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How to Reverse a Coup
"It's really hard"
What This Interview Is About
After years of relative democratic stability, Africa is experiencing a spate of coups. This summer, Gabon and Niger have seen military takeovers, and between 2021-22, 6 coups succeeded. Todd Moss, our guest today, knows all about the issue: as the top American diplomat in West Africa, Moss was tasked with reversing a coup in Mauritania.
Moss wears many hats. He’s a bestselling novelist who has written multiple thrillers drawing on his experience. He’s also largely responsible for the creation of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, which provides loans for private sector development projects in low-income countries.
These days, Moss runs the Energy for Growth Hub, a nonprofit dedicated to solving the electricity shortage problem affecting billions. And he’s a nonresident fellow at the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute, the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines, the Center for Global Development, and the Institute for Progress.
In this interview, Moss discusses:
Click the links above to navigate directly to sections of the interview.
What You’ll Learn
What the process to overturn a coup looks like
Why agencies hide information from each other
How to get bureaucrats to support replacing their own agency
Why policymakers don’t listen to political scientists
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You've written fiction that draws on your time dealing with a coup in Africa. Tell us about your role when the Mauritanian crisis happened.
I was an accidental State Department official. I was a data guy at a think tank working on debt and investment flows. My boss was close with the Nigerian finance minister and asked me to take a look at their debt profile to see if we could help them make the case for debt relief.
We wound up doing a whole series of analyses for the Nigerian finance minister that she used with the Paris Club and the US Treasury to negotiate debt relief, and they received the first ever discounted buyback from the Paris Club in 2005. As part of that process, I became friends with the US Treasury debt lead, Bobby Pittman. Then he went to the State Department and eventually to the White House. With two years left in the Bush administration, his boss, Jendayi Frazier, asked Bobby to recommend somebody who knows West Africa and economics. Bobby suggested me, I walked into the State Department, had a 30 minute meeting with Jendayi, the first time I ever met her, and I was hired.
I became the Deputy Assistant Secretary responsible for West Africa. About a year later, in August 2008, the democratically elected president of Mauritania was arrested and deposed by his own head of the military. I was sent to meet with General Aziz and try to figure out our levers of influence to get him to release the president and agree to step down. In the end it didn't work.
But it taught me a lot about how the US government responds during crises, and some of the constraints that our officials are under. When something terrible happens, you wonder why the US doesn’t act quicker, or why are public statements prevaricating? Not to excuse it, but it's not that people aren't trying hard, or they're not dedicated, or they don't believe in democracy – but there are these countervailing pressures that they're under.
I saw that throughout policymaking, not just trying to reverse coups, but trying to get a trade agreement or whatever. There are always countervailing issues. You could imagine that trying to get five or six policymakers from different agencies to all agree would be really hard: I was in the room with 30 different people representing all kinds of interests. You could have five different views just within the State Department.
You're touching on interagency relations: in your first thriller, The Golden Hour, those relations are as interesting as or maybe more interesting than the action beats. How closely does that novel represent the dynamics of the interagency process?
When I think about the policy areas I’ve worked on, the most pressing issue is not getting more budget, it's not getting people to pay attention. It's how to manage interagency dynamics. How do agencies work together instead of against each other toward a common objective? That's a structural problem with the United States government because it's so big, so fragmented, and there are so many people involved. Normal horse trading becomes impossible.
I joke that the Norwegians can get five people around a table and they can horse trade. In the US, you might not even know the person across the table who has a different view. There's no way to horse trade if you don't have those relationships. All governments are dysfunctional and have multiple objectives to balance, but the US is on its own playing field because of our size and scale.
Are there other inputs there, besides size and scale? Other dysfunctions?
There's two uniquely American things that make it more difficult. One, we are an idealistic nation, and we have a very positive view of ourselves and our role in the world. So we get involved in a lot of stuff. It's not always our business, maybe. But I try to take a positive view here, that we have a kind of positive American can-do, this-problem-can-be-solved approach which many of our European allies lack. That gets us involved in a wider set of issues than other countries.
