Strategies, Weakened State Capacity and Fragmented Identities3
It is no doubt true that, in some cases, deregulation of
internal markets and foreign trade, as well as the reduction of the role of the state in
the economy, has permitted people to gain new freedom of action. Nevertheless it is
important to think carefully about how patterns of social change under conditions of
continuing economic crisis and adjustment are affecting the capacity of societies to
provide a minimal framework of stability and justice, within which people can interact
Over the past several decades, the efficiency of modern
institutions has been severely eroded by the combined impact of economic crisis and
free-market reforms in many Third World countries. Particularly in Africa, it is not too
much to say that prolonged recession seems to be reversing the process of modernization
which was the hallmark of post-independence development. The school systems, health
services, public enterprises and government agencies established to support construction
of national economies and secular, national societies are all too frequently in ruin.
Furthermore the coping strategies adopted by many
different kinds of people, as they confront severe challenges to livelihood, reverse
earlier trends toward occupational specialization. Workers and civil servants in Africa,
for example, are increasingly devoting a part of their time to farming on the outskirts of
their towns, or in the countryside. Teachers and nurses in many countries now opt to
supplement miserable salaries by opening small shops, selling street foods, and so forth.
Professionals may drive taxis. Such diversification of activity requires devoting
attention and time to a number of concerns in different places. This affects the quality
of work and weakens the commitment of employees to the institutions they serve.
Multiple survival strategies also weaken the kinds of
institutions which modern societies have developed for the defence of group interests.
Trade unions, farmers' associations, mutual insurance societies and so forth depend for
their effectiveness on the commitment and financial support of their members. As
professional or workplace identity erodes, however, and as the interests of members become
more diffuse, these institutions lose much of their ability to represent their
constituents in formal bargaining processes.
Although it is often noted that strong "vested
interests" can block needed reforms, it is also true that weak interest group
representation can make it harder for governments to design an effective response to
economic crisis. In the first place, dialogue between policy makers and key sectors of the
society becomes more difficult; and agreements on issues such as wage and price restraint
even when drawn up are less likely to be kept. This kind of problem stands
behind many of the failed efforts to forge pacts in support of stabilization programmes in
African and Latin American countries during the 1980s.
In the second place, growing fragmentation and
diversification of interests in response to crisis affect the coherence of the economic
planning process itself. It becomes very difficult to predict the impact of policy on the
behaviour or life chances of different groups when the latter are extremely heterogeneous.
Thus, for example, the benefits of targeted credit schemes intended to assist small
enterprises in the urban informal sector quite frequently find their way into the hands of
the middle class. Or incentives designed to promote one form of behaviour within a part of
the population may in fact promote an entirely different one. This has, of course, always
been an unresolved problem in economic policy-making; but it is particularly acute today.
Finally, the erosion of a structure of modern interest
groups in many indebted Third World countries affects the strength of political parties
and thus the capacity of political systems to create stable governing coalitions. Violent
and unorganized protest is likely to take the place of more formal bargaining procedures
when a growing part of the population does not feel represented by any intermediate level
As many states lose both capacity and legitimacy, there
has been a resurgence of regional, religious and ethnic movements, most particularly in
Africa and the former Soviet bloc. Sometimes people reactivate traditional ties for very
practical reasons: they are the only available way to fill the gap in social service
provision left by the withdrawal of the national government. Thus in villages in
Guinea-Bissau, for example, the crisis of the modern educational system has forced parents
to rely on Koranic schooling. And for many impoverished city dwellers in West Africa,
herbalists, soothsayers and religious sects are once again becoming a popular alternative
to modern medicine.
On a deeper level, however, the sharp sense of uncertainty
and insecurity generated by recession and restructuring by the threat of
unemployment, the collapse of wages and the deterioration of public services
provides fertile ground for fundamentalism. And the growing fragmentation of livelihood,
as households explore multiple survival strategies, is likely to reinforce the need to
reassert primordial loyalties.
Finally, it should be remembered that the pronounced
widening of income differentials within many countries over the past few decades has
played a significant role in weakening broader networks of social interaction and
solidarity. The poor tend to be poorer now, not only in absolute but also in relative
terms as some members of society have been able to take advantage of the unusual
new opportunities created by free-market reforms. Frequently there is a marked cultural
dimension to this process of polarization. The most lucrative activities often involve
growing involvement in international markets and integration into global consumer culture.
In consequence, the bases of national culture (often of recent creation in Third World
societies) are narrowed and challenged.
3 This section is based on Yusuf Bangura, Economic Restructuring, Coping
Strategies and Social Change: Implications for Institutional Development in Africa,
Discussion Paper No. 52, UNRISD, Geneva, July 1994.