent and largely unstable democracies, experienced multinational lobbyists easily influence policies to their client’s advantage. This is done, sometimes brazenly, through corruption and outright blackmail and intimidation.


Furthermore, contemporary African states are also shaped by globalising forces outside the continent, especially from Europe, the United States, and now China. While former colonialists still benefit from the ties established prior to the granting of political freedom to African countries, the activity of United States and China in recent time is primarily driven by economic interest in oil, arable land and other resources. These international players are key stakeholders in Africa’s political and economic institutions and their influence in the area of democracy, promotion of good governance, violent regime changes in Libya, Egypt, and Somalia, resource control battles and state breakup in Sudan, strategic infrastructural investment in new oil states and in countries with vibrant extractive industries. Moreover, new proxy battle for hegemony is brewing between China and the West in many resource-rich countries of Africa[21]. What these add up to is that the institutional environment and arrangement within national institutions must now harmonise internal and external interests and conflicts in the policy process. How African countries will do this successfully is a subject for research and critical reflection.


The Need for Institutional Vulnerability Analysis in Policy Discourse on Africa

Amongst other issues of importance, the paper has described the concept of vulnerability analysis and pointed out that the utility of the idea is still restricted. Institutions are important agents of societal growth . In Africa, where absolutism and crass ethnicity had smeared strategic institutions, causing citizens to distrust public institutions and policies emerging from them, vulnerability analysis can be a valuable heuristic tool for understanding the institutional aspects of policy issues in Africa’s overall development challenges. It is imperative for experts in Africa to begin to envision the possibilities of successes that will most probably follow a policy development agenda that captures risks at institutional levels, and that anticipates all conceivable vulnerabilities that specific policies management institution have right from the planning stages. Not only will this process yield better results now and in the future, it will also ensure that policies are fortified with necessary measures that would prepare institutions to confront, or cushion, the effects of uncertainties originating from the larger society.


About the Author: Dr. Femi Omololu teaches Social policy, Planning and Administration at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He was pioneer Director, Professional Master in Project Development and Implementation Program at the Faculty of the Social Sciences, University of Ibadan. The author thanks Kudus Adebayo for his invaluable contributions.








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[1] See

[2] See








[12] Idem.

[14] Idem.

[15] For an analysis on Nigerian Federalism see Badmus, I. A.

[16] See


Femi Omololu PhD
Femi Omololu PhD