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Status Quo Bias As A Cause for Ethnic Violence In Africa

By Praharsh Mehrotra

How does the process of political decision-making impact nations in the long run? This article explores this question in the setting of colonial Africa. This article establishes a link between the Status Quo Bias Model and the creation of borders in Africa and shows how a simple Status Quo Bias has been the main cause behind ethnic violence in the continent.

Introduction Africa has been the subject of a large number of Economic debates on development. There is a growing set of research that evaluates the causes behind the development of institutions in Africa. This paper links ethnic violence in Africa to a process of political decision making impacted by Status Quo Bias towards a certain policy.

Ethnic Violence in Africa In the paper titled “The Long Run effects of the Scramble for Africa” by Michalopoulos and Papaioannou(2016), the authors explore the relation between ethnic partitioning and political violence . The authors use Econometric evidence to show that incidence of ethnic partitioning has been directly correlated with higher civil conflict, discrimination and state driven violence.

The authors also show that neighboring countries use the homelands of partitioned groups to stage military interventions. This showed that ethnic partitioning is associated with a lower opportunity cost of fighting, as neighboring countries often offer military, political, and economic support to their co-ethnics on the other side of the border.

Furthermore, the authors trace ethnic partitioning back to the arbitrary process of border creation by the European colonizers.

Arbitrariness of Colonial Borders Ethnic partitioning in Africa happened in 1884 when the European colonizers met at the Berlin conference. According to the authors, this happened because of the arbitrary border design and thus, became a direct cause of ethnic violence today.

The authors show that ethnic partitioning that happened as a consequence of colonial border design, cannot be explained by any geological, economic, ecological or precolonial factors. Causes of Arbitrary Colonial Borders The paper gives several reasons to justify why Europeans chose a policy of arbitrary borders : 1. Europeans had little information on the local geography and the continent was unexplored. 2. Europeans were drawing borders of prospective colonies and not independent states. 3. Europeans were unwilling to change the colonial borders despite new information arriving from ground. 4. The local chiefs in Africa did not oppose the colonial border design since it did not hamper movement. Moreover, no African was invited to the Berlin conference.

Irrationality on African Border Design At the start of the Berlin conference, Bismarck in his opening remarks said that that delegates had not met to discuss matters of sovereignty of the African states but to advance their commercial interests. Assuming that the European leaders at the conference were rational, we still find an apparent contradiction in their behavior.

The Europeans aiming to expand commercial interests in Africa did not choose to have strategic borders based on local conditions and instead created the borders arbitrarily. Establishing African borders based on more information about local conditions would have been more rational due to the following reasons: 1. Having information on the local conditions would have made it easier for the Europeans to govern Africa and thus, make it more commercially profitable with minimal costs of governance. 2. Knowing more about the local geography would also have made it optimal for the European colonies to extract more resources from Africa. An interesting thing to also note here is that, the Europeans refused to redesign the colonial borders even when they received new information. This apparent irrationality can be explained by the Status Quo Bias model. The Status Quo Bias Model The Status Quo Bias model with individual uncertainty was published by Fernandez and Rodrick(1991) to explain why policy makers often fail to adopt efficiency enhancing policies. This paper tries to explain how good policies are often rejected due to uncertainty over the distribution of gains and losses. The model tries to show that since the majority of the population does not have information about their gains/losses from a given policy, they tend to stick to the Status Quo. Thus, they end up rejecting the policy even if it has overall positive gains.

