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Nudging the State: Economic Hotspots, Societal Coalitions, and State Territorial Reach In Colombia

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-SA' version 4.0 license

Large-scale investment projects in extractives, industrial agriculture, and power generation continue to be an integral part of most governments’ economic strategies, especially in the global south. Yet such projects—most of which are located in rural areas far from countries’ urban centers of power—are being met with increasing skepticism and opposition by local communities. In response, researchers and policymakers have mostly focused on shorter-term consultation, regulation, and impact mitigation strategies. All of these solutions presuppose the existence of relatively well-functioning local governance structures—but this is rarely the case. What does it take for the state to function effectively around subnational economic hubs?

My research tackles this question by focusing on state service provision, and it emphasizes the decisive role played by local non-state actors. I argue that the sustained provision of services by the state is most likely to occur when societal coalitions not only demand it but also actively contribute to their production and delivery—when they develop what I call local ownership of state power. I show, moreover, that local ownership can be either coproductive or contentious. While others have focused only on relatively harmonious forms of “state-society synergy,” I also emphasize the importance of more conflictive relationships. What, then, makes it possible for non-state claimants to establish local ownership of state power? I identify three crucial conditions: 1) a statist ideational framing, 2) strong organizational structures for collective action, and 3) stable access to state elites.

My theoretical argument is drawn from an inductive comparative-historical analysis of the evolution of three regional economies in Colombia over the 20th century. Each case study revolves around a different economic sector: oil production in Barrancabermeja (Santander department), rice monocrops in Campoalegre and Palermo (Huila), and hydroelectric dams in the Eastern region of Antioquia. Regional histories for each case were constructed based on two years of archival and interview research.

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