Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Reluctant regulatees -- or reluctant regulators?

As many who follow Africa continue to take in the near- and longer-term 'meaning' of the events at Marikana mine last month (see the last post), I'm thinking about the tendency to cast the private sector as a set of reluctant regulatees, eluding well-meaning policymakers at each possible turn.

In many cases, what we have are reluctant regulators (not to mention incapable, captured or other ones -- another time).

A lay person could read the stories on South Africa's mining sector, especially labour relations, health and safety, and social investment issues, and develop the impression that the government has dragged firms, kicking and screaming, to deliver on wider development imperatives and aspirations.

This is not necessarily the story. In many cases, major firms (perhaps from self-interest, but at least 'enlightened' self-interest) have seen the longer-term risks for example from HIV levels in the workforce, and not waited for government directives. On some issues, business leads government in South Africa -- tho of course it is an elected government's prerogative and duty to ensure private actors meet public goals.

Consider the excellent doctoral work by researchers in this town like Gus Selby and later Charles Laurie into the vexed question of land reform to address historic injustices in Zimbabwe: I'm loathe to over-simplify, but one neglected dimension to that story -- often portrayed as ZANU-PF dragging recalcitrant white farmers to negotiate land redistribution -- is how the Commercial Farmers' Union saw the long-term risks of inaction on this issue and tried to get a reluctant / distracted / whatever government to move on the issue gradually and sustainably.

Rather than an apologia for the private sector, its worth noting that the story is less often as one-sided as it seems.

I think, incidentally, of my colleague Andrea B's comments on the regional tourism outlook in east Africa. While it is probably in all East Africa Community (EAC) countries' net interests to work quickly on helping enable more seamless travel for foreign tourists (eg by devising a common tourist visa), on this and many other issues, it is private operators who are forging ahead.

As Richard Dowden noted at our conference last year, in Africa so much of the stories of innovation and progress happen despite the state, not because of it (this is not an argument for weak states, much less a contribution to the US presidential 'what-role-for-the-government' debate!).

Moreover, as an early post ('Who regulates who?) noted, much of the safety and other regulation that we value and that is likely to run with the grain of commercial realities started life off not as public prescription but private initiative between members of an industry. The risk of spaces that might nurture self-serving cartels must be balanced with acknowledgement that not all the regulation that matters comes down from above or takes legislative form.

Anyway, the basic point is that in hard cases -- land reform in southern Africa is such one -- it cannot be assumed that the narrative is one of enlightened regulator and reluctant regulatee. The challenge, as the mentor-esque John Braithwaite has shown, is in catalysing virtuous circles of regulatory dialogue that involve suasion and persuasion as much as stipulation and resistance; or regulatory neglect.


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