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Public Economics in countries with failed governments


We often speak of Public Economics in the context of Western countries, where we generally have what we can call successful governments. Now the question is: in the presence of failed governments is there anything useful we can learn in terms of Public Economics?

In this blog entry I try make the point that there is: as governments fail, other civil society agents are pressured to step in to tackle the issues left to meet by these failed states. My point is that maybe the right Public Sector does not lie at an extreme, but halfway between a large and relatively efficient government like we see in the West and a strong mobilized civil society we may see when states fail.


In April 2010 I went to live for a couple of weeks to Bulawayo, in Zimbabwe, a country which ranks 5th in the index of the most failed states of 2012. While here in Portugal  the government takes in its own hands areas such as Education, Public Order and Safety, and Social Protection, in Zimbabwe due the absence of government people had to took those public responsibilities into their own hands:

  • Health-wise, 20% of the population is contaminated by HIV. Because the health system is so deteriorated, the way villages found to deal with this issue was by having village health workers that are selected by the elders in each village and that use bicycles to reach the country’s most remote areas to do prevention and provide anti-retroviral drugs.
  • As for Public Order and Safety, political violence during election times often threatens stability and tribal violence is also common. Once again it was up to civil society step in: while there I met innumerous projects of Zimbabwean youth that took pacification into their own hands, using the Arts as a mean to bridge tribal segregation.
  • Finally, in terms of Social Protection, to a good extent the Church (in the picture above) plays part of the usual role of the state in assisting people in more vulnerable situations.

Going back to Portugal, I realized that Public Economics is not just about the government, but also about public agents like village health workers, active youth and religious authorities that take into their hands public responsibilities beyond government’s reach. This is not an argument against the welfare state, which I believe is a crucial foundation of our society, instead, this is an argument in favour of using the potential of our civil society to help sustain it and make it more effective over the long-run.


  1. The 2012 Failed States Index of Foreign Policy Magazine and Fund for Peace (
  2. About Village Health Workers in Zimbabwe (

Written by João Rafael Brites in February 27, 2013


Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

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