Bureaucratic Practices in Africa – Different Perspectives, Different Times and Different Places
Séverine Awenengo Dalberto is directing the current project on “Identity, Identification and Bureaucratization in sub-Saharan Africa”, which was launched in November 2015 by the German Historical Institute in Paris and the Centre de recherche sur les politiques sociales (CREPOS) of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal. She is also member of the steering committee of the extended project, the Transnational Research Group (TRG) of the Max Weber Foundation working on “Bureaucratic practices in Africa”, coordinated by project leader Susann Baller. The TRG will start in January 2017 in Dakar.
Gesche Schifferdecker (Max Weber Foundation) interviewed the two researchers about the new perspectives of the TRG, the challenges of their everyday work in collaborative projects and how they are dealing with diverse teams and stereotypes.
Mrs. Awenengo Dalberto and Mrs. Baller, you are responsible for the new Transnational Research Group of the Max Weber Foundation. Could you explain in three sentences what you are planning to do in the coming years?
The main change in the near future will be the extension of the current project from one to four research axes, each of them consisting of a postdoc and two PhD students. We are planning to host a conference in Dakar every year, to invite short-term fellows and to organize an annual summer school in collaboration with the project partners. This will allow us to explore the main topic of the research project – bureaucratic practices in Africa – from different perspectives, in different times and at different places.
Why did the German Historical Institute Paris (DHIP) choose the Université Cheikh Anta Diop as a cooperation partner?
The University in Dakar was founded about sixty years ago, and many important historians working in the field of African history have started their career there. Today, the university faces a lot of challenges (such as very high numbers of students), but it is also committed to reform. At the same time many departments, such as the Department of History, continue to produce highly qualified Master and PhD students. As a multidisciplinary project we will mainly collaborate with the Departments of History, Sociology and Anthropology. In the framework of our initial project, currently led by Séverine Awenengo Dalberto, we cooperated successfully with the CREPOS (Centre de recherche sur les politiques sociales), our main partner and host institution in Dakar. Furthermore, Dakar is, of course, a city that attracts researchers from all over the world, for instance because of the National Archives of Senegal which include the colonial archives of French West Africa. In addition, there are several institutions besides our direct project partners, such as the Codesria (an independent pan-African research organisation) or the WARC (West African Research Centre) which provide a promising environment for fruitful academic exchange.
How do you plan to implement transnational research? What is transnational about your research objects, your research approach and practice, as well as the composition of your team of researchers?
Our project is transnational in many ways. First the researchers working in the current team are coming from different African and European countries, which will also be the case for the extended project in the years to come. Moreover, the research group is embedded in a transnational network of project partners in Dakar, Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, Bamako and Rabat. Bureaucratic practices have become part of our life all over the world. With our research project, we aim to get a better understanding of bureaucratic practices in different parts of Africa and how they were shaped and transformed. This approach allows comparison. But it also illustrates the impact of transnational contexts on bureaucratic practices – quite obviously for instance in many corporate bureaucracies or in bureaucratic practices of hometown associations.
I recently became acquainted with African Political Philosophy. That was when I realized that when we – as Europeans – speak about concepts like „state“ or „identity“, we tend to assume that those terms have the same implications in different world regions. Have you made similar experiences while working with colleagues from various backgrounds?
We have to be careful in how we use different terms and concepts and explain what we mean. They may not only have different meanings in different world regions, but also in different disciplinary backgrounds and/or academic environments. Albeit many of us have been trained and continued their careers in various countries and on different continents, the research group members sometimes come from different historiographical traditions. We are fundamentally aware of the fact that identity is not an analytical category but produced and constructed in everyday life practices. Thus the current project uses both terms “identity and identification”, implying there is a process that we want to examine. Furthermore, the concept of a “state” can be quite problematic hence we cannot take that for granted. If we consider the ‘precolonial’ tenses – a terminology of periodization which remains controversial – some researchers speak of states. Others explain that there were no states as we in Europe have experienced and conceptualized them during the same periods. Nevertheless, the exercise of power has lead to various forms of political organization in time and space, from empires to small local political institutions. To some extent translation is quite a challenge because we are dealing with different European and African languages. Finally we aim to go beyond static concepts and rather explore practices of “doing, making or living states”.
When we read about bureaucracy in Africa, we are usually confronted with stereotypes such as corruption, despotism and clientelism. How do you deal with prejudices like these in your research?
On the one hand, it can be interesting to focus on the history and the deeper meaning of corruption, despotism and clientelism and how they have been intertwined with bureaucratic practices. Corruption is not the contrary of bureaucracy, but it can very much be part of it. On the other hand, the research project also shows how people in Africa developed bureaucratic practices hoping to produce more regulation and reliability – and this within state structures and beyond, such as in nongovernmental organizations, associations or religious groups. The knowledge of bureaucratic practices can make powerful and produce inclusion and exclusion. It can cause some form of fascination but also incomprehension and refusal. We do not want to generalize as these stereotypes of corruption, despotism and clientelism often do, but explore the local experiences with bureaucratic practices. And it is one of the particularities of our project that we study bureaucratic practices beyond the state, too.
Did bureaucratization and identification processes imposed by colonial authorities actually help to form a civic identity and/or social affiliation in Africa?
The effects of bureaucratic processes depend on the context. Dealing with bureaucratic practices of the colonial state certainly raised the awareness of belonging – or not belonging – to a country. However, the political context was often much more complicated. Frederick Cooper reminds us that inhabitants of former French colonies possessed the rights of French citizens between 1946 and 1960. People were able to switch their civic identity between, for instance, Senegal and France. Moreover, civic identity and social affiliation were not just imposed but shaped and renegotiated by Africans. Thus we also consider the bureaucratic impact and its limits during the colonial moment.
Senegal is a multilingual country – but French is still the official language, even though the majority of Senegalese people do not speak it. And the Senegalese example is no exception on the African continent although decolonization began more than 50 years ago. Could you share some insights how the Senegalese society deals with this discrepancy?
School attendance in Senegal has increased a lot recently. Today, the majority of Senegalese people is able speak French, at least on a basic level. But especially for children who do not speak French at home, schooling in French can be difficult. Newspapers still mainly publish in French, but Radio and Internet journals are multilingual. Wolof has become the dominant language in everyday life Senegal, and the process of “wolofisation” has also marginalized other languages. At times, this raises tensions since children of non-Wolof origin get fewer opportunities to learn the language of their parents. But overall, most of the Senegalese deal with the multilingual situation in a quite easygoing way. They usually grow up multilingual and they are very eloquent in code switching. French, in addition, offers opportunities to work and study abroad. Likewise, English is becoming more and more popular, in particular among young people in Senegal. If we relate this to our research project language is, of course, very important, especially the switching between French and Wolof in an administrative environment.
What is your most important objective for the further development of the research project?
There are always different objectives on different levels. Of course, we want our team members to work in conditions that enable them to complete their PhD or postdoctoral research projects and to benefit from the transnational and collaborative research context of the project. Additionally we would like to create a hub of intellectual activity that makes a contribution to the academic environment of Dakar, and thus encourage collaborative research between Germany (Max Weber Stiftung, Forum Transregionale Studien, Humboldt Universität Berlin, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt), Senegal, Mali (with our collaborative partner Point-Sud), Morocco (University of Rabat) and France (Institut des mondes africains, Sciences Po), as well as with other, mainly African countries. At the same time, Senegal is only one country of interest among others in our research.