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Symbolic public goods and the coordination of collective action : a comparison of local development in India and Indonesia


  • Rao, Vijayendra


Most economists think of common property as physical-a body of water, a forest-and as bounded within geographic space. In this paper, building on work in social theory, the author argues that common property can also be social-defined within symbolic space. People can be bound by well-defined symbolic agglomerations that have characteristics similar to common property. He calls these"symbolic public goods"(SPGs) and make the case that such constructs are central to understanding collective action. He illustrates the point by contrasting how conceptions of nationalism in Indonesia and India created SPGs that resulted in very different strategies of local development. Indonesia emphasized collective action by the poor that resulted in a form of regressive taxation, enforced by the ideology of svadaya gotong royong (community self-help) that was both internalized and coercively enforced. India emphasized democratic decentralization through the panchayatsystem driven by the Gandhian ideology of gram swaraj (self-reliant villages). This has resulted in an unusual equity-efficiency tradeoff. Indonesia has delivered public services much more efficiently than India did, but at the cost of democratic freedoms and voice. The author argues that the challenge for these countries is not to undermine their existing SPGs but to build on them. Indonesia should retain the spirit of svadaya gotong royong but channel it in an equitable and democratic direction, while India should build the capacity of the panchayat system by giving it fiscal teeth, while promoting underutilized institutions such as Gram Sabhas (village meetings) that encourage accountability and transparency.

Suggested Citation

  • Rao, Vijayendra, 2005. "Symbolic public goods and the coordination of collective action : a comparison of local development in India and Indonesia," Policy Research Working Paper Series 3685, The World Bank.
  • Handle: RePEc:wbk:wbrwps:3685

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. V. Rao, 2001. "Celebrations as Social Investments: Festival Expenditures, Unit Price Variation and Social Status in Rural India," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 38(1), pages 71-97.
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    1. Karla Hoff & Mayuresh Kshetramade & Ernst Fehr, 2011. "Caste and Punishment: the Legacy of Caste Culture in Norm Enforcement," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 121(556), pages 449-475, November.
    2. Pritchett, Lant, 2009. "Is India a Flailing State?: Detours on the Four Lane Highway to Modernization," Scholarly Articles 4449106, Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
    3. Lu Gram & Joanna Morrison & Jolene Skordis-Worrall, 2019. "Organising Concepts of ‘Women’s Empowerment’ for Measurement: A Typology," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 143(3), pages 1349-1376, June.
    4. Gibson, Christopher & Woolcock, Michael, 2005. "Empowerment and local level conflict mediation in Indonesia : a comparative analysis of concepts, measures, and project efficacy," Policy Research Working Paper Series 3713, The World Bank.
    5. Paurav Shukla & Jaywant Singh & Madhumita Banerjee, 2015. "They are not all same: variations in Asian consumers’ value perceptions of luxury brands," Marketing Letters, Springer, vol. 26(3), pages 265-278, September.
    6. Pal, Sarmistha & Wahhaj, Zaki, 2017. "Fiscal decentralisation, local institutions and public good provision: evidence from Indonesia," Journal of Comparative Economics, Elsevier, vol. 45(2), pages 383-409.
    7. Brian Levy & Michael Walton, 2013. "Institutions, incentives and service provision: Bringing politics back in," Global Development Institute Working Paper Series esid-018-13, GDI, The University of Manchester.
    8. Bandiera, Oriana & Levy, Gilat, 2011. "Diversity and the power of the elites in democratic societies: Evidence from Indonesia," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 95(11), pages 1322-1330.

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