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‘Negotiating Public Services in the Congo’ is a smart, compelling read

When governments can’t provide services, citizens figure out how to keep essential systems running

“Negotiating Public Services in the Congo: State, Society and Governance,” edited by Tom De Herdt and Kristof Titeca. (University of Chicago Press)

What does it mean to govern a territory? When political scientists think about this question, we typically examine the relationship between citizens, those who govern them and the institutions of government.

As an American citizen, I pay taxes — those tax dollars pay government salaries, from members of Congress to military personnel to the very people who collect my taxes. They also help to run the military; keep the lights on at the White House; ensure that the food I buy for my family is inspected, that the airplanes I fly on are safe and that the pilots are well trained; and provide countless other public services.

My relationship to government is symbiotic: I pay into the system, and in return, I get benefits. Likewise, government gets the benefit of my money and provides me with services in exchange for it.

But what happens when governments do not or cannot provide those services? In a fragile state like Congo, taxation and service provision look quite different. The government is, in most cases, too weak and underfunded to provide services, and the vast majority of Congolese are too poor to pay enough in income taxes to fully finance government bureaucracies.

Yet Congo still has public services. A variety of service providers — including churches, mosques, neighborhood associations and even armed groups — keep systems running or build them from scratch for the community good. Often they work with government officials, but in very different ways. How does this work, and how did it come to be this way?

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This question preoccupies the authors who contributed to a thoughtful new compilation, “Negotiating Public Services in the Congo: State, Society and Governance,” edited by Tom De Herdt and Kristof Titeca. These scholars consider what it looks like when organizations and people who are not the government — what political scientists call “non-state actors” — provide services, collect fees for those services, and keep essential systems like garbage collection, public transportation and electricity provision running.

The central argument uniting all the chapters in this book is that public service provision in Congo is negotiated. This means that the people who provide services — say, church leaders who staff and manage schools, teachers, the public education authorities who are supposed to regulate them, and the parents of students at the schools — are in a constant process of bargaining over questions such as the cost of school fees or how many students will be in each classroom.

Of course, the terms of the debate can change at any time (e.g., teachers might demand more payment from parents before releasing grades and allowing children to advance to the next grade level), but ultimately, the negotiation process works. Children are educated, those who teach them are paid, and administrators and public authorities get their salaries, too.

Because these negotiations happen in every area of public service provision, public authority in the Congo is highly fragmented. De Herdt and Titeca borrow a term from Joel Migdal to describe this state of affairs, calling it a “weblike society.” Individuals participate in multiple, negotiated public service arrangements, building the web of connections, obligations and relationships. This complicates regulation and means that laws, policies and regulations are a mixture of formal and informal agreements. A law might say one thing, but “real governance” of people and their daily lives often can be a far cry from what is enshrined in legal documents.

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Several case studies point to how this web of authority builds in ordinary citizens’ lives. Of particular note are Jean-Pierre Mpiana Tshitenge’s exploration of public electricity service in Kinshasa, Randi Solhjell’s discussion of garbage collection (and the lack thereof) in Bukavu, and Albert Malukisa Nkuku and Titeca’s alarming look at public transportation in Kinshasa, where citizens call minibus taxis “the spirit of death.”

All describe the ways that state employees, intermediaries and citizens work, in Tshitenge’s words, “through arrangements, negotiations, understandings, cooperation, and so on” to ensure that people get the services they need. Formal laws are less important than ensuring that people have electricity, that waste is collected and that people get from place to place.

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The book’s analysis is not limited to urban spaces. Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka and Klara Claessens conducted a fascinating study of how people secure land rights in eastern Congo’s rural spaces. Likewise, Titeca’s examination of justice and conflict resolution in the remote Haut-Uélé region of northeastern Congo is an absorbing look at the ways people try to get justice in places far away from federal authorities in Kinshasa.

“Negotiating Public Services in the Congo” is a smart, compelling read and an excellent primer on the complications of understanding how governance works in very weak states. It turns the idea that some places are “without government” on its head and points to the ways that careful research can yield insights that are quite valuable for policymakers, foreign aid organizations and diplomatic activities. This book is also commendable for the strong representation of the work of Congolese scholars — a practice that should be the norm for books on African politics.

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Editor’s note: Laura Seay is a member of the editorial board for the Zed Books Politics and Development in Contemporary Africa series, of which this title is a part. She was not involved in the approval, editorial or publication process of this volume.