And two, our Congress plays a highly influential role in foreign policy. There could be not just a senator, but a single staff member who can hold something up or really shape the US approach. Those veto points create avenues for influence, avenues that even non-American actors will use.
Here's a good example. If you're an environmental NGO in Ghana, and you're upset about what a World Bank project is doing to your community, you don't complain to the government of Ghana. You work with an American ally to go to a member of Congress, and get them to complain through the US Treasury to the World Bank.
It's like we've created an accountability side door, not just for Americans, but for the world. That's quite unique. I could just never imagine going to lobby a parliamentarian in Ghana to help solve a problem in my home country. But the reverse could completely happen. It speaks to both the influence and the penetrability of Congress.
In a case like Mauritania, where an external event triggers interagency coordination, how does that process get started? Who is calling a meeting, which actors are in the room?
So, some event happens, and an inter-agency meeting would be called. It's typically co-chaired by a White House person and State Department, if it was overseas. How well that works depends a lot on the relationship that those two people have. I was very fortunate in that we had a great relationship with the National Security Council staff that worked on our issues. Bobby Pittman had just come from State to be the senior director in the White House, so that relationship already existed, and that's often not the case. Then they would gather who needs to be in the room. After a coup, it would obviously be DOD, maybe the Treasury Department, maybe there's other agencies that are involved in the country. If it's a country that has narcotics trafficking, maybe the DEA is involved.
The idea is you want to invite people whose views you want. You don't want them cut out later, but you don't need people who don't need to be there. I was in many meetings when there were people who did not need to be there.
The classic tension that you've got after a coup is between an ideal like democracy, and a short-term security issue.
The issue in the novel was the exact one that we faced in Mauritania, which is that Mauritania actually was quite an important counter-terrorism partner. In fact, the general who committed the coup had been an important actor in containing Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM.
But when you declare it a coup, you immediately have to stop certain kinds of cooperation, basically anything that's not humanitarian. So there's an interest in not declaring a coup. Also, if you just declare it a coup, you've lost some of your initial leverage. But if you're not declaring it a coup, you're potentially covering for the coup makers.
So the question for us was: do we shut the door on Mauritania and lose that counter-terrorism relationship, at least temporarily? I'd say people initially fell into what you would predict: the State Department doesn't want a democratically elected leader deposed because of the potential spillover effects. Condoleezza Rice was the Secretary of State and she had a whole set of ideas that were dubbed the Freedom Agenda, which I know some Democrats made fun of. But it was real in the building and it was not viewed cynically. The view was that we as Americans, with over 200 years of democracy, believe that democracy is both more effective for our own foreign policy interests, but also the morally and ethically right thing to do.
In fact, the president who had been overthrown sat next to President Bush at a Democracy summit only a couple months earlier. The public didn't even know about that kind of thing - but who sits next to POTUS during a democracy summit is not taken lightly. So within the building, that was something we could use to say, we've already signaled that democracy is super important in Mauritania. It was also one of the very few majority Arab nations that had a democratically elected government. But at the same time there were real terrorist groups doing really terrible things, and we were reliant on the Mauritanians to help us combat that. It wasn't costless to just say we're going to promote democracy. So we talked that through.
In the case of Mauritania, the Pentagon and State aligned pretty quickly. And there's a story in the novel where they make sure a Department of Defense official is on the delegation, to signal that there's no split there. That is actually copied from reality. We had a senior DOD official come with me to Nouakchott so that he could clarify that they weren't winking at the coup.
How often do you get the kinds of situations you had in the novel where agencies are actively hiding information or back-channels from each other in that interagency process?
I haven't been in government for 15 years, but I would say it happens all the time. There's very asymmetric information across agencies. DOD's going to have a lot more information than the Treasury Department about the level of the security issues. They will share some, but definitely not everything. If you're trying to make your case, selective information sharing is a tool.
There's a widespread perception that State and DOD often have tension in the interagency process. How much is that true relative to other agency dynamics? Are those two more often at loggerheads?
