Gutting the public sector serves no one

Structural Adjustment Programs, implemented by the World Bank and IMF in developing countries, leave the administrative state especially unequipped to deal with climate change.

Buzi evacuees being treated at the clinic set up by the Indian Navy at Beira Port, Mozambique. Image credit Denis Onyodi for IFRC/DRK/Climate Centre via Flickr (CC).

For the past 10 years, my research has centered on regional food provisioning and exchange systems. Since 2014, our Malawian and American research team has focused on Lilongwe’s food economy, where it became evident very early on that collaborating with the municipal government was necessary to understanding and supporting city food systems. This is because a vibrant, equitably accessible, and remunerative urban food economy hinges on the material conditions of the city and its markets, and the extent to which people can access clean water, toilet facilities, electricity, sanitation services, secure trading spaces and storage facilities, decent drainage, and transportation. In other words, food provisioning and exchange that meets the needs of citizens requires the attention of public sector decision-makers and planners with the purview over city infrastructure and economic development.

Collaborating with the public sector is necessary because the widely-distributed food exchange networks that feed most people in Africa will continue to be an important source of food and livelihood well into the future. Perhaps they even are the future. Though the public sector’s involvement is necessary by virtue of its responsibilities, the extent to which it can support food-related economic and physical infrastructure is severely limited. Like the retailers, transporters and markets for which it has responsibility, the public sector is severely resource-constrained.

Many African cities and towns are growing quickly; housing, markets, and economic activities emerge almost overnight in areas devoid of municipal infrastructure to support them. Municipal offices that would ostensibly be responsible for oversight exist, but are often functionally invisible on a day-to-day basis. Officials in these offices are commonly perceived to be rent-seeking, non-responsive, non-transparent, and overly aggressive, and they often are (see, for example the brutal evictions recently carried out in Lagos, Nigeria). But, even with the best of intentions, and under normal conditions, many city officials lack the tools, training, staff, and resources to respond constructively.

I explain this as background for a response I made to a tweet by Africa is a Country, which observed that the state was “basically invisible” in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai.

Most readers of Africa is a Country do not need a recounting of the effects of structural adjustment policies, which marked the beginning of the fetishized private sector in Africa, and emphasized market liberalization and expenditure cuts to public infrastructure, education, social services, and research and extension. But, it is worth reflecting on what a gutted public sector portends in the context of climate change.

In virtually all messaging from organizations concerned about mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, the primary responsibility “to develop and implement integrated policies and programs that build resilience and reduce the vulnerability of their populations” falls to national governments. Cyclone Idai has revealed just how incapable Mozambique’s administrative state is of accomplishing the most basic of tasks; even issuing a warning about the impending storm was beyond their scope. It is easy to blame pervasive internal corruption for this failure, but important to situate that corruption in a historical context.

The run-of-the-mill dysfunction that characterizes much of Africa’s administrative state, and the relationships between government and citizens (like those in the Lilongwe food system), is an outcome, in large part, of colonial legacies and ongoing neocolonial conditionality. A 2018 report by the Political Economy Research Institute notes how “‘structural conditions’ can exert a deleterious effect on bureaucratic quality, as they increase the risk that bureaucrats fall prey to special interests and reduce the range of policy instruments available to bureaucrats…” Though this report concerns economic planning, these same obstructing conditions also apply to bureaucratic functioning writ large. For example, conditionality puts caps on spending and imposes limits on the number of personnel hired and the benefits that can be offered.

State capacity is a widely recognized determinant of bureaucratic policies and practices that serve citizen wellbeing. Ongoing conditionality, which serves free market ideology, degrades the capacity of the state. This does not bode well for the unfolding climate disaster that will require both immediate and long-term strategic planning; the ability to marshal scarce resources towards prevention and reaction; leveraging the capacity of different units of government through coordinated responses; supporting public research and extension systems to develop novel approaches; and communicating with communities about what they can do to reduce risk in a climate-changing world.

For those interested in these topics, I’d recommend the work of David Dodman and David Satterthwaite, the working paper “How structural adjustment programs impact bureaucratic quality in developing countries” by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (also, this discussion on the Real News Network) and AbdouMaliq Simone and Edgar Pieterse’s 2018 book, New urban worlds: Inhabiting dissonant times.

Further Reading