A recent cover story of The Economist highlights the proliferation of private education across the developing world. The article laments states’ failures to educate children decently, and finds private schools that cost as little as $1 a week are “burgeoning.” The article adds, “government should either help [these schools] or get out of their way.”

But recent research suggests government failures alone don’t explain why public goods like schools are being privatized. What’s more, this research also finds there are serious political costs to having private groups provide public goods.

Private schools are part of a larger trend across the world, in which more and more intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), faith-based organizations, multinational corporations, for-profit businesses, and community-based organizations deliver a range of services that we’re used to getting from the government. For millions of people across the world, health care, education and even basic security come not from their government but from one of these other groups. Political scientists call this the “nonstate provision of goods and services.”

Our recently published special issue of Africa Today (edited by Danielle Kushner and Lauren M. MacLean) examines nonstate provision of public goods and services in Africa, and how it affects citizens and the state. We explored every region of sub-Saharan Africa, including cases in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa and identified a top-five list of things you should know about the politics of public goods in Africa.

1. Outsourcing public goods is happening across the region, not just in weak states.

Why? The articles in our volume suggest that democratization and the spread of market economies created the space for new organizations outside the government to start delivering services.

Fatai Ayinde Aremu charts how, after Nigeria changed its regime, private education expanded. In short, these schools arise in part in response to new opportunities created when an authoritarian regime is shaken off, and, in part, to respond to the state’s inadequate schools.

Lessening authoritarian rule in Kenya and Uganda had a similar effect. Lauren M. MacLean and Jennifer Brass reveal how liberalization spurred the growth of hybrid NGOs and businesses trying to deliver electricity beyond the state’s reach.

2. Nonstate public goods provision is not new, but it is different today.

Since the precolonial era, many traditional authorities, village communities, producer associations, and religious groups have organized to help each other through hard times. For example, Koranic schools, which continue to play an important role today, developed as early as the ninth and tenth centuries in East Africa and the eleventh century in West Africa. Missionaries began arriving in increasing numbers throughout the 1800s, building schools and healthcare clinics, often collaborating with the colonial state.

But the numbers, diversity, and importance of nonstate providers have expanded enormously over the past several decades. In Ghana, NGOs expanded from just more than eighty organizations in 1980 to 4,772 in 2010. They are now delivering public goods that previously were provided by the state. In South Africa, the private security industry increased by 61 percent over a decade, from 5,491 registered businesses in 2001, to more than 8,000 in 2011. 

3. “Public goods” are not always “public.”

Public goods are typically understood as those accessible to everyone, and whose consumption does not reduce availability to others. In economics, they are called non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Classic examples of public goods are fresh air, national security, and street lighting.

But even basic goods like security that are often taken for granted as “public goods” are not accessible to everyone across Africa. They are not really “public” at all.

Danielle Kushner shows how racial groups in South Africa depend on different kinds of security. Whites and Asians are more likely to hire private armed guards for protection, while Blacks and Coloureds join together with friends and local groups to guard their families and communities.

While the majority of “the public” might rely on faith-based schools (Aremu), private clinics (Katusiimeh), and private security (Kushner), not everyone can get into or afford these schools and clinics or use these security services. In Kenya and Uganda, MacLean and Brass find that hybrid NGOs and businesses struggle to extend affordable electricity to the rural poor. This uneven access to public goods often leads to fights over who gets education, healthcare, protection, and light.

4. Nonstate does not mean no politics.

Getting your schooling, electricity, or policing from someone other than the government doesn’t mean your services come free of politics. Those private, religious, nonprofit and community organizations are not purely free market or politically neutral. In many cases, they are highly politicized.

In Kenya and Uganda, the NGOs and businesses call for the state to get more involved in regulating the standards for energy products, such as solar lanterns and solar home systems, to ensure their products can compete with inexpensive Chinese imports, and be used safely and reliably.

Nonstate public goods provision can even influence how people get involved in politics. Kushner finds that South Africans who depend on community groups for security are encouraged to protest, but not to vote. Because most of these local groups support the governing African National Congress (ANC) political party, they get citizens to take their grievances to the streets rather than voting the dominant party out of office. In a strange twist, nonstate security actually empowers the ruling ANC.

Jeffrey Paller shows how access to affordable housing depends on being connected to influential local leaders, who are often connected to the ruling party of the day.

Though it is not always obvious, parties and government leaders often have political ties to private organizations and service providers.

5. Nonstate provision matters for democracy. A lot.

On the surface, getting your roads, schools, and policing from someone other than the government seems like an innocent response to the state’s failure to provide public goods. But we find that it can let governments off the hook–while institutionalizing inequality.

Paller, for example, shows that among the urban poor, political party loyalists often gain the best access to affordable housing. But there’s a price: slum housing often means poor quality services and leases that could disappear on a whim. Despite low prices for housing in slums, residents face eviction threats, and might be forced to become supporters of the current government to stay safe.

Mesharch Katusiimeh shows how Ugandans prefer private health care to state services because they think it is better quality. But this means that citizens do not come together to fight for better public health. This takes pressure off the authoritarian government to serve its population, and allows them to stay in power and limit democratic freedoms.

But there might be a glimmer of hope.

In Nigeria, people who go to faith-based universities are less likely to show loyalty to the state, according to Aremu. This trend has the potential to grow a grassroots political opposition that places pressure on the government. Could nonstate education be creating more citizens critical of authoritarian rule?

The causes and consequences of this shift in the provision of goods and services are still largely unknown.

More field research is needed to examine the conditions that contribute to different forms of service delivery, requiring on-the-ground analysis of state building, legitimacy, and leadership. We should also ask people about how they access goods and services and what they prefer. This can be done through surveys like the Afrobarometer.

While our special issue is focused on sub-Saharan Africa, these trends are not specific to the continent. The political causes and consequences of non-state provision offer challenges and opportunities around the world. For instance, in Lebanon, Hezbollah distributes social services as a way to gain political support. In Egypt, The Muslim Brotherhood does the same. And in Argentina, private firms help city residents gain access to more affordable water, but their success depends on electoral considerations.

Will these non-government groups permanently take over the delivery of what we’ve traditionally thought of as public goods, like healthcare, schooling, and so on—or will they disappear as these weak nations get stronger? Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? It is important for us all to think carefully about the political tradeoffs of private service provision, especially in the current global atmosphere of austerity and state retrenchment.

Danielle Carter Kushner is assistant professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Lauren M. MacLean is associate professor of political science at Indiana University-Bloomington. Jeffrey W. Paller is Earth Institute postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University.