African nations are perfecting the practice of an economy of affection. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, an economy of affection achieves what is rational from a micro- and meso-perspective by balancing power and agency and emphasizing interdependence. Because power is embedded in the local context, people are more pragmatic and rely on informal institutions and interpersonal trust to achieve common goals. The goal is to save lives.
African social dynamics and cultural practices, channeled through an economy of affection, are helping to save lives through collaborative action that brings out the best in government, the private sector and civil society. The beauty of this collaboration is best witnessed in small-scale initiatives at the neighborhood level, such as the PANHACEA initiative being deployed in Thiès, Senegal.
Indeed, small is beautiful. For foreign institutions, small is, of course, problematic because it cannot be fully apprehended or captured. And for a country, small can be a serious structural obstacle if the government tries to adhere to the unrelenting push to scale imposed by donors. But at the individual and community levels, it is a blessing, especially in times of pandemic.
Don’t criticize what you don’t understand
It is no secret that donor-driven reforms have, for decades, failed to factor in African ownership (which implies voluntary adoption). They have also consistently ignored the socio-cultural structures and dynamics underlying state-market relations and have treated policy as if it were independent of politics. Thankfully, African politicians have begun to realize that valuing their societal values is the most effective way to gain political legitimacy.
Critics of African politics usually argue that African governments and societies are caught in a perpetual process of catching up with so-called developed societies, underlining a policy deficit and a void of economic thinking. What they seem to purposefully ignore is that the policies designed and arbitrarily imposed on African governments by external actors, namely international finance institutions and bilateral donor agencies, rest on a misdiagnosis of Africa’s problems and opportunities.
Critics also tend to focus on the parochial orientation of the rich associational life at community level in Africa, mistaking social relations of dependency as a deficit of power. But just because social relations in Africa are based on reciprocities, rather than hierarchically organized priorities, does not mean that a crisis cannot be approached in a more systematic fashion than in richer and supposedly more developed countries.
The PANHACEA initiative in Thiès, for example, is an informal institutional initiative that demonstrates a systematic approach to organization and planning in the African context. Day-to-day management is inclusive and balances power with agency in a way that contributes to the growth and strengthening of a truly civil society.
Many in Europe and America see the fluidity of social relations in Africa as a characteristic of untamed politics and a “pre-modern” feature that breeds conflict and patronage. But in the African context, social fluidity is a manifestation of a belief in mutual interdependence, where power and agency function in equilibrium in benefit of the common good through the practice of an economy of affection.
This doesn’t mean that exchange relations in an economy of affection are always positive and beneficial. Some of those in positions of strength may, of course, seek status or favors or preferential treatment. But this behavior is human, not exclusive or overridingly specific to an economy of affection.
In America’s economy of disaffection, the ethics of preferential treatment are alive and well too. For example, amid a short supply of coronavirus testing, actors, politicians and athletes
have quick and easy access to tests while other Americans, including those in the high-vulnerability groups and front-line health-care workers and those with obvious signs of infection, have so far been out of luck. Talk about a disequilibrium between freedom, liberty and justice! But such is the character of an economy of disaffection.
Africa works and can provide best practices in freedom, liberty and justice
While freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint, liberty is the ability to act on one’s freedom in a responsible manner, under the rule of law without depriving anyone else of their freedom. Justice ensures both are practiced in a fair and reasonable manner.
What African social dynamics are showing the rest of the world is that a health pandemic in a global context marked by the opulence of a few and the privation of the many can best be managed by balancing power and agency (the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make one’s own free choices). This equilibrium is the foundation for freedom, liberty and justice for all.
Senegal today is demonstrating how that equilibrium works in Africa through integrated leadership.
It is also providing a best practice model that is transferable to other countries, including the United States.
What the PANHACEA initiative in Thiès proves is that like with life itself, what’s most important is not just having the right to enjoy freedom, liberty and justice. It’s equally important what you do with them.
The COVID 19 pandemic makes starkly clear that the trio of freedom, liberty and justice in times of coronavirus is best realized in an economy of affection. Whether individuals are in a situation characterized by constraint or opportunity, or are rich or poor, an economy of affection stimulates and promotes collaboration rather than the maximization of individual gain. People seek to act together, not in spite of others, to help themselves and others achieve what they cannot do on their own.
Balancing power and agency is the pre-requisite for garnering responses that create opportunities for affection towards your neighbors, close and afar. An equilibrium also ensures that processes are put in place protect the individual right to freedom, liberty and justice at national, state or regional, and local levels. The city of Thiès, and Senegal as a whole, are effectively extending an invitation to take a holistic and reflective look at what we are doing in America.
Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC