Sunday, October 18, 2009

On the role and limit of community

If I were a newspaper journalist, writing a story on the Nobel Prize winners should not be a difficult job. Just translate and rephrase the 5-page public information prepared by the committee, which has neatly summarized the contribution of the Laureates. Unless if you had a prior ‘agenda’ in your mind; e.g. attacking mainstream economics cum economists cum global capitalism. Then you risk writing something that has no connection between the report and your conclusion.

My favorite newspaper provided a good example on how a single paragraph had successfully driven the article way out of context:
The economic collapse caused by the crisis was a blow to the Nobel Committee’s credibility. The public has seen how economic theories, which have been developed by economists and brought them previous Nobel awards, were proven ineffective, leading to the global economic catastrophe.
Surely, if the ‘reporter’ has spent some time in researching previous awards, he or she may have understood that a significant portion of the awards were given to economists who have devoted their career to show how market can fail. Moreover, although Ostrom and Williamson’s work was about non-market transaction, it is misleading to conclude that non-market transaction is a solution to the market at anytime and any place.

Remember, also, that the Nobel Prize in Economics is awarded to studies that have made significant contributions over the past two or three decades. That means, there is a 2-3 decades lag between the time the theories were developed and the Prize. During the period, many studies have followed the original works. So it doesn’t mean that this year’s Nobel marks a significant U-turn in the economic discipline.

One particular area is how communities can solve the coordination and allocation problem in the absence of working market – Ostrom’s contribution. In the past two decades, there have been a significant number of economic papers that studied this issue. I summarized some of them in this note.

In addition to that, I’d also want to point out some interesting papers written by MIT’s Ben Olken. Here he showed that higher level of ‘civic participation’ in the village is not associated with lower village corruption, contrary to the standard theory of social capital. In another paper he argued that, external monitoring (for example, audit by a government agency), is still more effective in minimizing corruption of local public expenditure compared to monitoring by community.

In this work in progress (co-authored with others), he showed that in identifying who are the poor in a community, full community-based targeting is no more dominant than the top-down approach. However, a combination of the two provides the best result. Then, in another paper, he concluded that higher level of civic participation in local political decision making has little effect on actual decisions. However, the inclusive process in itself can substantially increase satisfaction and legitimacy.

The bottom line is, while the role of community should be appreciated more and paid greater attention in economic works, we also need to understand the limit of community in solving the problem of allocation and coordination. No need to say, we should be very careful before making inferences on the relations of Ostrom’s works and the solution to the economic crisis.

Note: all Ben’s works above are using Indonesian cases.

No comments:

Post a Comment