Governments have an obligation to deliver public goods to citizens in return for the exercise of political power

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By Alex Magaisa

Public goods are sometimes referred to as political goods. The government usually claims a monopoly in the provision of public goods thereby preventing others from producing them while some are by nature the sole responsibility of the government. Therefore, the government might claim a monopoly in the delivery of electricity but the delivery of political stability is a natural consequence of the function of government. With electricity the government can make choices to allow private actors but with political stability, this cannot be outsourced. It’s government’s responsibility.

Key features

In economics, public goods bear two significant characteristics: they are regarded as non-excludable and non-rivalrous. A good is non-excludable when it is either impossible or too costly for one to exclude others from using it. You can exclude a person from living in your home but you can’t exclude them from enjoying the same climatic conditions in the country.

It is non-rivalrous when it’s enjoyment by one person does not diminish the ability of others to enjoy it, too. You can enjoy good law and order in a country without stopping others from enjoying the same public good. Good law and order benefits everyone, whether weak or powerful; indeed whether or not they are paying taxes.

These characteristics often make it hard for private producers to invest in such goods especially where the positive externalities are so extensive that there is little prospect of private gain. Positive externalities are the extra benefits of a good that spill over to the rest of the population, for example a mining company that builds a road to its mines thereby benefiting local communities who also use the same road.


Some goods can also have positive externalities even when provided by private actors. When I visited Cuba a few years ago, I observed that during the evenings a large number of young people gathered at particular spots around the hotel, holding their mobile phones. When I asked the concierge what was going on he told me that they came for the Internet. They could get the hotel’s WiFi signal and surf the Internet. The hotel was generating positive externalities, providing a service that was otherwise restricted. I remembered that in the early years young people would gather in Africa Unity Square, the space sandwiched between parliament and Meikles Hotel, to catch the WiFi signal from Harare’s premier hotel.

The opposite to positive externalities are called negative externalities such as where the mining company depletes or pollutes water sources through its activities. The company reaps the profit but the community carries the losses arising from the hazard. These disadvantages to the community through the activities of private actors are negative externalities. Many critics of big business in the developing world argue that their activities have huge negative externalities.

Goods that have positive externalities may be unattractive to private producers because of the free-rider problem. This is where people benefit from using the good without paying for it. The problem with free-riding is that those few who are producing or paying for it might decide to divest. Imagine having to pay for public transport but everyone else riding without paying. So the government takes responsibility to provide such public goods, using public funds. The government must in turn collect taxes fairly so that the burden is not on the shoulders of the few.

Public goods include public infrastructure such as roads, rail and energy, and services such as police protection, health care, fire and rescue services, education and social protection. Due to their character and the positive externalities they generate, these public goods are usually provided by the government and funded by taxpayers.

This does not mean that public goods are always provided by the government. For example, private actors can and do often provide goods such private education, health-care, telephone and Internet services, social care depending on one’s resources.

Nevertheless, these are exceptions. In most societies, the government is expected to ensure there is adequate provision of these public goods, even though others have a choice to go private. A community can add private security through its Neighbourhood Watch Committee but this is complementary rather than a replacement of the police service which is a public good. If there is over reliance on Neighbourhood Watch, State is probably failing to deliver the public good of security.

The role of the government in the provision of public goods is a matter of long-standing ideological disputation. Even the oldest democracies continue to grapple with it. Some lean towards a public system in which the government is heavily involved while others lean towards a market system where private actors have a more significant role. The wave of privatisation in sync with neo-liberal values and principles led to a dominance of market ideology in the 1980s. Attempts to export these ideas to developing countries through Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) were disastrous.

The same debate however persists. Should health-care, a public good, be a duty of the government or should it be left to private actors? In the U.K. the ideological fight centre around the NHS, the emblematic national health service. In some countries, formerly public goods which were provided by the state are now provided by private actors. Private actors do so either on contract from the state or because the state has sold the entity that provides the public good. This is called privatisation and has its controversies.

If the private actors fail to deliver public goods, the government will still get the blame. That’s because the provision of these public goods is its primary duty. If chooses to give responsibility to someone else, it must take responsibility to ensure the public good is actually provided. The government cannot seek refuge behind private actors and accuse them of failing to provide a public good when it licensed or contracted them.

Thus ultimately, despite the fact that private actors may be given responsibility to supply public goods, the ultimate responsibility remains with the government. The government may be adjudged as having failed its citizens when it can no longer provide public goods. Indeed, the proliferation of private actors taking over the role of providing public goods often without the sanction of the state is indicative of a government that is failing in its duties. Neighbourhood Watch Committees are private security arrangements that respond to the failure of the state to provide the public good of human security. In extreme cases, this could deteriorate to situations where communities rely on “strongmen” to whom they pay tribute (rents) in exchange for protection.

