Symbolic Public Goods and the Coordination of Collective Action: A Comparison of Local Development in India and Indonesia

26 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2005

See all articles by Vijayendra Rao

Vijayendra Rao

World Bank - Development Research Group (DECRG)

Date Written: August 2005

Abstract

Most economists think of common property as physical - a body of water, a forest - and as bounded within geographic space. In this paper, building on work in social theory, I argue that common property can also be social - defined within symbolic space. People can be bound by well-defined symbolic agglomerations that have characteristics similar to common property. I call these "symbolic public goods" (SPGs) and make the case that such constructs are central to understanding collective action. The point is illustrated by contrasting how conceptions of nationalism in Indonesia and India created SPGs that resulted in very different strategies of local development. Indonesia emphasized collective action by the poor that resulted in a form of regressive taxation, enforced by the ideology of svadaya gotong royong (community self-help) that was both internalized and coercively enforced. India emphasized democratic decentralization via the panchayat system driven by the Gandhian ideology of gram swaraj (self-reliant villages). This has resulted in an unusual equity-efficiency tradeoff; Indonesia has delivered public services more efficiently than India, but at the cost of democratic freedoms and voice. I argue that the challenge for these countries is to not undermine their existing SPGs but to build on them; Indonesia should retain the spirit of svadaya gotong royong but to channel it in an equitable and democratic direction, while India should build the capacity of the panchayat system by giving it fiscal teeth, while promoting underutilized institutions such as Gram Sabhas that encourage accountability and transparency.

Suggested Citation

Rao, Vijayendra, Symbolic Public Goods and the Coordination of Collective Action: A Comparison of Local Development in India and Indonesia (August 2005). World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 3685, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=786613

Vijayendra Rao (Contact Author)

World Bank - Development Research Group (DECRG) ( email )

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