1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Governance (2000 - 2009)

Ethnic Structure, Inequality and Governance of the Public Sector

  • Project from: 2002 to 2005

This project examines the complex ways ethnic cleavages and inequalities affect social cohesion or consensus in the public sector under conditions of democratization. It challenges the undifferentiated treatment of ethnicity in development studies, in which scholars tend to see ethnicity as pathological regardless of the way it is configured in a country's social structure. This project thus takes up in detail the second type of public sector reform initiative outlined in the project titled “Public Sector Reform and Crisis-Ridden States”, about which more information will be found on this site.

This project is divided into two parts.

The first deals with ethnic cleavages and inequalities and focuses on four issues.

First, it will map out the ethnic cleavages in each country to be studied, including variations within each group; it will also address, to the extent possible, how other types of divisions, such as class and gender, affect ethnic cleavages; and it will seek to understand whether there are patterns or structures to the cleavages, including the extent to which they have changed over time. This will allow for an analysis of the politicization of cleavages or identities.

Second, the project will examine the rules that determine selection to public institutions and their outcomes. It will focus on four main institutions: the civil service, party system, cabinet and parliament. How representative or uneven is the distribution of offices? And how do policy makers and citizens view the distribution and rules governing it?

Third, it will examine the extent to which socio-economic inequalities, such as incomes, assets, employment, education and health shape, reproduce or influence patterns of inequalities in the public sector. How segmented are patterns of employment in the private and public sectors?

Fourth, since the rules for representation in cabinet, parliament and party system depend, in part, on citizen choices the project will examine voter preferences in constituting these institutions. It will examine electoral data to understand this phenomenon.

The second part of the project deals with the institutions that have emerged for managing diversity, inequality and competition. It will adopt a historical perspective on institutions to incorporate issues of change.

It will seek answers to the following questions:
  • How do groups process claims for representation in the public sector?
  • How effective are institutions in managing the structures and inequalities observed in part one of the project?
  • Are institutions geared towards achieving majoritarian or consensual outcomes?
  • Do majoritarian institutions necessarily exclude groups on the basis of ethnicity?
  • If institutions seek to promote majoritarian outcomes, do they also contain safeguards that can yield consensual outcomes?
  • What alternatives can be suggested on the basis of evidence derived from the inter-relations of ethnic structures, inequalities and electoral behaviour?
Institutions to be examined range from electoral rules, such as the alternative vote, the single transferable vote, the two round system, proportional representation, and first-past-the-post with threshold requirements, to governance arrangements of power sharing, decentralization, federalism, protection of minority rights, and zoning. Socio-economic programmes of affirmative action and rules that seek to correct dispropotionality in the staffing of public institutions will also be examined.

The project is organized around a typology of ethnic structures, which distinguishes countries according to their levels of polarization or dispersion of ethnic segments.

Countries have been chosen on the basis of five types of structures: cases in which one ethnicity is overwhelmingly dominant (which we refer to as unipolar); those in which there are only two groups or two roughly equal groups in multi-ethnic settings (bipolar); those in which there are only three groups or three large groups in a multi-ethnic setting (tripolar); and cases in which the ethnic structure is fragmented, which is further divided into two: cases of high levels of fragmentation (fragmented multipolarity), and cases in which fragmentation may allow few large groups to organize clusters or coalitions to influence participation and representation in the public sector (concentrated multipolarity).

Several assumptions emerge from the typology. In unipolar settings, political competition is likely to be less ethnically polarized. Electoral politics may open up conflicts within the dominant ethnicity, allowing individuals from minority groups to play active roles in the parties formed by individuals from the dominant ethnicity. In fragmented multipolar settings, with relatively small ethnic groups, ethnic-based political behaviour is also likely to be less prevalent. Since political parties may have to appeal to a large cross-section of ethnic groups to be electorally viable, they are bound to be ethnic coalition parties. It may be possible for single parties in fragmented ethnic settings to win a majority of the votes in elections and for the public sector to not reflect ethnic biases. The more difficult cases are likely to be countries with bipolar or tripolar structures or where groups have formed regional coalitions, limiting the scope for bargaining and concessions as well as for promoting multiple loyalties.

Case studies
Research has been carried out in 16 countries: Botswana and Lithuania (unipolarity); Fiji, Latvia and Trinidad and Tobago (bipolarity); Bosnia and Malaysia (tripolarity); Ghana and Kenya (concentrated multipolarity); and Papua New Guinea, India and Tanzania (fragmented multipolarity).

In addition, work is also underway in three multi-ethnic Western democracies – Switzerland, Belgium and Spain – in order to understand how relatively older or stable democracies have managed ethnic cleavages and inequalities in their public sectors.

A methodology workshop on the project was held in Geneva on 27-28 May 2002. On the 25-27 March 2004 an international conference was held in Riga, Latvia where research findings and policy issues was discussed.

More information
An overview of the research findings can be found by clicking the link on the right.

Funding for this project is provided by the Ford Foundation, in addition to UNRISD core funds.