Origins of the modern government and public goods

The idea of modern government with the duty to provide public goods such as human security has roots in the philosophical conceptions of the state. Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes theorised that in the state of nature things were extremely difficult. Life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” he wrote in The Leviathan. Humans came together to create society and the state with the basic aim to ensure human security. Therefore it may be said for Hobbes, the most important public good was human security. It could be an autocratic government but that was alright if it provided human security. Critics argue that this gives in to dictatorships. It prioritises stability and protection over democracy and human rights.

However, there were more liberal approaches to the relationship between the state and the individual. Another English philosopher, John Locke did not think life in the state of nature was as bad as Hobbes put it. However he believed it was still necessary for humans to create society and the state in order to prevent “inconveniences” that were associated with the state of nature. For example, it was necessary to have a facility of resolving disputes between parties.

For Locke, power of the state had to be limited by law. This ensured that important rights were protected. These basic rights were life, liberty and property. These fundamental rights have endured over the course of time and can be found in almost every constitution as is the idea of limited government.

What we can observe in both conceptions is that the state has an obligation to deliver public goods. For Hobbes the most important was security. For Locke while security was important, the protection of fundamental rights was also an important public good.

A closer look at our constitution shows that these rights are presented as public goods which the government is expected to provide to its citizens. Chapter 2 of the constitution has an elaborate set of national objectives and Chapter 4 solidifies them as fundamental rights and freedoms. They include protection of liberty, provision of healthcare and education, care for children and the elderly, freedom of movement and communication, etc. This the core social contract includes the duty of the government to provide public goods. Other parts which provide for the military, police, prosecution service, prison service, judiciary also lay the ground for the delivery of public goods to citizens.

Having established the philosophical and constitutional basis of the government’s duty to supply public goods, how has it fared? To what extent has it succeeded in delivering public goods? Or has it in fact abdicated its responsibilities?

The list of public goods that the Zimbabwean government is failing to provide is staggering. One of the basic public goods that the government is supposed to provide is travel documents. In fact, it has a monopoly of producing passports. However, the government is failing to produce passports. To put it more pointedly, the government is failing to deliver this public good thereby violating citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of movement.

Another example is public healthcare, which is in complete disarray. For the very basics the healthcare system has to rely on donors. It is a big indictment that senior leaders in government have to rely on foreign healthcare systems simply because they cannot trust the one they presided over.

On the economic front, it has failed to provide the public good of economic stability. On social protection, many would starve if there was no donor support and the elderly pensioners are getting a pittance, barely enough to last a couple of days.

The roads and rail system across the country are in extremely bad shape. With extended load shedding, the state is failing to provide energy supplies. The power utility company is complaining that its prices are sub-economic and it lacks the foreign currency to import electricity to fill the gap.

The state which is supposed to protect has actually become a threat to human security. In August 2008 and January 2019, the state deployed armed soldiers to kill people. No one has been held accountable. The rights and freedoms of human rights defenders and political activists have been threatened and harmed. A number of citizens have been arrested and detained on spurious charges of attempting to overthrow the government.

People live in perpetual fear of the state instead of expecting security. Where the state should act to protect, it does not. Itai Dzamara, a political activist was abducted in 2015 and has not been seen since. The current regime has shown no appetite to investigate his whereabouts and establish what happened. There has been a rise in the number armed robberies and other abuses in broad daylight.

In short, even Hobbes would disapprove because despite its grip on power, the government is failing to deliver the most important public good of providing security to the citizens.

Is Zimbabwe a failing state?

The issue of the government’s duty to deliver public goods leads us to the question of whether Zimbabwe is a failed or failing state? This is because of Zimbabwe’s failure to deliver a significant number of public goods to a large section of the population. Literature divides states into those that have failed and ones in the process of failing. Other divisions identify failed, weak and collapsed states. Still others make reference to troubled or fragile states.

These concepts and classifications do not have universal acceptance. Indeed, some argue that they are so diverse, so generalised and so elastic as to be useless as tools of analysis. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider the performance of a state in so far as its ability to deliver public goods.

Successful states are generally characterised by their ability to deliver peace, stability and most public goods to most of its citizens. They don’t score perfect tens on all issues but they generally fare well in the provision of public goods to a significant part of their societies. Weak states on the other hand may do well for a small part of its population but they cannot deliver public goods to most of their citizens. Failed states are at the extreme end – they have completely abdicated their responsibility.

Weak states can either remain perennially weak teetering on the brink of collapse or eventually fall into the class of failed states. When one considers the nearly two decades during which Zimbabwe has been described as being “on the brink of collapse” it is easy to see why while not a failed state, it is probably in the failing stage. There is something that still holds it up, albeit precariously, preventing it from totally collapsing into failure.

Nevertheless, there are many worrying signs at present which make it necessary to seriously consider strategies to minimise failure. Reports that Zimbabwe could be plunged into total darkness due to energy shortages is a disaster that will have serious consequences.