That's a classic one, right? Every agency has a different mandate with a different time horizon. Particularly after a coup, if it's a country where we have military cooperation, DOD will likely have spent years and millions of dollars developing relationships with that military. And now we're telling them you have to cut that off immediately. But you could also imagine the Commerce Department would be very upset if there was a massive American investment in the country that would be put at risk by US government policy.
A classic tension between different agencies is that the State Department would want to do things that would be good for short-term diplomatic reasons, and USAID (United States Agency for International Development) would take a longer development view. The time horizons are very different. But this is also true within State. There's a democracy and rights bureau, and then there's a regional bureau and there's a business bureau and they will all also reflect those similar dynamics within the building. You've got expanding rings of complication.
How did that interagency process come to relative alignment on the Mauritania case state and DOD presented a united front on your trip over? How did that come about?
There was nothing magical that happened there. We didn't have too many people in the room, and it was a set of people that had worked together on other issues. For the most part, the DOD, State, USAID, NSC, Treasury people working on this, we liked and trusted each other. We were able pretty quickly to come around to a set of next steps.
Now, it didn't succeed. But it didn't fail because we disagreed with each other. The lesson that I take away in trying to get other things done is that data and evidence are great. Big ideas are great. But you need to build relationships with people, so that you can have a genuine back and forth.
It breaks down where people are acting duplicitously, where people are pretending to be your ally, but they're really doing an end run. It’s essential to understand that the person in the other agency that wants to go do something differently is not an idiot. Their goals are different. They're under different pressures. Maybe their bosses instructed them to do something differently. So you try to help them achieve what they're trying to achieve, and still get done what we're trying to get done.
In Mauritania, what kind of leverage could we bring to bear? What wasn't on the table?
So, in very general terms, US military intervention was not on the table. Right after Iraq and Afghanistan, there was no appetite for that. What was on the table were a number of areas where the US government and the Mauritanian government were cooperating: intelligence sharing, military training, economic projects – some humanitarian assistance, development assistance. You can either remove or threaten to remove some of those.
The issue is that what would cause somebody to overthrow their own leader are pretty intense pressures. It's life or death for them, and the levers that we have are relatively weak. There are cases where you can also lay down a hammer: maybe you can freeze a leader’s bank accounts. You might be able to threaten them with information that would land them in jail, or with sanctions. You can support countervailing forces: obviously you have to be careful there, but you can do that. You make a judgment call on what you’ll leave on the table, what kind of package can you put together that would cause someone to reverse something extreme that they've just done.
When you think of it that way, you can see why it's really hard to flip a coup.
What’s your sense of the levers available to the US in the recent Niger coup?
I would say the US actually has quite strong interests in Niger, even though most Americans wouldn't find it on a map. But AQIM and extremist groups like it have really expanded across the region. They're a much bigger problem today than they were then. The locus for the US effort to contain them was in Niger. So the US actually has quite an important interest in being able to continue to operate there, and to have Niger be a stable ally. But the actual lever points against the coup makers is extremely thin. I don't think today they have much more than what my colleagues and I had back in 2008.
The big reason we can hold out some hope in Niger is that the region is much stronger today than it was in 2008. ECOWAS (Economic Cooperation of West African States), the regional grouping of countries, has an intense interest in stopping a domino effect of coups.
And unlike the United States, they do have a history of direct military intervention in the region. Of all the regional groupings in Africa, ECOWAS actually has the best record in standing up for democracy. They were very good in the Gambia when a terrible dictator, Jammeh, lost an election and didn't want to leave, and they sent in a delegation. I don't know what they said to him, but they got him to go.
I think ECOWAS has been verbally strong. They've already initiated a standby force. They're playing a game of chicken right now. But the United States' principal lever is going to be working with the members of ECOWAS.
[Update, Sep 6] Since we last spoke, there's been another West African coup, this time in Gabon. How do you read the situation there, and how does it compare to Niger? Do we have tools available to us in one that we don't have in the other?
