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Back | Programme Area: Governance (2000 - 2009) | Event: International Conference on Ethnic Inequality and Public Sector Governance


International Conference on Ethnic Inequality and Public Sector Governance


Speech by Thandika Mkandawire, Director of UNRISD


Your Excellencies, distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

I’m pleased to welcome you to the conference on Ethnic Inequality and Public Sector Governance.

Allow me first of all to thank our co-hosts, UNDP, and the Latvian Ministry for Integration, for the enthusiastic support they have provided in hosting this meeting.

I am pleased to note that we have among our associates other UN and other international organisations and I am delighted also to see that the colleagues from Latvia are participating actively in this conference.

UNRISD is a very small organisation in the UN system. Its major quality is that it is autonomous, in the sense that it is not under any of the major agencies but also autonomous in its activities. Its main task is to look at the social side of development if you like and we have largely focused on issues of well being, improvement of social institutions and improvement of social relations. We have in the past done considerable work on ethnic identities and conflict and in fact we published several books on issues of ethnic conflict and public sector reform. In the year 2001 we organised a major conference on racism and public policy in conjunction with the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban.

Most countries in the world, probably all countries in the world are multi-ethnic. Ethnicity affects the identities of states, the allocation of resources and the way different sections of society relate to governments. Most governments today claim that their policies for constructing their public sectors are not discriminatory. However, past policies of discrimination, unequal resource endowment, patronage regimes, markets and political competition may produce unequal outcomes in the public sector. Inequalities are often a source of tension as groups compete to maintain or safeguard advantages. The current goals of public sector reforms, efficiency and good governance for instance may be difficult to obtain in a conflict ridden public sector or in situations where elites aren’t satisfied with the rules that govern who gets what, who gets selected in public institutions. Multi-ethnic states must develop mechanisms to regulate differences inequality and competition. Politicised ethnicity may block the development of social cohesion or citizenship that is essential for the growth of democratic institutions. This UNRISD project has focused therefore on issues of diversity, representation and cohesion in the management of the public sector.

As the research reports and summaries demonstrate, identities and representation are very complex issues. We are fortunate to have engaged researchers who are not only knowledgeable about these issues but have worked or resided in the countries of their study. The 16 countries in the project should underscore the point that ethnic inequality in the public sector is the world wide issue that affects developed and developing countries alike. Most studies on public sector inequalities have been single country studies. This collection of studies we have here is of a comparative nature and rely largely on detailed studies of different countries who have been carefully selected to represent fairly broad typologies of countries of the world. There is of course, we believe, great value in comparative analysis of sensitive social problems. This approach may help policy makers and citizens more generally to appreciate the point that their problems are not unique. It may encourage them to adopt a more positive, less defensive approach to their problems. It throws light on how different countries have dealt with such problems and it highlights conditions that may have favoured certain types of reforms or solutions or why some problems may seem intractable even when efforts have been made to resolve them.

Institutional designs for correcting inequality and promoting cohesion should not be seen as a magical formula. The impact of institutions on social behaviour may sometimes be gradual and quite often unpredictable in their consequences. Some reforms may open up new problems while resolve old ones. The success story today may be rendered obsolete in subsequent years or decades when new problems emerge that require new solutions. Even when institutions seem to work it is alwaysimportant to maintain an open mind for possibilities for further reform in order to face new challenges. Reforms may work best when countries are not yet in crisis or course. The best crafted institutions may be unworkable where violent conflicts have already occurred and positions have hardened. Thus the management of diversity and inequality is less costly than the management of conflict. Yet unfortunately the international community and even states have spent more resources to resolve conflicts than prevent them. It is hoped that the project and similar work in the international community and this conference willl encourage development agencies and governments to developindicators and systematically montor and collect data on ethnic inequalities. The findings of this project should also help policy makers understand better how certain types of cleavages can affect conflict management. It should encourage debates on governance institutions and societies that are not yet in deep conflict but whose ethnic structures or inequalities may expose them to future conflict.

Once again let me take this opportunity to thank UNDP for the logistic support for actually making things happen, more specifically Gabriele’s role and her unrelenting efforts to get us here which is really, quite incredible how much she insisted to get this conference here.

I must also thank the researchers who prepared for us this incredible material for discussion on the coming 2 days. I would also like to thank Yusuf Bangura who has provided intellectual leadership for this project as coordinator, and Michele Tan—who has done the incredible task of bringing us all together . I mean just bringing 40 people from the outside world to Latvia--for us who not having done any conference in this part of the world--is quite an achievement. And I hope, I’m sure that from these papers we have here we will have very fruitful discussions and hopefully this is a beginning of a long relationship between Latvia and my institution.