Accepted paper:

Unexpected affinities: neoliberal governance, the informal economy and the state in Accra's electricity sector.


Pauline Destree (University of St Andrews)

Paper short abstract:

Through a focus on the privatisation of the electricity sector in Ghana, this paper explores the unexpected affinities that arise between neoliberal techniques of governance and informal economic practices, redrawing the contours of the public good and the postcolonial contract of service delivery.

Paper long abstract:

In Accra, Ghana, the privatisation of the national Electricity Company has sparked debates about the changing role of the state and its historical mandate of service delivery. Since Nkrumah's struggle for decolonisation and economic independence, the notion of the public good (especially electricity, in the form of the Akosombo Dam) has figured as an important imaginary of belonging and civic rights. At the same time, the state's inability to distribute essential services has frustrated expectations and fragmented the vision of this postcolonial contract of delivery. Based on 15 months of fieldwork on the politics of electricity in Accra, this paper ethnographically explores the way in which particular techniques of revenue management redraw the contours of the public good in the context of increased neoliberal modes of governance. Focusing on the introduction of 'pole' prepaid meters in shared compound housing in preparation for privatisation, it argues that technologies like the prepaid meter yield social effects that do not readily subscribe to a clear divide between 'sovereign' and 'neoliberal' techniques of governance. On the one hand, the selective implementation of the meters in particular neighbourhoods made electricity a highly differentiated public good as it discriminated between 'trustworthy' and 'unreliable' citizens. On the other hand, the prepaid meters found unexpected affinities with local economic practices and informal livelihoods that popularised its use among lower-income residents. Rather than readily subscribing to a denunciatory analysis of neoliberalism's evil (Ferguson 2009), the paper explores the polyvalent and contradictory credentials of the public good in contemporary Ghana.

panel Anth03
Welfare, redistribution and new forms of the "public good" [Sponsored by AFRICA: Journal of the International African Institute]