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Mutual Aid and Pandemic Response

How does self-governance work in the middle of a pandemic? In this video, Professor Mark Pennington discusses the role of mutual aid.
In the previous session we looked at two examples of self-governance institutions that have successfully addressed collective action problems without recourse to markets or states. In this session I want to focus on a very topical example to illustrate the role of self-governance institutions in complementing markets and states. Right now, the world is in the grip of the new coronavirus or Covid-19 pandemic. On the face of it, this looks to be a very unpromising context to be speaking about bottom-up self-governance regimes. Many of the responses to the pandemic have been the epitome of top-down governance measures, especially where governments have imposed various lockdown regimes. Markets continue to operate, and people continue to get most of their supplies through commercial suppliers.
But the context in which those markets operate is very heavily constrained by the social distancing and stay at home measures that governments have introduced. Part of the case in favour of these measures is that responding to pandemics effectively constitutes a serious collective action dilemma that might not be addressed effectively through bottom-up self-governance measures. On this view, unless governments force people to adhere to various antiviral measures, they’ll be tempted to free ride by continuing with their normal lives and in the process increase the threat the virus poses to society at large. Now suppose for the sake of argument that this analysis is correct; that some form of centralised governance is required for an effective response.
This still leaves a potentially significant role for self-governance institutions to deliver important social services and other community goods that might not have otherwise been delivered. Consider the explosion of the hundreds and thousands of mutual aid groups here in the UK and in many other countries after the pandemic restrictions were introduced. Many of these groups formed online and organised various community activities - such as shopping for people who were having to self-isolate, sharing ingredients and cooking for each other when there were various shortages in the shops – and finally, providing important mental health support by providing a regular point of social contact through online forums.
These activities were absolutely fundamental in getting people through the period of the most severe restrictions – and indeed without these bottom-up support networks it is quite possible that people would not have continued to adhere to the various social distancing rules and stay at home measures that governments had introduced. What matters is that many of these groups organised responses to local needs that would not have been recognised by central government agencies. This kind of knowledge about needs is often only accessible or available to people who are embedded in the communities directly facing the problems at hand. So, what explains the mobilisation of these bottom up responses?
In part we can explain the mobilisation through the personal incentives there were for people to participate in group activities. In other words, the capacity to access services by becoming a member of the group that wouldn’t be available to the person concerned if they didn’t join the group in question. Equally though, we can explain these efforts as arising from people wanting to do something for the community in which they live – a sense of identification with the community that is most strongly felt at a local level. This is a sociological point often neglected by economic accounts of collective action dilemmas.
While personal and material incentives do matter in overcoming collective action problems, the incentives that people respond to are often non-material in nature and focused on a personal identification with others in the community – an identification that is often strongest at the local level. The example of the pandemic, then, illustrates three key points about self-governance institutions. First, even in cases where top-down governance measures may be necessary, the success of these rules will often be dependent on self-governance institutions working alongside them. This is an illustration of what is known as ‘co-production’ – a concept we will explore in more detail in a future session. Second, while incentives matter when organising self-governance institutions, these incentives are often non-material in nature.
Third, the success of self-governance solutions depends on citizens spotting local needs and figuring out ways of organising institutional solutions to those problems. This kind of activity is known as public entrepreneurship, and that will be the focus of our next session.

Our recent experience in the Covid-19 pandemic has introduced us to a serious collective action dilemma that arguably cannot easily be solved by self-governance mechanisms.

Economists might argue that unless governments institute lockdown measures, citizens will be tempted to free-ride by moving around in public spaces without caution, potentially endangering those around them. Granted this logic, is there any room left for self-governance responses to a pandemic? We explore the possibilities in this video.

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The Ideal of Self-Governance: Public Policy Beyond Markets and States

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