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BIPR | How Does Foreign Policy of African Governments Reflect Public Opinion?
How Does Foreign Policy of African Governments Reflect Public Opinion?

September 28, 2023 - 15:30

Florian G. Kern, University of Essex, UK

Event Recap

The Bologna Institute for Policy Research (BIPR) Director Sergey Radchenko hosted Florian G. Kern, a professor at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom and a Johns Hopkins SAIS Bologna alumnus. Kern presented a research project that he, Professor Martin Steinwand, and Ph.D. candidate Samira Diebire are working on about the relationship between foreign policy and citizen preferences in Africa.

Little research has been conducted in Africa on public opinion and foreign policy, as social science has long written off the continent as uniformly autocratic and subject to external forces. Kern rejects this dismissal and designs his research to enhance global political discussion on Africa.

"We often just assume that African governments are strong executives—they don't care about their citizens [...] and because they don't care about what the citizens think, they don't have to incorporate citizens' demands in their foreign policy," said Kern. "The other sort of view that we have across the social sciences is that foreign policy in Africa is driven by external donors."

In fact, Kern and his colleagues argue, as social scientists have argued for other regions of the world, foreign policy in Africa is determined by a combination of domestic and international factors, as it is in other regions.

Kern and co-authors researched public opinion on free movement and free trade using the Afrobarometer dataset, a compilation of survey data conducted across the continent, to test the role of citizen preferences in African foreign policy decision-making. They find that governments, in general, are more supportive of free trade than their constituents, though they also observe extensive variation between African countries.

Interestingly, they found that foreign policy in democratic states did not more closely match public opinion than in authoritarian regimes.

"[Democracies] are so liberal that they are more liberal than their populations," said Kern. "That demonstrates that democracies are not just about elections. Democracies are also about liberal values—liberal market values."

This finding, however, may partially be a result of the problems inherent to public opinion data collection in Africa.

"If you see an autocracy where the match is really good [...] we can think of various mechanisms for why that is the case," said Kern. "Maybe people were just afraid to give the Afrobarometer the true answer, and they were just saying, 'I'd better just say what the government wants.'"

During the Q&A portion of the event, a student asked Kern how he and his colleagues took into account the legacy of colonialism in measuring public opinion. Though he did not isolate colonialism as a separate variable, Kern noted that it may be related to the relationship between the level of democracy in African states and their foreign policies.

"What's probably happening is that African populations are actually quite trade-critical as opposed to their governments, and their governments are pressured, incentivized to go into trade agreements with international organizations," said Kern. "And maybe their populations [...] have more of a critical view on trade… So that's where that gap is coming from for those democracies that are oversupplying free trade."

How Does Foreign Policy of African Governments Reflect Public Opinion?

hosted by Professor Sergey Radchenko

Florian G. Kern
University of Essex, UK

Dr. Florian G. Kern is Associate Professor (Reader) at the Department of Government, University of Essex, where he is also a fellow at the Michael Nicholson Centre for Conflict and Cooperation.

He received his PhD from the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz, and also holds an MA from SAIS, Johns Hopkins University.

His main research interest lies in comparative politics, especially the political economy of development, governance and conflict, with a regional focus on Africa and indigenous North America. His most recent work focuses on domestic sources of foreign policy formulation in Africa, multilingualism and conflict, land rights, as well as research transparency in qualitative methods.

His work has been published in leading journals such as Comparative Political Studies, International Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Peace Research, Governance and others. He uses a variety of approaches, combining applied experimental and qualitative methods, surveys, case studies, and fieldwork. His work has been generously supported by the UK Economics and Social Research Council, the Bosch Foundation, the German Foundation for Peace Research and the Gerda Henkel Foundation.
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