Coronavirus Response and the Privatisation of Governance (ii)

PSA21 Panel 2

Convener: Dr. Portia Roelofs, University of Oxford March 31, 2021, 9:00-10:30 am

Through development policy, countries in the Global North have long used countries in the Global South as testing grounds for experiments in the privatisation of governance. New configurations of public and private in governance zig zag between donor countries and recipient countries, with policies initially implemented by Thatcher and Reagan being turbo-charged in the form of structural adjustment programmes and good governance reforms in the South, before boomeranging back to the West as post-crash austerity. Within the long arc of neo-liberal market reforms, the privatisation of governance has taken various forms from straight privatisation of public assets and services like water and education, to the introduction of private sector management techniques in the civil service, to the complex financial arrangements involved in public-private partnerships, to development projects promoting private sector participation and social business. In different ways, these have profound impacts on the practice of governance and our conceptions of normative ideas like corruption and the public interest.

This double panel draws on these debates about the shifting role of public and private in governance to explore public responses to the Coronavirus pandemic through this lens, and asks how “public” they really are. A framing paper will contextualise the discussion amidst “new frontiers of privatisation” whether the role of the Big Four management consultancies, new forms of marketisation, re-nationalisation etc. Four richly researched papers, split over two panels, will then examine the politics of the public-private divide with regards to state business-relations, development finance, elite philanthropy and how publicly owned enterprises navigate foreign markets.

Looking at cases in the global North and South, we will reflect on the Special Group’s title “Development Politics” : How is the idea of “development” used by different actors to justify Northern interventions? Does the coronavirus pandemic dissolve long-standing assumptions about “developed” and “developing” as meaningful categories?


Money for Nothing in the Time of Covid: Marketisation or Nationalization of Wealth?

Dr Liz Fouksman, University of Oxford

The idea of giving people money for nothing – be it in the form of cash transfers, expanded or universalized welfare provisions, or universal basic income – has a contested political pedigree. Is it a form of radical redistribution that uses the state to nationalize – and then more justly allocate – collective wealth, as expounded by thinkers ranging from Thomas Paine to Philip van Parijs? Or is it a neo-liberal strategy to further embed people into market relations by allowing the state to provide cash rather than public goods and services, as hoped for by Milton Friedman and Charles Murray? The coronavirus pandemic has simultaneously muted and heightened such debates. The pandemic has mobilized progressive advocacy groups pushing for more expanded forms of redistribution, welfare or universal basic income, who see this moment as an opportunity to reform austere states, reject workfare and decenter wages as the sole source of economic security. And governments in places as diverse as the US, Spain and South Africa have used cash transfers as a tool to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic. Yet these movements and governments are frequently at odds, and disagree both about the form and the meaning of policies that give people cash. This paper will focus disputes between states that have chosen to use cash as part of their Covid response and social movements that are pushing for cash as a way to both respond to the pandemic and reform social protection and welfare systems. Comparing case studies of cash transfers as response to Covid in South Africa and in the USA, I argue that these divergences over seemingly similar ideas highlight that cash transfers, both in the global North and South, are always a ‘field of [political] debate’ rather than a single policy tool.

Paper 2

An Unlikely Social and ‘Public’ Actor? New Perspectives on Somali Business Interest,

Autonomy and ‘Constructive’ Responses During the Coronavirus Crisis

Claire Elder, London School of Economics

This paper probes the enigma of self-interested business actors who voluntarily provide services and public goods in contexts of weakened states and institutional environments. Interview accounts of how 75 small, medium and large businesses responded to the coronavirus pandemic in Somalia from March 2019 until September 2020 reveal how existential threats and uncertainty may incentive business to assert ‘public’ purpose. In Somalia, the offering of social and ‘public’ services is partially explained by business reliance on a range of social allies that underpin its informal system of dilaal capitalism. In addition, since the end of the civil war, Somali businesses have played a critical role in mediating cataclysmic political conflict and public violence that disrupt everyday business. Yet, findings also unveil the emergence of a class identity beyond their role as individual accumulators or crisis managers. Business does not only intervene to resolve issues that may threaten business operations but also to build social and popular support that will protect business autonomy and lobby against state predation and interventions. What may be retroactively marketed as part of a firm’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) portfolio, research findings reveal the broader social and political role of business (or the relationship between business and society) beyond the ‘good works’ that often constitute a discretionary and usually quite small percentage of total profits. Contributing to touchstone research on understanding shifting relations between government, business and society in the developing world, this paper focuses on how business define its own interest and the ‘public’ in ways that may align with a 'national' interest and which may moderate or bypass state-like forms of authority.