Keeping the lights on in the Congo

Theodore Trefon’s recent article “Public Service Provision in a Failed State: Looking Beyond Predation in the Democratic Republic of Congo” offers up a number of interesting points on how the shell of the administrative state in the DRC continues to exert influence over citizens’ lives.  The state’s weakness and inefficiency do not necessarily mean that it has withdrawn from the public sphere, nor that the remaining areas of state agency are exclusively used for predation.  Rather, it remains engaged both in predation and in a hybrid format of private sector-oriented service provision.

(The latter might charitably go by Trefon’s term of a “public-private hybrid,” or more harshly might be called corruption.  I leave it to you, dear readers, to decide whether the analytical framework of “corruption” in the sense of “use of public goods for private gain” is a useful way to understand the realities of public and private exchanges in the contemporary DRC.  Personally, I have mixed feelings on the topic.)

The public-private hybrid is seen in full force in Trefon’s description of a neighborhood pursuing electrification:

Instead of simply contacting the national electricity provider (Societe Nationale d’Electricite – SNEL) and expecting them to connect her house with electric power, [a market woman and neighborhood leader] explains how the neighbourhood had to form an association, identify a group leader, collect money, buy the electric cables and other materials, and finally negotiate with the SNEL workers and pay them for the technical and administrative work they eventually performed. This is a typical example of new forms of state-society relations in the DRC: an ephemeral neighbourhood association cooperating directly with a national agency to obtain a concrete result. The population benefits because they get electricity at home (except of course during the frequent blackout periods) and the SNEL agents benefit because they are paid hard cash for their expertise instead of depending on inadequate and randomly paid state salaries.   (pp. 12 – 13)

One interesting question this example touches upon is whether various public agencies remain engaged with the private sector (or the local neighborhood association) in different ways.  Does the SNEL employees’ behavior differ from those functionaries charged with public health, or transport infrastructure?  What governs the degree to which public agencies simply stop functioning or engage in predation when central funding is withdrawn, as opposed to continuing to provide services (albeit corruptly) to the public?  The Kinshasa traffic police certainly seem to fall closer to the predation end of the spectrum, but presumably it’s harder to extract resources from citizens without offering services in return when you’re the electrical company.