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Volume 65 / Social Sciences


ERIC HERSHBERG, Director, Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and Professor, Department of Government, American University

SEVERAL THEMATIC CLUSTERS EMERGE from a review of the voluminous literature on the political economy of Colombia and from the less extensive material published over the past several years on Ecuador. Researchers analyzing both countries have devoted considerable attention to the forces of economic globalization. Frequently the theme is framed in terms of prospects for adapting to competitive pressures without exacerbating already dreadful levels of social inequality, which are generally portrayed as stagnant or worsening (item #bi2009000043#). Indeed, the putative tendency of market liberalization to aggravate social exclusion over the past quarter century is a common concern of many scholars, as are the implications of liberalization for environmental sustainability and community cohesion.

A welcome development in the literature on Colombia is the increasingly sophisticated treatment of issues relating to the knowledge economy and what elsewhere—though not for the most part in these writings—is commonly analyzed theoretically in terms of national systems of innovation (item #bi2009000402#). Technological change and adaptation, enterprise and sectoral competitiveness, human capital formation, and the adaptive capabilities of productive sectors are among the themes that emerge as prominent in this growing body of research. Some of this literature concentrates on local-level processes (item #bi2009000432#). Issues relating to innovation receive comparatively little attention in Ecuador, even while the challenge of productive upgrading is obviously central to that country's fortunes in petroleum exports as well as in a variety of other natural resource-based industries subject to global competition.

Not surprisingly given the inequalities that pervade both countries, social policy and equity are at the core of much of the political economy research on Colombia and Ecuador (items #bi2009000437#, #bi2009000409#, #bi2008000535#, #bi2009000422#, #bi2009000042#, #bi2009000441#, #bi2009000408#, #bi2009000421#, #bi2009000442#, #bi2009000411#, and #bi2009000403#). Among the more interesting contributions are analyses of labor market dynamics, health and education expenditures, and institutional mechanisms for allocating public services. These works highlight, among other issues, the challenge of maximizing social welfare in an environment characterized by widespread labor informality (items #bi2009000422#, #bi2009000441#, and #bi2009000421#). The production of work on these topics is quite comprehensive in Colombia, but rare in Ecuador, making the limited number of studies on these topics all the more valuable (item #bi2009000442#). With regard to both countries there is some consideration of the implication of bilateral and multilateral trade accords, though the centrality of these arrangements for the outcomes in question is never presented in an entirely convincing manner (item #bi2009000431#).

Addressing the social deficit requires fiscal solvency, a chronic problem in both Colombia and Ecuador during the 1990s. Fiscal questions remain a topic of concern in recent publications on Colombia (items #bi2008001316#, #bi2007003281#, and #bi2007003077#), though the theme is not as ubiquitous as it was during the late 1990s and beginnings of the present decade. Where fiscal solvency does appear, there is analysis of the impact of significant reforms, particularly changes to Ley 100 governing transfers to subnational units of government, that have been undertaken during the Uribe presidency and that appear to have achieved some success. Despite the precarious fiscal situation in Ecuador at this writing, none of the contributions included in this review address the budgetary situation in Quito or connect fiscal constraints to social policy options. It will be interesting to see whether this gap is redressed in studies that address these questions in the aftermath of Rafael Correa's election to the presidency in 2006.

As has been the case for many years, the political and economic underpinnings of persistent conflict represent an ongoing concern for Colombian social scientists. Some of this literature is disappointing, consisting of polemics or book-length op-ed pieces opining about "what is wrong with Colombia" (item #bi2009002980#). But for the most part the literature on Colombia's violence exhibits theoretical sophistication, reflecting in particular state-of-the-art social scientific research on the economic underpinnings of conflict systems (items #bi2009000416#, #bi2007000421#, and #bi2007000485#). Colombian scholars are producing work that will be of immense value to students of civil conflicts well beyond Latin America, and it is to be hoped that their research gains a wide following. The connection between drug trafficking and violence is a frequent topic for analysis, as are narcotics-related issues more generally, but many studies of conflict admirably resist the temptation to place narcotics at the core of their interpretations. An interesting development is the publication of several detailed empirical studies that examine the interplay between microeconomic factors and responses to violence in particular localities, and a focus on the ramifications of the Uribe government's strategy of "democratic security" (items #bi2009000416#, #bi2008002253#, #bi2008002254#, and #bi2007000421#). Also noteworthy are studies linking systems of violence to the presence of large scale foreign investment (items #bi2009000447# and #bi2009000414#).

In both Colombia and Ecuador studies of contemporary political economy assign prominence to heterogeneous circumstances within national boundaries. Questions of local development, community economic dynamics and subnational patterns of integration into both the national and global economies are addressed productively (items #bi2009000432#, #bi2009000427#, #bi2007000421#, #bi2009000418#, and #bi2009000046#). Conversely, and regrettably, there is a dearth of comparative work on the region. Here the political economy literature may well stand in contrast to that devoted to politics and governance, where the notion of an Andean region has gained greater salience. Arguably, analysts of political economy might be well advised to situate their studies in a broader regional context. Similarly, perhaps the time has come for students of political parties, state institutions, leadership styles, and social movements to engage more directly the questions of economic development that preoccupy political economists. There is much to be learned through an encounter between these two subfields, and this could prove particularly fruitful through cross-country comparisons (item #bi2009000412#).

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