Redefining public goods for Africa

Published on Africa Research Institute, by Jonathan Bhalla, Research Manager, April 5, 2011.

In January I wrote a blog which argued that if internet usage in Africa is going to increase, more local African content is needed online. In the article, I referred to the internet as a ‘public good’. My assertion was based on the reasoning that although the internet is largely a private service, it’s utility extends far beyond any individual into the public realm. A farmer, for example, may decide to put some money aside and invest in going to a cyber cafe. At the cyber cafe the farmer learns about a new method of storing maize which significantly reduces the chance of weevils and other pests from attacking his, or her, harvest. The farmer applies this new knowledge with resounding success. Neighbours of the farmer follow suit, and crop wastage in the community is significantly reduced. Not exactly a widespread occurrence, but feasible nonetheless … // 

… A strict demarcation between public and private goods is not helpful from a policy perspective. When we consider the enormity of the challenges facing most African countries – from poor infrastructure to political instability to underperforming agricultural sectors – Samuelson’s definition of public goods renders them an irrelevant category. If a proactive African government wanted to invest more in ‘public goods’, they would be presented with a fragmented and confusing set of responses. The government should invest in street lights, but not utility companies to provide more reliable power; national broadcasting houses, but not improved communications infrastructure; public parks, but not wildlife conservation areas.

My argument is that if we broaden the definition of public goods to encompass goods that conform to the spirit but not the letter of Samuelson’s definition, we are presented with a much more coherent, and relevant, framework for African policy makers. Roads, ports, dams, communications infrastructure and the like all fall short of orthodox economic definitions of what constitutes a public good – because they are either excludable or rivalrous – but are nonetheless vehicles for sustained poverty reduction in Africa … (full text).

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