The novel coronavirus pandemic stalking the world is revealing how practicing an economy of affection can right a world upended. Senegal, a West African country, is setting an example of how affective engagement through informal institutions, which permeate social and political life, is critical for effective crisis management. The African social logic is, in effect, activating concerted agency for saving lives.
The PANHACEA initiative in Thiès, Senegal demonstrates how social interaction (in the sense of exchange between two or more individuals without it necessarily being in-person) channeled through primary forms of reciprocity creates effectively functioning informal institutions. The community identifies with them and by doing so is motivated to strengthen what Rev. Martin Luther King called “networks of mutuality”.
An economy of affection balances power and agency
An economy of affection rests on a particular logic: power is the outcome of relations of mutual social dependence. It debunks the conventional view that power is an attribute of a person or group and entails conflicts of interest and a resulting imposition of the will of one person over another. Instead, an economy of affection emphasizes mutual dependence as a source of power. Because power is embedded in the local context, people adapt and cope with shifting conditions over which they have little control through communal rather than collective action.
In an economy of affection:
- People band together not as autonomous individuals but as interdependent individuals trying to achieve a common goal while satisfying each other’s sense of fairness. This doesn’t mean that there are no attempts to establish or reinforce Big Man Rule, to accumulate resources for patronage, that coercion or punishment are absent, or that there is no free riding. But in the absence of a strong welfare state set of institutions people tend to rely more on informal social support systems and the trust bonds within them than on formal institutions and structured voluntarism.
- People are more pragmatic. The value of specific exchanges is gauged politically rather than economically. In this sense, politics is about the way people living in groups make and implement decisions that affect the members of the group. Economics, in the neoclassical sense, is concerned with material prosperity through production, consumption, and transfer of wealth.
- Power is effected through informal institutions. It rests on the assumption of shared expectations and not on the maximization of individual goals and preferences. Trust is interpersonal and reliant on unwritten rules.
Collaborative reciprocity is a healthy practice
In contexts marked by uncertainty and fear, an economy of affection helps people deal with choice in a practical and rational manner by using informal institutions to share or provide common goods. In contrast, the ubiquitous American economy of volunteerism functions as a substitute for absent formal channels. The resulting informal institutions are, therefore, often marked by exclusivity.
This is not to say that the American spirit is ailing. Nothing is further from reality. The power of the American will has risen again. Americans from all walks of life are coming together stronger than ever to defend the health of the nation against a common threat. But where disaffected capitalism reigns and leadership appears fickle and not in control, with an oversized focus on short-term outcomes in detriment of long-term gains, volunteering is more about being a part of something you love, are passionate about and believe in and less about undifferentiated reciprocity and acknowledged interdependence.
PANHACEA: a proactive Senegalese initiative for how to practice an economy of affection
PANHACEA is an example of how an economy of affection works in times of crisis in Africa. It is a healthy and evolving model, deployed in Thiès, Senegal, for how a strategically, structured, voluntary process for institutionalizing societal norms can, in a small-scale context, become an efficient mechanism for allocating resources in an immediate, reliable and inclusive manner. It provides a best practice for how top-down and bottom-up collaboration can ensure local communities will cater to their own needs while respecting government imposed regulations for social behavior in the face of a health pandemic.
By pooling their self-help efforts, the citizens of the 10th District of Thiès are building the resilience they need to deal with a challenge individuals cannot deal with on their own. At the same time they are reinforcing public health and safety policy.
Constructively concerted action against a common threat strikes a just balance between caution and panic in benefit of the common good. In America’s present vacuum of presidential leadership and in the face of the tortuous future ahead, Senegal’s PANHACEA provides a living mirror for what columnist Michael Gerson, in his March 21, 2020 in The Washington Post, refers to as the “implicit theory of common good” that lies “[b]eneath the ideology of American individualism.” Because, once again in Rev. Martin Luther King’s words, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny”, it seems wise to study our reflection in the African mirror of hope and progress in the face of a deadly pandemic.