Bildet viser en gate i Kongo Foto: Randi Solhjell

FORMING THE STATE: People living in DR Congo, also in the slums, have enormous expectations – about becoming recognized as citizens and gaining access to state-controlled goods, Senior Research Fellow Randi Solhjell found in her PhD thesis.

What forms a state?

Published: 23 May 2016

Senior Research Fellow Randi Solhjell (NUPI) examined waste management, water and electricity in DR Congo to investigate statehood in her PhD thesis. 

What can public goods that we tend to take for granted, like waste management and electricity, tell us about statehood?

This is the question Senior Research Fellow Randi Solhjell (NUPI) posed in her PhD thesis, Dimensions of statehood: A study of public goods in Bukavu, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

‘Water, electricity and waste management – that all sounds pretty banal. What can it really tell us about statehood and the formation of a nation?”

‘Actually, it’s exciting! These things are so fundamental for us to function in our everyday lives. Water is essential, of course. And in order to earn a living or attend school, we need public goods like roads. Studying the relationship between the providers of such public goods and the recipients can tell us something about the kind of social contract that exists in a society,’ explains Solhjell.

Great expectations

‘I have looked into the slums of war-torn Congo, where a functioning state can hardly be expected to be present. But the people living there have enormous expectations – about becoming recognized as citizens and gaining access to state-controlled goods. I found this also among young people who have never experienced a life without war,’ she says.

DR Congo is often seen as a failed or fragile state.

‘I’m not attempting to refute this, but have instead wanted to look at the actual circumstances. Many people in Congo have ideas as to what a state should be, but this is often ignored by Western academics, who tend to offer their own prognoses.’

Keeping an open mind

Solhjell has tried to approach her research with an open mind: ‘Instead of considering what a state should be or how it should appear from the outside, scholars should try to delve into the empirical facts, and find out how the people involved feel about the state and how it works. Instead of looking at what a state in Africa is not, I look at what it actually is.’

‘If you operate with fixed criteria that define in advance what you are looking for, I believe you’ll always end up finding just that – and the result is not very fruitful research. If, however, you enter the field without pre-set expectations, and approach the study of statehood by focusing on the public goods everyone depends on, you can better understand what people expect of the state,’ she says.

Good intentions, but…

Solhjell underscored the importance of understanding statehood in light of three dimensions:

‘Three dimensions – ‘spatial’, ‘distinction’ and ‘ideology’ – can tell us something about how to study various parts of the state and how they are related to one another. The spatial dimension refers to the fairly specific socio-geographical conditions existing in a given area. Distinction refers to discrimination and hierarchies, and ideology concerns ideas about the state and how it should work, as seen by those who ‘live’ and ‘conduct’ ‘the state.

‘What do the findings from your PhD work mean in a more practical context – for instance, for development work?’

‘Much could be said about this, but one thing is clear: Planning of big projects like waterworks, bridges and roads must involve the local level, where these things are to be built. Good intentions often create a lot of conflict on the ground', says Solhjell.