Declining institutional trust: the need for the South African state to reconcile itself with the society it governs

Originally posted on the IJR website by Tiaan Meiring

Over the past two years, the trustworthiness of political institutions across the globe have generally taken a hiding. This is best illustrated by the rise in populist leaders across Europe and the USA, many riding the wave of increased anti-establishment sentiment (alongside anti-immigrant nationalism).

Domestically, the South African polity continues to be plagued by multiple divisions: i) structural exclusion that still correlates with apartheid boundaries, ii) vast disparities in income and wealth between different class and racial groupings, iii) perpetual incidences of racist and xenophobic confrontations (and the persistence of their underlying sentiments), iv) high levels of civil unrest and demands for increased resource allocation in a stagnating macro-economic environment, and v) large sections of the governing executive and public institutions that stand accused of large-scale, systemic nepotism, corruption and being ‘captured’ by private interests. Not only does this sketch a society and social groupings that are divided amongst themselves, but it also highlights the lack of trust in a central authority that can act as a unifying, progressive and developmental force. Supposedly, this central authority should be the state envisioned in all of the country’s key legislative- and policy literature, from the Constitution to the National Development Plan.

In a society with such a divisive history, the post-1994 government’s role in state- and nation-building was always going to be crucial to its cohesion and sustainability. Indeed, the post-apartheid government has made significant strides on both aspects, especially in terms of nation-building. Every iteration of the IJR’s South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) survey has shown that the vast majority of citizens from diverse class and race backgrounds buy into the desirability and possibility of creating one, united South African nation. This is no trivial feat for a collective that was arbitrarily grouped by colonial boundaries and that shares a subsequent history of conquest, violent oppression and resistance.

However, recent institutional failures are disconcerting. Indeed, some argue that the success of nation building project itself is inextricably linked to progress in the building capable state institutions. Service delivery has been a long-standing challenge for a post-apartheid government in the process of building capacity with limited resources. However, more recently service delivery frustrations have increasingly been exacerbated by perceptions of large-scale corruption. Too many public institutions, especially those crucial to economic development (like the state-owned enterprises), have been hollowed out by narrow private interests. In tragic irony, this has occurred under the very pretence of ‘pro-poor’ economic transformation under the guidance of a supposedly ‘developmental state’.

2006 2015
Parliament 6,4 24,9
National Government
4,8 22,8
Local Government 15,0 22,0
Legal System 8,2 21,7

*Trust on provincial government data available up to 2013.

Commensurately, confidence in political institutions have declined significantly in recent years. The table compares the high point of institutional trust in 2006 (when the country’s GDP growth also peaked at 5.6% per year), to the record lows recorded in the latest SARB survey in 2015. It highlights the increased proportion of South Africans that indicate that have no trust at all in key governance institutions. The decline in trust is also not limited to certain institutions, but affects all branches of government (the executive, legislature and judiciary). The political system as a whole thus increasingly suffers from a trust deficit.

This has important implications for both social cohesion and economic development. First, in a society with particular historical fault lines along race and class, there is all the more need for a central arbiter that is widely trusted to formulate and enforce “the rules of the game” on how the society and its economy operates. Perceptions of fairness in the distribution of power and material resources play a fundamental role in a society’s cohesion. In turn, state institutions and -policies are central to the objective of achieving a fair distribution of power and resources, by alleviating exclusions and inequalities. A society consents to the distribution and redistribution of resources based on need (predominantly by means of progressive taxation, labour market policies, and social welfare policies) based on two phenomena

  • the extent to which members regard themselves as bound to the beneficiaries by strong ties of community, and
  • the extent to which they have a widely trusted and efficient central mechanism (i.e. the state apparatus) by which to do so.

Therefore, if the state is not trusted, it cannot address these inequities- leaving a sense of injustice and uncertainty to fester within society.

Second, a term pervasive in South African policy- and economic development literature is that of the “social compact”. It implies a developmental consensus between the major societal stakeholders (business, government, labour and civil society). Such a developmental consensus is required to provide the basis for the durable institutions and policy certainty that would foster inclusive economic growth. Again, the central agent in driving such a developmental consensus must be a widely trusted and capable state. A trusted state is required to bring together these diverse societal stakeholders, provide leadership and ameliorate differences between them, as to produce coherent policy measures. Widespread buy-in, in turn, is required for policies to be implemented.