Gabon is different in one fundamental way. Niger, like Mauritania in 2008, was a coup against a relatively new democratically-elected leader in a fragile country. Gabon could be seen as the overthrow of a corrupt family that has run the country like a private fiefdom since 1967. That doesn’t mean the US should support a coup in Gabon, of course. But the dynamics are very different, and since Gabon was hardly a paragon of democracy, our incentives to reverse the coup are also weaker. I would expect the neighbors to react differently too. Since Gabon is not part of ECOWAS, our levers are much weaker too. Traditionally, the US has deferred to former colonial power France on relations with countries like Niger and Gabon, but I suspect the utility of that approach is coming to an end, if it hasn’t already.
In that first novel your protagonist is a quantitative poli-sci guy. How much does that kind of work actually get used within State decision making?
Oh, almost not at all. Yeah. Never. When I was on the outside, we were doing all kinds of statistical analysis. In that period, everyone was doing cross-country growth regressions on aid and economic growth. In my time in government, I never once saw a regression table. Not once.
Was that a weakness of government, or was that work not applicable?
I do think that government officials are very hungry for evidence-based answers. It's often not clear what's going on, what's the right thing to do, what's your likelihood of success? There's very few markers for how to benchmark that. At best you get a kind of business school case study approach.
In general the questions that political science is answering are driven more by what's methodologically possible rather than what the important question is. There's no incentive for somebody on the tenure treadmill to spend time trying to answer a policymaker's question. They're trying to get published and keep their job.
But it's also the case that even when the academy has useful information for policymakers, it's almost never presented in a format that somebody could use or understand. One of the functions of my current organization, the Energy For Growth Hub, is to turn good data analysis and evidence into something a policymaker could use, because there are thousands of people doing amazing work on energy modeling, climate policy, how engineering works, and how finance works.
But if you’re an official at a government agency and you've gotta decide something, you need it in a short, digestible format. You're definitely not reading a book and you're not even going to read through a 20-page, data heavy paper. You need somebody to give you the meta-analysis and why the evidence supports one decision versus another. And that's why we try to do everything short, with the idea that you gotta say the problem, the relevancy, and what the data tells you.
And the methodology is relatively less important compared to academia.
Completely. I mean, you want it to be rigorous and credible, but you actually don't care about the RCT (randomized controlled trials) structure in any meaningful sense. The big questions that policymakers care about are not randomizable. The increasing reliance on RCTs as evidence that should guide policy has really pushed us to micro-interventions, away from economic transformation, political change. It's about “do we spend money on worms or educating teachers to get a 10% boost to test scores?”
And that's a function of what's measurable via RCTs?
It's a function of the dominance of the randomistas in the evidence field and the methodological limitations of that approach.
If you were laser focused on informing US policy policymaking, what kinds of approaches would you want to see more of?
I'm going to give you a very unsatisfactory answer: I think RCTs are super useful for answering certain questions, but for policymakers that are dealing with questions like, “What do you do after a coup?” Or, “This country really needs to create jobs. What's the best thing we can do to help this partner create jobs for young people?” Those are going to be non-RCT approaches, some mix of data and qualitative analysis.
I would like to see more analysis presented in a way that could be used for somebody genuinely open to alternatives, rather than looking to cherry-pick data to validate their prior chosen path.
Are there other levers to pull to encourage more useful research, instead of what gets you tenure? How do you go about encouraging practical non-RCT investigation?
The obvious thing to do would be for a couple of the leading academic institutions to change their tenure model away from this exceedingly narrow set of publications as the ticket to academic success. If you want to be an academic and not pursue that path, it's exceedingly difficult, at least in economics and political science. A narrow set of schools are placing professors, and only a narrow set of methodological approaches can get you tenure. Some of the public policy schools are doing more applied things, but I don't think we're even close to seeing a turning point.
How do US consulates actually work?
So the embassy is for relations. The consulate is for citizen services, for visas and all of that. I basically almost never got involved in any consular affairs issue. They don't want the diplomats getting involved. If you've got a process for issuing visas, you don't want political influence there, right? Now, if you look on Visa Limbo, you'll see that the wait for getting a business visitor visa is more than a year in lots of places.
