Polanyi. Markets. Coase. Firms. Olson. Collective Action. Ostrom. Tragedy of the Commons. Knight. Social Conflicts. Chambers. Poverty. Kabeer. Gender. Akerlof. Identity.
Analysing Institutions in development was the bane of my existence a year ago. From social hierarchies to the bureaucracy of aid, endless readings and long-winded essays on how economic principles meet and mesh with social realities do not feel distant enough just yet. Being in the business of development however, has provided an intriguing counterpoint to this labyrinth of policies, practicality and the ‘packaging’ of jargon and its potential for social change in a manner that can be widely understood.
Numbers games are easy enough. State-sponsored extortion covers fuel, electricity, potatoes and otherwise. Pay hikes compelled by union action culminates in a few blokes swinging off the Lipton Circus Fountain and the police getting trigger-happy with teargas. Wages are increased and prices go up since Western powers are after all conspiring to pack Sri Lanka back off to the Third World where fly ridden children are sucked into the neo-colonial aid machine, catalogued, photographed as the face of an organizational calendar and paid in awareness leaflets and oversized teddy bears from First world primary school pen pals. $9.99 a month salvation and one less distended-bellied child. Praise be!
The relevance of social and political context informs Polanyi’s conception of the market’s “embeddedness” which suggests that economy is integrated into society. This view inevitably challenges good ole’ Adam Smith’s description of man’s “propensity to barter, truck and exchange one thing for the other”. This subordination of the economy to politics and social relations underscores what Polanyi further asserts as the need for the government to play a role within the economy through the imposition of sanctions protecting national interests, rather than relying on the intangible economic theories of self-equilibration. While the markets of the world play the number games of hunger games, what of social change? Polanyi tells us that the market cannot be disembedded from society, but do the same gold standards and price tags apply? Can we measure social change in numbers or achieve it through lingo-heavy policy recommendations?
Policy design in Sri Lanka resembles something akin to a Smithian free market; the disembedded marionette strung by the ‘invisible hands’ of political and legislative powers. An uncanny automaton awkwardly flailing amidst real people and real social problems, one that’s trying to get these people, their politics and their problems in line with repeated mechanical recitations of the equality-for-all constitution.
Within development, the predicament of the numbers game (or the epic failure of economists as the rest of us social scientists like to believe) is being noticed. Mostly because the IMF and World Bank’s history of basic needs approaches and structural adjustment programmes caused more problems than they solved. The call for the integration of the global into the local forms an oxymoron of a one-size-fits-all square scheme being shoved into the triangle of a local market. The international development apparatus’s failure to account for the social and political embeddedness of local institutions and recognise that these institutions are not necessarily socially efficient and calibrated to fit into the neat boxes of a monitoring and evaluation report has proved to be detrimental to achieving any real development. Or do I mean empowerment and upward mobility?
After my automaton-like flailing (anthropology strings attached) amidst a group of economists versed the finer points of Keynes, I realise that within the framework of institutional analysis, what becomes significant is the agency of human behaviour and choice that economic theories limit as a set of axioms upon which predictions might be based. Much like policy yes? Wordy promises that fail in localised implementation initiatives. The development apparatus too is reluctantly learning from its mistakes and doing bold, hippie things like qualitative studies that are no less patronising in obtaining quotes on what it’s like to experience poverty from a ‘poor woman in India’ (calendar girl photo included). It is also looking at institutional analysis as a means of tailoring solutions to ground-level, social problems, by examining social institutions with an ethnographic astuteness that I promise you will herald significant positive changes towards achieving development goals like ending poverty and creating world peace (anthropologist’s bias, savvy?).
As far as reconciliation in Sri Lanka goes, a policy automaton is being ‘perfected’ (I suppose) in the hallowed halls of ministries with long names and shallow goals. The three-year mark since the end of the civil war in 2009 is creeping up on us and little progress has been made towards implementing anything tangible.