Indicators of failure

There are many indicators that signal whether a state is failing. The inability to deliver public goods to a significant part of the population is one important sign. Endemic violence is another. As Robert I. Rotberg stated, “Nation-States fail because they are convulsed in internal violence and can no longer deliver political goods to their inhabitants”.

Persistent and enduring violence is common in failing or failed states. However the absence of violence is not on its own an indicator that the state has not failed or is not failing. In such cases the state is also unable to control its borders and there’s is deep internal ructions between ethnic groups. The increase in criminal violence is also another indicator as the security apparatus fails to cope. The state will have given way to gangs, vigilantes and war lords.

The endemic abuse of human rights in a state shows that the the government is no longer able to provide security to the citizens. People should be able to critique and challenge their government without fearing for their liberty and security.

When the state fails to deliver public goods, citizens may start relying on local power brokers. These become the suppliers of public goods. In mild forms, people may resort to private suppliers for basic public goods – water, energy, and even justice, etc. The proliferation of private health and education and the diminution of public health and education may be hailed as marketisation but it may also be a sign of a state that is failing to perform its primary obligations. The poor who cannot afford private services lose out.

In such cases, public goods become inaccessible to some sections of the population on account of cost. This becomes problematic if this segregation affects significant sections of society. As Rotberg states, “a failed state is a polity that is no longer able or willing to perform the fundamental jobs of a nation-state in the modern world”.

Flawed and compromised institutions are also an indicator of a failed or failing state. This is characterised by excessive dominance of the executive branch of the state at the expense of others. Both the legislature and the judiciary are captured. Political referees such as the electoral management body, the prosecution services, police and anti-corruption bodies would be captured by the executive. Bodies that are supposed to remain politically neutral such as the military would exhibit obvious biases towards the government and ruling party. In such situations citizens lack confidence in state institutions.

There is endemic corruption is failing/failed states. While there are vast economic opportunities, they are only available to the politically connected elites. These elites and their associates get richer while the rest of the population wallows in abject poverty. In Rotberg’s words, “immense profits are available from an awareness of regulatory advantages and currency speculation and arbitrage”.

Rotberg might as well have been describing the current situation in Zimbabwe, where political elites have benefitted immensely from proximities to power and have used arbitrage and easy access to foreign currency to reap profits in the currency markets. A state in which only a few reap enormous profits while the rest are living in conditions of deprivation is a failing state because it is unable to deliver basic public goods to a significant number of its people.

There are other indicators, such as the deterioration of public infrastructure which is a responsibility of the government – roads and communications systems.

Why state failure matters to others

Whether on not a state is failing is a matter of interest at the international level because the world order is built upon the building block of the nation state. The state’s ability to deliver public goods is a matter of interest to others in the region and beyond because it affects them. When a state fails to provide basic public goods, citizens migrate – lawfully or otherwise.

Resource scarcity can also cause internal conflict as people fight over the little that is available. Earlier we said most public goods can be used by some without affecting others’ ability to use them. But where they are finite goods, such as energy, water or roads, scarcity can result in conflict over the limited resources.

Conflict in a failing or failed state can spill into neighbouring countries because it creates political and economic refugees. Zimbabwe is already a major contributor to the political and economic refugee population in the region and this could get worse as the government’s inability to deliver public goods escalates. It’s in the nature of humans to seek pastures new when faced with conditions of scarcity. Indeed, the history of humankind is a history of migration from zones of least resources to zones of better resources. Zimbabwe’s failure leads to human pressure in other countries.

The lack of security might also spawn armed gangs and other nefarious elements which could pose a security threat beyond borders. The moment you have individuals who control public goods – determining who gets what and when – there is room for warlords who can pose serious security threats.

The collapse of a state could lead to humanitarian disaster which would require international intervention, often easier to coordinate through a centralised authority. For all these reasons it is important for the regional and international community to remain actively engaged in the Zimbabwean situation where the government is increasingly failing in its duty to deliver public goods.


The Zimbabwean Government still has a firm grip on both the territory and the population both of which are maintained by the threat of violence. The regime does not hide its appetite to unleash violence at the slightest challenge. It has used excessive force on two occasions and used powers of arrest and detention to silence political opponents. A government that threatens the citizens is failing in its primary duty of providing security and protection.

However, there is a long list of public goods that the government is failing to provide, signalling its failings. These include the failure to provide energy and clean water, failure to provide passports, decrepit public infrastructure, failure to provide basic healthcare, failure to provide economic stability, inability to protect pensioners and the elderly, humanitarian catastrophe in the prisons system, inability to mitigate drought induced poverty, compromised law enforcement and dispute resolution systems, institutionally biased security/police/military services.

A government that is no longer able to provide public goods is a threat to itself and to the region.