In this paper, the model is evaluated from the point of a voting mechanism where a population votes for a given policy based on how it affects them. However, one of the major strengths of this models is that it can be applied under any kind of political system. The same problem can exist in an autocracy as long as the decision maker exhibits this kind of a behavior under uncertainty over distribution of gains and losses. This model according to the authors can be applied to any kind of policies including Welfare reforms, macroeconomic stabilization etc. In this article, I propose a simplified and modified version of the Status Quo Bias Model to explain why a policy of arbitrary border creation in Africa was chosen by the European colonizers despite its apparent irrationality. The Model Let us assume that the Berlin conference as one entity(i) tries to evaluate whether it should make the borders random or obtain information about the local conditions. We also assume that the colonial country (j) has no or little information about African local conditions. In order to evaluate this, we assume that whether to choose random borders or obtain more information is a binary decision and each country needs to consider the potential gains and the losses from this decision. If more information is obtained then,

Total gain due to better governance of this territory= pXg1

Potential gain in resources from changed territory for a particular country= qXg2 Potential loss in resources from changed territory for a particular country = -rXg₃

Net Loss/Gain from this policy for a particular country = (pXg1)+ (qXg2)- (rXg3) where p,q,r are the probabilities of realizing these respective gains and losses. Here let us assume that the gains from better governance are much smaller than actual gains and losses from changed territory since the colonial powers’ main motive was to capture more wealth and resources. There is uncertainty over the values of q,r,g₂ and g₃. This is because no European government had certainty about how the gains and the losses from territory will be distributed, once they acquired more information. For example, a country (j) could lose/gain territory/resources if more information was obtained by another country leading to claims on resources based on some local aspect (example, ethnicity)

This status quo of thus, not obtaining more information and choosing random borders, is caused by uncertainty over the distribution of gains and losses among each individual country, even when there is an overall gain from the policy. This shows that there is uncertainty on impact of obtaining more information on border design and individual country gains/losses and thus, the status quo of random borders is maintained.

Persistence of Status Quo Bias During African Independence Another interesting aspect of the Scramble for Africa is that even when the African states attained independence, the colonial borders were not redesigned. According to Michalopoulos and Papaioannou(2016), the reason behind this was that African leaders feared that border realignment would threaten their position and territory. This persistence of arbitrary borders even after independence can also be explained by the Status Quo Bias model. Even though redesigning the borders according to ethnicity would have been the most rational policy to reduce ethnic violence, the African leaders were uncertain over how it would affect their position and impact the gains/losses from higher/lower territory for their respective country. Since there was uncertainty over who the winners and losers from the border redesign would be, the African leaders decided to stick to the status quo of maintaining the colonial borders. Ethnic Violence as a Cause of A Status Quo Bias This article extends the argument given in the paper to explain how the political process behind the creation of arbitrary borders was affected by individual uncertainty which led to preference of the Status quo. This illustrates how a simple status quo bias caused the creation of arbitrary borders which led to ethnic violence. Moreover, we also note that this persisted even a 100 years later during African independence, and thus, has had a big role in shaping African institutions. Thus, we establish a status quo bias caused by individual uncertainty as the main cause behind ethnic violence in Africa today. Conclusion

In this article, we discuss a simplified version of the Status quo bias model to show that the uncertainty the colonizers faced while dividing Africa led to them establish random borders rather than obtain more information.

The article extends this point to show how this Status Quo Bias even persisted when Africa became independent and why the colonial borders remained unchanged due to uncertainty.

Furthermore, the article uses the Status Quo Bias model to explain a preference for Status quo as the main cause behind ethnic violence in Africa. This article thus, illustrates, how a simple decision-making process, affected by a Status quo bias due to lack of information can have a long-term impact on institutions.

However, more research needs to be done in order to establish a causal link between status quo bias and border creation in Africa. Further avenues for research could also mean exploring the link between the political decision making and its long run impact on institutions in Africa.


1. Michalopoulos, S., & Papaioannou, E. (2016). The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa. The American Economic Review, 106(7), 1802-1848. Retrieved April 12, 2020, from

2. Fernandez, R., & Rodrik, D. (1991). Resistance to Reform: Status Quo Bias in the Presence of Individual- Specific Uncertainty. The American Economic Review, 81(5), 1146-1155. Retrieved April 12, 2020, from

3. Gathara, P. (2019, November 15). Berlin 1884: Remembering the conference that divided Africa. Breaking News, World News and Video from Al

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