The consular officers are working as hard as they can within a really dysfunctional system. But a functioning system should not depend on the heroic efforts of individuals. It should be able to work efficiently based on the median employee.
Clearly something is not working there. We are living with a visa system that was built for a different age. We need to modernize that because it is terrible for business, it's terrible for family reunification, it's terrible for US competitiveness. Overall, it makes us look like fools, it doesn't make us look like the most important economy and the world's biggest superpower. It opens the door to our strategic competitors to say they don't really care about you.
We've talked about tensions in the American interagency process. Are there tensions between embassies and State back home that manifest often?
The embassy is going to be closer to the feel and texture of what's going on. Something that might seem like a really good idea in DC might sound like a terrible idea in the actual capital, or something completely reasonable in Washington will be utterly impossible in the real world. I think that's a healthy tension that goes back and forth.
The interagency proliferation that we have in Washington is being replicated in the embassies, especially the larger ones. The embassy in Nairobi, for example, will have a very large Pentagon contingent, DEA, Treasury, maybe Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency. If you told me there were 30 federal agencies represented in Embassy Nairobi I wouldn't be surprised.
My hunch is that it's an outgrowth of agency expansion, not just in staff numbers and budget, but in the mandate. I'll pick on the DEA. If your primary mandate is to control drug trafficking in the United States, maybe you had to worry about Canada and Mexico. Well, now you have to worry about heroin coming through West Africa. South Africa has been a transshipment point, there's Asian transshipment points. Lots of issues are now much more international, and that means pushing people out into the field.
How did the creation of the US International Development Finance Corporation happen?
The idea of DFC started with Ben Leo, who I met when he was a treasury official and then we worked together when he was at the White House. While in government, we were both trying to find ways to increase private investment between the United States and Africa. And we both found that those tools were limited. So when we left government at a similar time and went into the think tank world, we were able to channel that frustration into a big new idea.
When you’re working on the inside you could never work on a big problem like that, because you’re putting out fires every day. Yet as an outsider, you’re able to have the blue sky idea and use the knowledge of how the interagency process works to try to get a new idea through the system.
We sketched out a big idea for a new development finance agency, shopped it around, revised it many times in response to feedback, and in the end got it done when the BUILD Act passed in 2018, seven years after we started. Success required a big dose of good luck, which I've written about elsewhere.
When you pitch a big new idea in Washington, most people's first reaction is to tell you all the reasons that it couldn't possibly work. A subset of people will then come back to you and say, “You know what? I think this is how I would overcome that problem. Let's try to work on that together.” And that's where you can start to build coalitions for problem solving. That’s exactly how it happened with the DFC.
What was the order of operations for that coalition building? How did you think about prioritization?
It’s important to get the big goals and the outlines of the idea out, without too many details. If you put too many details, people fixate on that, especially if it affects their turf. We were balancing three things. Inside and outside the government, you want government people, but you also need an array of outside actors that those government officials turn to for support and signaling. In the administration, you're balancing talking with the White House and the relevant agencies. The key, I find, is trying to channel their own frustrations into your proposal. And on the Hill, the last balance, at least the stuff I work on, is that you've gotta get both parties. If you want your idea to really last, you have to gather bipartisan support.
Did you have false starts in that coalition building process?
Definitely. One issue is the specific words that you use to describe what you're trying to do really matter. You can sometimes use the wrong term because you don't realize how it's being interpreted. In both parties there are codewords: if you misuse the wrong one, then they say, “Oh, that's not us. That's the other people's thing.”
What’s an example?
So an example from the experience of the BUILD Act and the creation of the Development Finance Corporation is the issue of “corporate welfare.” Factions in both parties believe the United States government should be weighing in on behalf of US companies to help build jobs and promote the US economic model.
