Journal examines non-state provision of public goods in Africa

Nongovernmental organizations, multinational corporations and faith-based groups have greatly extended their activities in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, taking on the provision of public goods and services that in other settings might be the responsibility of the state.

The current issue of the journal Africa Today, edited by Lauren MacLean of IU Bloomington and Danielle Carter Kushner of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, takes an in-depth look at that trend and its implications for politics and democratic engagement.

Lauren MacLean

Lauren MacLean

“There are some important questions about who wins and who loses from this different paradigm,” said MacLean, associate professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences. “If you get most of your goods and services from private companies and NGOs, does it change the way you think about your relationship with the state? Does it change the way you think about citizenship?”

The Africa Today issue grew out of a 2012 American Political Science Association-sponsored workshop in Botswana, which brought together scholars and researchers from Africa and the United States. Several shared an interest in the larger role that non-state actors were playing in Africa, and they decided to collaborate on a research agenda.

The resulting issue includes articles on faith-based universities in Nigeria, access to housing in Ghana, health services in Uganda and private security organizations in South Africa. MacLean and Jennifer Brass, assistant professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, examine the role of NGOs, the private sector and foreign aid in providing renewable energy in Kenya and Uganda.

While nongovernmental organizations have long played significant roles in much of Africa, the trend has accelerated in the past decade or so. For example, the number of NGOs operating in Ghana grew from 80 in 1980 to nearly 5,000 in 2010. In South Africa, private security businesses increased by 61 percent over the course of 10 years.

And while the provision of public goods by non-state entities has been widely studied in the United States and other developed nations, Africa presents unique issues and challenges.

“This was a very different context, where we thought it was important to think theoretically and empirically about what was happening on the ground,” MacLean said.

MacLean, Kushner and Jeffrey Paller of Columbia University write about the issue for the Monkey Cage, a political science blog hosted by the Washington Post, where they offer a “top five list” of things people should know about the politics of non-state provision of public goods in Africa:

  • It’s not just happening in weak states. In some cases, businesses and NGOs have stepped in because governments weren’t doing the job. But in others, democratization and the spread of market economies created space for new organizations to operate.
  • It’s not new but different. In the past, village communities, traditional authorities and missionaries played important roles. Today it’s international NGOs, multinational corporations and entrepreneurs.
  • It doesn’t always produce goods that are truly “public.” We typically think of public goods as being available to everyone. But in Africa, there’s often unequal access, leading to conflict over who gets education, health care and public utility services.
  • It does not mean there are no politics. Religious, nonprofit and community organizations are often deeply involved in political activity, supporting or opposing governing parties and encouraging or discouraging political action by their clients.
  • It matters for democracy. It can let governments off the hook, letting them ignore the needs of citizens. And it can have the effect of institutionalizing inequality, with only well connected groups having access to goods and services.

“I think inequality is something we really haven’t paid enough attention to, in the U.S. or elsewhere,” MacLean said. “In some of these African countries, even the ones we think of as success stories, as the economies have achieved higher rates of growth, we’re seeing rising inequality.”

Africa Today is a quarterly academic journal published by Indiana University Press. Its editorial offices are in the Global and International Studies Building at IU Bloomington. The current issue and previous issues are available online.