Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Waiting for the state

A few days ago I wrote about my surprise at how often people here – whether locals or expats – see the state as the solution to the problems the country faces. If only the state would do its job, all would be well. Some tens of interviews later, my initial surprise has given way to state fatigue. How many times have I heard people here – especially young men – express their frustration that their “prise en charge” by the state has not yet taken place? If I were to write my dissertation today, it might be titled, “Waiting for the State.” It would be a sadder version of James Ferguson's Expectations of Modernity, because whereas the Zambian copper miners Ferguson studied at least had an upswing before the calamitous economic decline they endured as a result of structural adjustment and other macroeconomic disasters, here in CAR the dreams of modernity have never even been close enough to really visualize, let alone expect.

The other day I sat with a group of “rebels” who await disarmament and reintegration. I justify the quotes around the term because of the twenty or so people assembled around me, only some handful actually had any part in their group's attacks back in 2006-7. The rest joined later, whether to benefit from DDR or for other reasons. One by one, they stated that they had joined the group because the presidential guard (the military strike force) had come and attacked their families and burned their houses; one by one, they vented their frustration that their “prise en charge” by the state has not yet been effected.

The attitude that the state should take care of people by providing salaries to its citizens is widespread here. There are almost no private companies, so the only way one can get a salary is through a state post. (As I've described before, a state job does not necessarily carry with it the service ethic that one might hope would accompany it.) The mayor's son, for instance, has finished school and submitted his dossier to a ministry where his father has an acquaintance. “Maintenant il attend sa prise en charge.” By god, it's enough to make a libertarian of me, all this whining and waiting!

During my meeting with the ex-combatants, the subject turned next to the oil that allegedly bubbles somewhere far below ground here in Vakaga prefecture. A presidential party official had flown in the day before for an early campaign visit (a visit composed of little but cash and promises, as the cliché about African elections would suggest), and he averred that the oil would be exploited before his party left office. This drew massive cheers. One of the most vocal of the ex-combatants, a man named Col. Tarzan (a nickname given by some Russian ex-Foreign Legion guys who used to prowl the area with an anti-poaching militia), piped up that oil had made Sudan and Chad powerful and rich. At this point, I couldn't take listening to what sounded to me like false hope in miraculous state benevolence anymore. The Chadian people, the Sudanese people – they haven't seen one penny of that oil revenue, I retorted. Chad's president Deby just uses it to buy more weapons and fight off the rebel groups that challenge his authoritarian rule. Tarzan shook his head exasperatedly. But if the state exploits the oil, they will have to build a road, he retorted.

I shut up then. It's true – even a road would be a big thing for people here, who live on an island for the rainy half of the year, when then dirt tracks leading here turn into lakes and rivers. My flood of libertarian fervor receded.

I found myself thinking of the philosopher GA Cohen, who passed away just two months ago, and who contributed to the debates about optimal levels of redistribution/state interventionism led by interlocutors like John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Cohen argued that because there is nothing natural about the way that private property is distributed, any distribution of property requires a set of trade-offs that in fact might restrict liberty, rather than enhance it. Therefore some form of redistribution might enable greater liberty and greater equality. Later in his life, Cohen argued less for state intervention, such as through socialism, and more for individual moral engagement as a way of bringing about a more just world. My observations here in CAR have led me to agree that waiting on the state to act for the benefit of its inhabitants is probably not the best way forward. But it also seems unlikely that individual moral engagement is going to get the people of Tiringoulou their road. Faced with such conundrums, hoping for something miraculous doesn't seem so unreasonable.


  1. hey louisa, i just came across your blog via your facebook page (where i was checking to see how you're doing) - very cool that you have this! i just read some of the entries; you're such a wonderful writer, and (so it appears) an excellent ethnographer, too. i hope you're doing well. you're definitely missed in durham! - all my best, brian (goldstone)

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