But there are definitely segments of both parties that think the US government is just benefiting companies that don't need it. There are definitely Democrats who feel that certain things should stay in the public service, and that when we privatize them, it allows profit making for corporations rather than good public outcomes.
A sizable part of the Republican Party thinks that government interference in markets turns into corporate welfare. With the BUILD Act, we walked into a couple of landmines with Republicans who we thought would be favorable, because we were talking about how this would level the playing field for US corporations. They did not want to see public dollars going to private projects because they saw that as corporate welfare. One of the ways we were able to get over that was by showing in the data that the predecessor agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), was actually providing financial support almost exclusively to small and medium-sized companies. There were almost no big companies. That blunted the charge that it was Goldman Sachs or some big American company using tax dollars to pad their profits. You can sometimes get over those things with evidence.
The other landmine is: sometimes that you pitch an idea, and people think they're already working on it. Your idea is going to displace their idea that they're spending 60 hours a week working on. I do think it's really important to do your homework, and be very clear about why what you are proposing is different from what either exists now or what's been tried in the past.
Were there cases where you had to be straightforward that, "Yes, I think that's a bad model and we want to replace it."
In some ways it's entirely understandable if you are working hard on a problem, even though you know it's not perfect, somebody comes in and tells you they've identified this problem and have a better way to do it. If you don't think that what you're doing is being fully respected, your reaction is going to be negative. If you can make your proposal build on what they're doing and solve the frustrations they're experiencing, then you will create an ally.
That’s why it was so important that Ben and I did not pull this out of the air. It flowed from several experiences where we could not get something done because of these specific problems. The agency we were trying to replace, OPIC, became big champions of it because first, we weren't trying to fire everybody. We were just trying to have them move to this new agency. It was about turning the agency into a bigger, more powerful and more flexible institution with a very similar mandate: making their jobs easier and more important, so they could be internal champions for it as well. That’s why OPIC leadership was so important to get on board early.
Did it help to present the development corporation as basically the same mandate as an existing setup, but with new or more expanded tools? Did you emphasize that you’re not changing the mandate?
Well, it was a little bit of an expansion of the mandate. It was like elevating the mandate. OPIC was supposed to spur private investment, but it was being asked by the White House and others to do all of these other things. They didn't have the tools to respond. We were saying, "You're already being asked to do these other things, let's recognize that as the reality. Let's just make it part of what we're trying to do."
We're now taking those exact lessons from DFC and also drawing lessons from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, from the launch of Power Africa, and other initiatives for something new, which we call right now Energy Security Compacts, which are a way to rationalize and organize bilateral energy investment packages with important allies. We're trying to solve that interagency dynamics question. We’re learning from the evolution of these other agencies, DFC, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and USAID to make the US better at responding to Chinese or Russian energy investment, to countries that want to accelerate their transition to cleaner energy, or countries that are building energy systems almost from scratch. Currently, the US government is not set up to be responsive to those goals.
Say a little bit more about how the compact approach gets around problems of the interagency process.
The idea of Energy Security Compacts is pulling on two quite successful experiences from the federal government. The MCC is a specialized aid agency that does a lot of things uniquely well, but two things it does are super important for Energy Security Compacts.
One is it starts from an analytical base, doing what's called a constraints analysis, done jointly between a team of US officials and a team from the host country. MCC analyzes constraints to economic growth, but we think this could be applied to constraints to an energy transition, or constraints to energy investment. Some countries need more investment in generation, others need transmission infrastructure, and others need policy reform. Each market is going to be slightly different. You start from that joint constraints analysis, and then everything that you do after that flows from the priorities from that analysis.
The second thing is that MCC investments are all part of a five-year compact agreed with partner countries. Instead of starting fresh every year with a bunch of new projects, everything the MCC does is in the compact that also contains host country investments and other steps. That means that everything fits together in a logical, sequenced way. If you need the tariff rate to change before you'll be able to get more investment, it flows more logically. You're giving everybody a playbook to work off.
