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Review of Reinventing Order in the Congo: How people respond to state failure in Kinshasa


By Koen Vlassenroot

Reinventing Order in the Congo. How People Respond to State Failure in Kinshasa. ed. Theodore Trefon. ZED Books, London & New York, 2005. 222pp. ISBN 1-84277-491-3 (pb). £17.95

Even if since the early nineties, processes of ‘state collapse’ and ‘state failure’ in countries such as Somalia, Liberia, Zaire and Sierra Leone have attracted some academic attention, it was only in the aftermath of 9/11 that failing and collapsing states became a serious issue for academics and policy makers. The reason for this increased attention was that failed states since September 2001 were considered as breeding grounds for international instability and mass migration, and as potential reservoirs for terrorist networks. The analytical explanations that have been forwarded to explain why a growing number of states have failed, however, continued to suffer from significant weaknesses. Most critiques point at the lack of capacity to distinguish dynamics of state collapse from general political crises, at the blurring of causes and consequences, and at the presentation of ‘collapsed states’ as an end state. This end state is not only characterised by the functional disparity of state performances, but also by a collapse of society. As most of the analytical models start from a top-down perspective, the processes that lie beyond the dynamics of state collapse are also rarely taken into account.

Recently, a number of scholars have tried to explain state collapse as a process of social transformation that results from specific institutional arrangements, and have taken the strategies of all actors involved in this process as the starting point of analysis. This has led to new insights into the emergence of new non-state centres of authority, and new forms of governance and regulation in regions where the state has become almost totally absent. In its illustration of how people at a grassroots level respond to state failure in Kinshasa, the book edited by Theodore Trefon helps to unravel this process of social transformation. But Trefon’s collection of case-studies does much more. Its focus on the daily strategies of ordinary people to get access to basic needs such as water, education, food and healthcare not only provides answers to the question how (and why) people survive in a context of state failure that is responsible for the extreme poverty of Kinshasa’s population; it also demonstrates how these strategies have created a new social space, have induced a total social transformation and, in the end, through new forms of governance have reinvented order where existing socio-political structures have totally collapsed. In this sense, the book tells more than the stories of the Kinois, as the more than 7 million Kinshasa residents call themselves. Because it aims at understanding local political dynamics and social evolution by looking at the population of Kinshasa itself, it offers a unique contribution to the understanding of contemporary urban processes and informal processes of social and economic regulation that can also be observed in other parts of Africa.

The fine-grained micro-level, empirical scrutiny by the different authors of people’s responses to growing state failure, leads to some remarkable insights. Eric Tollens demonstrates that food security in Kinshasa has not really worsened in the last decade because of the coping mechanisms, social innovations and adaptations that have emerged to facilitate a continuing food supply. Other authors have pointed at the new forms of solidarity that have become the cornerstones of the different strategies invented by the Kinois to replace the state in various areas of public life. One of these strategies is the creation of local NGOs. In their chapter on civil society, Giovannoni et al describe this new form of solidarity as the NGOisation phenomenon. Faith-based healing churches are another response to state failure and, as Persyn and Ladrière show, are a reaction to failures in the modern health care system that is not able to heal the soul. The downside of what Trefon calls the process of indigenisation, or the new patterns of social interaction as a result of people’s ‘use of their own resources, networks and ideas to adapt to adversity’ (p. 8), however, is the new meaning of the old Mobutu-expression ‘débrouillez-vous’ (survival by fending for yourself). The new social organisation of Kinshasa is based on individualism, subjection to a perpetual system of bargaining and a loss of protection that used to be offered by traditional patterns of solidarity. However extraordinary the self-help strategies, codes, systems and practices that have shaped the social space and identity of the Kinois might sound, they are hardly capable to offer a prosperous future to its participants. It is precisely this paradox that is at the centre of this outstanding contribution to urban sociology.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 80-81]

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