A follow up post on the hippos

So I realized that maybe my interest in hippos body surfing in Gabon might have seemed random, and wanted to write a quick follow up post on why, as a doctoral student studying conflict prevention and social resilience, I enjoyed the article so much.  Aside from the hippos, which were pretty cute.

There are a number of theories that aim to describe conflict risk, primarily focusing on civil wars but with explanatory power for internationalized conflicts.  Many of these theories were built around conflict in Africa, but also have explanatory power in other countries and regions.  These theories focus on a few broadly defined areas: quality of governance, social and political agency, and economic access and growth.  Here’s how hippos body surfing in Gabon fits in:

– As noted in the BBC article, Gabon has lived off oil revenues for a long time, making it a rentier state.  Research points to the fact that rentier states tend to have government structures that err on the autocratic side (which makes sense; there’s no need to collect taxes from your citizens or negotiate with them democratically when Shell Oil pays you a hefty sum to extract your oil), and tend to be higher risk in terms of falling into civil unrest or war.  This feeds into the next two broad factors…

– …The second of which is social and political agency among the populace.  T.R. Gurr created the theory of Relative Deprivation, which stipulates that populations which are systematically denied access to political and social structures will eventually rise up violently.  Rentier states don’t need to provide political agency to their populations since their revenue isn’t derived from taxes and domestic production, it comes from the company extracting their oil.  Gabon has always remained somewhat stable, primarily because Omar Bongo’s 40 year presidential administration used a portion of the oil revenue to maintain basic amenities for the population; when Bongo died and people voted, there were claims of fraud, vote rigging, rioting, etc.  Rentier states aren’t designed to adapt, which leads to the third problem…

– …Economic decline leads to increased risk of violence.  Scholars will argue vociferously about whether violence is caused by economic decline leading to political discontent leading to war, or whether weak political structures breed corruption leading to economic decline leading to war.  Either way, economic decline is bad for peace and stability.  If you’re a rentier state and you live or die based on oil revenues, and oil is a commodity exchanged and valued based on futures markets that you (the rentier state) have no control over, major changes in the value of oil can play havoc with your non-diversified economy.  Suddenly all those perks that bought off the support of your population in exchange for their acquiescence are unaffordable.  Now your newly disenfranchised populace is angry and feeling very relatively deprived; this is a reliable recipe for rioting, looting and possibly civil war.

So back to why I am happy that hippos are body surfing in Gabon.  The move to diversify the economy around sustaining the environment with eco-tourism is not only good for nature, it’s also good for political stability, creating economic and social opportunities for the population, and providing alternative revenue to offset fluctuations in the price of oil.   Of course this isn’t easy; Gabon still has its political problems, starting a business there is still a challenge, and of course cross-cultural expectations will always be vexing.  But the upside of Gabon recognizing the need to diversify, making efforts to build a strategy for eco-tourism, and protecting its natural resources makes the challenge worth it should it lead to increased stability, an empowered population and sustainable economic opportunity.  And what’s best, this should lead to a decreased risk of turmoil and conflict.  Surf on hippos!

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