The LLRC was (should have been?) Sri Lanka’s institutional analysis; a document of ethnographic thoroughness that addresses the social minutiae through a broad-based consultation process that considers the deficiencies, hierarchies and limitations which are hindering the country’s progress towards reconciliation. Douglas North suggests that if an institution is made up of humanly devised regulations and enforcement, one must also consider the human limitations that factor into the creation and maintenance of these institutions, particularly the perpetuation of hierarchies and creation of ideologies by those in power. Within the more specific example of ethnicity (which I don’t believe requires too much explanation as a key agent in Sri Lanka’s social, economic and political landscape), Posner suggests that if ethnic politics serves the purpose of coalition building to gain greater advantages by virtue of a shared ethnicity, policy design will mirror these imbalances. Thereby, what can be questioned is whether a valid institutional analysis can be conducted from within an institution comprised of those positioned within the institution to serve a public mandate within for example, a democratic political system or a governmental one such as the LLRC?
A panel of old timers in talcum wigs failed or perhaps inadvertently (too optimistic?) brushed over this necessity, producing 400 odd pages of carefully selected (repetitive and sometimes contradictory) statements and legal gobbledygook. Thus we arrive at a familiar stalemate: the one-size-fits-all scheme square that attempts to fix a veritable Rubik’s cube of social problems pertaining to ethnicity, conflict, affirmative action and a return to square one policy capable of instrumenting social change. Yes that is two-dimensional ink on paper apologetically recommending more two-dimensional ink on paper legal and constitutional changes. What must be considered also is that institutions themselves are able to further inculcate the social divisions from within which they arise.
So, what now? Mandates, imbalances, validity and all? Invite the sticky-fingered West in for a ‘independent investigation’?
Civic responsibility comes to mind, but civil society and policy are equally bland in these parts. No collective action zing, until those marginalised by poor policy and a majority’s apathy return to a repetition of armed conflict. Fight for your rights, yes? ‘Che Guevara want you to rebel!‘ The sticker on a tuk-tuk I see every morning proclaims.
Upon realising this, we must question and challenge (covered under broad-based public consultation yes?) its limitations. Given the sheer number of people who are so clearly aware of/care about foreign intervention, should care enough to get some local awareness intervention going? Ha.
It is necessary that legal and constitutional fairness is in place, but implementation cannot succeed as shining idealization in an ink on paper promise.
It must be methodical, meticulous; examining social, political and economic bodies as ideologically founded and politically motivated institutions that function in their own right. It is necessary that the social “embeddedness” of these are thoroughly scrutinized and not reduced to a series of series of bureaucratic interactions of exchange, but as those subject to the tides of human prejudices, society and politics. The need lies in identifying the social divisions, issues of integration, not as our now proverbial free market independent from the social and political context. Reconciliation in Sri Lanka does not simply require state of the art policy perfection sparkling with idealist jargon and a mention of South Africa thrown in, but a thoroughly localised examination of the social and political realities upon which institutions are built. It requires analysing the powerful social divisions of ethnicity that draw on the potency of language, history, heritage and culture, how it features deeply and pervasively within the formal institutions of politics and governance. What must also be acknowledged is that Sri Lanka’s history has been mapped on what Posner (2005:2) identifies as the ‘formal rules, regulations and policies that structure social and political interactions’ and how these institutions in turn have shaped people’s identity choices, where ethnic politics can be viewed as a form of coalition–building for greater political and economic advantage. Policies and politics which led to ethnic groups acting in their own self-interest as they could only receive knowledge or human capital from members in their own group resulting in a phenomenon of ‘ethnic capital’, which subsequently leads to income differentials between groups.
Easterly suggests that good institutions are founded to provide minorities with legal protection and ‘constrain the amount of damage one ethnic group could do to another’, but what of institutions that are inherently tilted? What we can hope for is a worthy effort as both state and civil society to fix the tilt. Where many a nation is plagued with the challenges of establishing sustainable democracies or combating ethnic inequalities, the least we can do is strive to genuinely understand what made us this way.
Easterly, W. 2001. ‘Can Institutions Resolve Ethnic Conflict’ in Economic Development and Cultural Change, 49, 4.
Knight, J. 1992. Institutions and Social Conflict, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
North, D.C. 1995 ‘The New Institutional Economics and Third World Development’, in Harriss, Hunter, and Lewis (eds), The New Institutional Economics and Third World development. London and New York: Routledge.
Olson, M., 1971, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Ostrom, E., 1990, Governing the commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Polanyi, K. 1944. The Great Transformation: The Political Origins of Our Time, Boston MA: Beacon Press.
Posner, D. N. (2005). Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.