In short, South Africa’s immediate development path remains uncertain as long the state suffers from a trust deficit amongst the society over which it governs. Measures to address perceived corruption should go a long way to reconciling state-society relations in the short run. Longer term social stability and inclusive development requires something more, however. A sustainable and inclusive long run growth path requires a capable and committed state that enjoys the confidence of its society.

Tiaan Meiring is the Project Officer for the Inclusive Economies project at the IJR.

Turning Big Data Into a Useful Anticorruption Tool in Africa

Originally posted on the Global Anticorruption Blog

Many anticorruption advocates are excited about the prospects that “big data” will help detect and deter graft and other forms of malfeasance. As part of a project in this vein, titled Curbing Corruption in Development Aid-Funded Procurement, Mihály Fazekas, Olli Hellmann, and I have collected contract-level data on how aid money from three major donors is spent through national procurement systems; our dataset comprises more than half a million contracts and stretching back almost 20 years. But good data alone isn’t enough. To be useful, there must be a group of interested and informed users, who have both the tools and the skills to analyse the data to uncover misconduct, and then lobby governments and donors to listen to and act on the findings. The analysis of big datasets to find evidence of corruption – for example, the method developed by Mihály Fazekas to identify “red flags” of corruption risks in procurement contract data—requires statistical skills and software, both of which are in short supply in many parts of the developing world, such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet some ambitious recent initiatives are trying to address this problem. Lately I’ve had the privilege to be involved in one such initiative, led by Oxford mathematician Balázs Szendrői, that helps empower a group of young African mathematicians to analyse “big data” on public corruption.

The first step in this project was to develop software; this may seem trivial, but many cash-strapped African universities simply don’t have the resources to purchase the latest statistical software packages. The African Maths Initiative (AMI), a Kenyan NGO that works to create a stronger mathematical community and culture of mathematics across Africa, has helped to solve this problem by developing a new open-source program, R-Instat (which builds on the popular but difficult-to-learn statistics package R), funded through crowd-sourcing. Still in development, it is on track for launch in July this year. AMI has also helped develop a menu on R-Instat that can be used specifically for analysing procurement data and identifying corruption risk indicators.

Once we’ve got the data and the software to analyze it, the third and most crucial ingredient are the people. For “big data” to be useful as an anticorruption tool, we need to bring together two groups: people who understand how to analyze data, and people who understand how procurement systems can be manipulated to corrupt ends. Communication between the two is essential. So last month I tried to do my part by visiting AIMS Tanzania, an institute that offers a one-year high-level Master’s programme to some of Africa’s best math students, to help conduct a one-day workshop. After a preliminary session in which we discussed the ways in which the procurement process can be corrupted, and how that might manifest in certain red flags (such as single-bidder contracts), the students had the opportunity to use the R-Instat software to analyse the aid-funded procurement dataset that my colleagues and I had created. Students formed teams and developed their own research questions that they attempted to answer by using R-Instat to run analyses on the data.

Even the simplest analyses revealed interesting patterns. Why did one country’s receipts from the World Bank drop off a cliff one year and never recover? Discussion revealed a few possible reasons: Perhaps a change of government led donors to change policy, or the country reached a stage of development where it no longer qualified for aid? Students became excited as they realized how statistical methods could be applied to identify, understand and solve real-world problems. Some teams came up with really provocative questions, such as the group who wanted to know whether Francophone or Anglophone countries were more vulnerable to corruption risks. Their initial analysis revealed that contracting in the Francophone countries was more associated with red flags. They developed the analysis to include a wider selection of countries, and maintained broadly similar results. Another group found that one-quarter of contracts in the education sector in one country had been won by just one company, and more than half of contracts by value in this sector had been won by three companies, all of which had suspiciously similar names. Again, there might be perfectly innocent reasons for this, but in just a couple of hours, we had a set of preliminary results that certainly warrant further analysis. Imagine what we might find with a little more time!

It is programs like these, that develop the tools and cultivate the skills in the next generation of analysts, that will determine whether the promise of “big data” as an anticorruption tool will be realized in the developing world.

Post written by Dr. Elizabeth Dávid-Barrett of the University of Sussex