And then the piece we want to borrow from Power Africa is a dedicated coordinator who has some flexible money, and can use that money to get agencies to cooperate. Agencies will not cooperate unless there's incentives to do that. But you can use money and that compact to get the investments complimenting each other. We think that those three elements together can really help transform the way that the US partners on energy security with our allies.
As it stands, who on the US side coordinates energy partnerships?
It doesn't really happen. There are examples of it happening. There's something called the Just Energy Transition Partnership which was done first with South Africa, and was largely to find a package of investments that would help South Africa transition from coal to renewables faster than they would just waiting for the market. South Africa’s transition was coordinated by the US Treasury, but the US Treasury will not do many more. Indonesia is next, but the Treasury is not set up to do more of these, much less dozens.
The default is that coordination falls back on the National Security Council. One of the roles of the National Security Council’s staff is to coordinate agencies, but the NSC is small. It can support coordination in one or two places, that may happen for Ukraine, but it's not going to happen in five countries. So again, we can do it, but we can't scale it and it's not sustained.
If we think of energy security, the transition to clean energy, about US strategic competition with Russia and China: these are not one-off events. They need multi-decade responses. And we want to try to find a sensible institutional structure so that we can respond.
Is the money that is flowing into these projects in South Africa or Indonesia coming from State?
No, the large quasi-commercial money investment is from the DFC, and the US Export-Import bank (Ex-Im), which is for shorter-term trade finance. So the big money will come from Ex-Im and the DFC. In general, the grant money for these things comes from USAID. Some smaller money, technical assistance mostly, is sprinkled at State and Commerce. About six or seven other agencies that most people have never heard of play a role.
And would the coordinators with flexible money be in the DFC?
So I'm not going to answer that question of the exact structure because multiple options could make sense, and there's pros and cons of each. Before we start talking about what we think is the best approach, we want to try to get the widest number of people on board with the concept. I think that's just a better way of building an alliance of support rather than starting with which box controls what pot. That's the worst way to get people to cooperate.
And this is a lesson you described learning in your DFC process.
We learned that the hard way with the DFC. The more I've read about successful collaborations, the more I think it's important to get people around goals around what the promised land looks like. We can debate who does exactly what after everybody's agreed on the promised land.
Do you encounter degrowth ideas, arguments, pushes in your work these days in advocacy in the US government?
I would be surprised if any government ever advocated it. And so I have tried deliberately to stay out of that debate. My takeaway is that many degrowthers are utterly disingenuous about what they're trying to do.
All my work has been about Africa or parts of Southeast Asia, and the idea that I would go to Kenya and talk about degrowth is ridiculous. I would undermine all of my credibility. I think they sometimes say, oh, we're not talking about poor countries, we're just talking about rich countries.
You can have a perfectly reasonable critique of consumer societies and overconsumption without going down the degrowth path.
What do American policymakers misunderstand or get wrong about Africa generally?
African countries are such important partners to the United States for everything that we hope for ourselves and for the world. We tend not to treat Africa with the same respect and level of priority that we give other regions.
I would say the overarching misunderstanding is that we don't always expect African leaders to act in their nation's national interest, or in their personal self-interest. And I think that leads us to misunderstand why maybe leaders are doing something that seems to run counter to what we think would be the best outcome.
Michael Clemens, a brilliant economist, once told me, if somebody tells you that a leader lacks political will to do something, what that means is not that they lack will, but that you don't understand the incentives they actually are facing. That is fundamentally the issue – we do not understand the incentives that African leaders face.
Where does that misperception come from?
I don't actually know. The policymakers who work on Africa absolutely take it seriously and they're very dedicated. It doesn't mean they're going to win a battle against their colleagues that work in the Middle East or Asia. And they won't get the same level of resources, but I don't think people don't get it. Yet there is definitely a power dynamic that exists between big, powerful rich countries and small, less powerful, less rich countries. That dynamic does lead to patronizing attitudes or expectations of certain behavior.
A good example is: just because we give a country a very generous aid package to support their healthcare system does not mean they're going to support us on a bunch of other national security issues. It's very hard to buy partnership. I think it's a mistake to try to view it that way.