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Volume 61 / Social Sciences


ERIC HERSHBERG, Program Director, Social Science Research Council and Adjunct Professor in International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

THE PAST DECADE HAS WITNESSED a substantial growth in the literature on Colombian political economy, reflecting perhaps the emergence of economic and political problems reminiscent of those that have long prevailed elsewhere in the region, but that until the 1990s had largely been absent in South America's second largest country. In Ecuador, by contrast, the production of research in this field has been relatively limited, perhaps owing to the comparative weakness of the country's universities and research infrastructure. In both countries, themes of political and economic crisis and their social consequences represent core preoccupations of scholars and policy analysts alike.

The ongoing civil war and broader phenomena of violence, criminality and social exclusion remain the foremost preoccupation of most analysts of contemporary Colombian affairs (items #bi2004002166#, #bi2004002153#, and #bi2004002149#). Yet the literature demonstrates a growing awareness that the conditions that sustain political violence are linked inextricably to deficiencies in economic institutions and performance (items #bi2004002157# and #bi2002003084#). As a consequence, these themes are now the focus of an extensive if uneven body of research and publication, the best of which embed their analyses in consideration of the sociohistorical origins of ongoing difficulties (items #bi2004002155#). Whereas for many authors, particularly those affiliated with international financial institutions and domestic economic policy agencies, the problems today lie in constraints imposed by the 1991 Constitution and a failure to implement market-oriented reforms (items #bi2004002158# and #bi2004002151#), other writers attribute Colombia's continuing polarization to precisely the sort of neoliberal measures advocated by the prevailing development orthodoxy (items #bi2004002159#, #bi2004002156#, and #bi2004002145#).

Chronic fiscal crisis is one issue that receives considerable attention in the literature summarized below (items #bi2004002160#, #bi2004002158#, and #bi2004002152#). In Colombia, the past decade has witnessed a noteworthy deterioration in the country's reputation as an island of sound macroeconomic management in a region long susceptible to fiscal excess and macroeconomic instability. The Samper administration (1994–98), in particular, is cited by many writers as a watershed point, though others find the turning point in the unanticipated consequences of the 1991 Constitution, promulgated under the Gaviria administration (1990–94) (item #bi2004002160#). Moreover, while authors differ as to the degree to which the Samper years entailed a departure from neoliberal orthodoxy, defenders of that administration find grounds to argue that any such departures reflected efforts to respond effectively to legitimate social demands (items #bi2004002159#, #bi2002003084#, and #bi2004002147#). In Ecuador, the fiscal problem dates back to the onset of the Latin American debt crisis, and what literature there is on that country's political economy emphasizes the recurrent cycles of crisis brought about by fiscal pressures and the sociopolitical upheavals that have emerged in response to government efforts to assert control over the country's finances (items #bi2001007406# and Viteri Diaz, 1998).

Albeit for very different reasons, Colombia's process of political, administrative and fiscal decentralization is of great interest both to those who see the country's problems as rooted in longstanding exclusion and those who attribute these problems to fiscal irresponsibility. The question of how best to combine decentralization and economic stability is of increasing concern to many authors (items #bi2004002165#, #bi2004002161#, #bi2004002150#, and #bi2004002145#). Similarly, decentralization is a recurrent topic among observers of Ecuadorian political economy, though studies are less systematic, in part because the process has been far less extensive than in Colombia, even while the two countries share similar traditions of regional diversity.

Finally, it is worth noting the interest of authors in these countries, and indeed throughout the Andean region, in the problem of state weakness (items #bi2004002159# and #bi2004002146#). Several of the studies cited below assign priority to the economic roots and manifestations of the weaknesses of the Colombian state, whereas years ago this would have been discussed in terms of security alone. The failure of the central state to extend its authority throughout the national territory, the growing economic role of drug trafficking and other illegal activities, and the inadequacies of public provision of services in such fields as education, health care and pensions, are among the themes that receive most attention (items #bi2004001696# and #bi2004002151#). Of course, the causes of these shortcomings are highly contested, in Colombia as in Ecuador, where agreement on state weakness is universal, but where the costs are found in political instability and social polarization rather than violence.

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