Negotiating public services: State, society and governance in the Congo

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How are public services delivered in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country which is largely known for the absence, and fragility of its state? Kristof Titeca and Tom De Herdt share the lessons of their new volume, ‘Negotiating Public Services in the Congo’, which explores how public services and state institutions function on a day-to-day basis in the DRC.

Instead of analysing what is absent – as a ‘failed state’ approach would posit – our new book on the DRC looks at public services in terms of what actually exists, who is involved and for what reasons, and how it has been evolving: the book engages in an empirical analysis of the everyday institutional landscape and its dynamics. Concretely, we show how the state is only one of the many actors providing governance. Various actors with their own form of authority and legitimacy exist alongside each other in the same socio-political space. Particularly at the local level, the state is only one among a variety of actors, in which a variety of relationships exists between a variety of actors, characterized by “multiplex” ties. The institutional shape of the public sector in the DRC – and sub- Saharan African countries in general – is the product of different historical layers, adding to rather than replacing the variety in meaning systems, rules and actors. There therefore is not a shortage of regulation, as suggested by a “failed state” perspective, but rather an excess of rules. In this situation, local regulatory power is fragmented, consisting of various institutions which have become locally embedded at different times. Moreover, neither the state nor non-state actors (customary chiefs, NGOs, and so on) have a monopoly of regulation. As a result, local-level political arenas  resources or services are partly autonomous from the national arena and the state’s messy, contradictory and tense nature is reproduced both in time and space.

A ruling elite?

The case studies on different public services bear this out. The chapter of Kristof Titeca on the justice sector in Haut Uélé shows how rules are implemented differently according to different configurations of power in the area. Similarly, the chapter of Aymar Bisoka Nyenyezi and Klara Claessens shows the important engagement of non-state actors in land governance, who nevertheless rely on state symbols to legitimize their practices. Mich Thill shows how police work and practices are shaped by a multitude of actors and how they reflect an intense process of negotiation, contestation and competition.

Moreover, in such a situation it is crucial that the very idea of a governing elite, purportedly negotiating social order, is questioned. This becomes particularly clear when looking at the ways in which public services are financed: many public services are financed through ‘parafiscal’ rent, in which civil servants mobilise financing outside of formal taxation. The book therefore takes an actor-oriented approach, in which specific attention is given to the perspectives and real opportunities of actors that reproduce the state.

The chapter of Stephanie Perazzone describes the DRC state as a “composite” of street-level bureaucrats’ small acts of everyday statehood. Perazzone uses a popular Congolese phrase to describe this: “L’Etat ni miye, l’Etat ni weye, l’Etat ni shiye bote”, or “The state is me, the state is you, the state is all of us”. This bring us to another central actor: citizens. As Perazzone’s quote shows, ordinary citizens play an active role in coproducing the state and in constructing boundaries over what are considered to be public services. Randi Solhjell’s contribution also engages with this question. By analysing waste management in Bukavu, she looks at the perception of public and private spaces, and what it means to be a citizen.

Stylianos Moshonas also looks at the “little men” behind the scenes – the civil servants in the ministries. Their distance from the street, however, does not diminish the importance of their interpretations of, and their strategic dealings with, the situation in which they find themselves. The chapter of Camilla Lindstrom also shows how donors reluctantly engage with this “patchwork”, in which a variety of actors are present, and in which it is not always clear who holds the power. As she shows, engaging with non-state actors involves a number of challenges for donors, but it is also a necessity if there is genuine concern about the impact of one’s interventions in these ‘weblike’ societies.

The politics of negotiation

Lastly, as the title of this volume suggests, particular attention needs to be given to “negotiation”. Almost all the contributions of the book describe how public services work through an often subtle combination of both conflict and what is termed “coöp” in Congo – an arrangement that suits the parties directly involved –but to the disadvantage of society at large. The concept of ‘negotiation’ has its limits (as for example shown by Martin Doornbos).  Yet we claim it remains particularly useful when zooming in on the practical dilemmas faced by public servants. Their decisions are hardly ever straightforward applications of clear formal guidelines, and almost always reflect some local agency.

Even if the formal guidelines were unambiguous, they may be contradicted by other formal guidelines, be in tension with other types of norms or, perhaps more obviously, simply be inapplicable because of the lack of resources to implement a decision. Such gaps between legal principle and actual reality cry out for practical ingenuity on the side of both state representatives and their interlocutors negotiate a way out of these dilemmas and make the state work.

At the same time, such a negotiated outcome oftentimes involves a combination of both “formal” and “informal” strategies in stitching the state together in the face of conflicting interests and contradictory pressures.  This is shown in a variety of chapters within this volume. Stylianos Moshonas, for example, shows how administrative reform has been closely tied to a factional conflict within the ruling coalition, in which reforms (largely pushed by donors) were closely tied with the capture of off-budget resources and clientelism. Similarly, Malukisa Nkuku and Titeca show how the “revolution of modernity” reform of the transport sector largely failed, as the buses and their users constitute important vote banks, making formal sector reforms particularly difficult. Along similar lines, Mpiana Tshitenge shows how practical norms play an important role in the distribution of electricity, but in close relation to the official norms of the electricity provider SNEL.

The possibility of change

Finally, these insights also throw a new light on the possibilities for change. The different case studies in the book almost all tell stories about new connections and interesting movements, though the lack of coherence in movements and counter-movements doesn’t make it easy to discern in which direction we are going. The space for transformation by external actors, too, seems far from evident, partly because external actors are themselves stakes rather than stakeholders. But a better knowledge of how this space looks like would already be an important step forward, we argue. If anything, the book is an invitation for further scrutiny of the real governance of public services in the Congo. People’s livelihoods depend on them.


Kristof Titeca is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp. You can follow him at @KristofTiteca

Tom De Herdt is a Professor at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp. You can follow him at @Tomdeherdt


One thought on “Negotiating public services: State, society and governance in the Congo

  1. DRCongo is in need of strong professional ethical Institutions staffed by DRCongo Citizens who respect endorse support rule of law in process procedure evidenced by conduct in service instead of conduct in theft pillage for personal private gain.
    Therefore, DRCongo requires Education Institutions to standard normative in the providing of trainings in the essential crucial trades as well as inspiring within the professional academic cadre of students the appreciation of critical reflective studies whether in law, media journalism, business and public administration, health care, sciences and engineering without negating the essential values in cinema art creative culture buttressed in history of this proud nation.

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