Civil Society and State-Building in Latin America

By Rebecca Abers and Margareth Keck:

In this essay we will suggest that significant barriers to deepening democracy in much of Latin America include not just the weakness of civil society vis-à-vis the state, but also the weakness of the state itself vis-à-vis its public administrative, technical, and enforcement functions. This is not a recent phenomenon, though it has become more visible and has probably worsened under the regime of neoliberal state-slashing. Latin American states have often been thought of as “strong states”. But this strength was a combination of hierarchy and authoritarianism, of military might and the capacity to spend large quantities of money. It did not represent the kinds of strength that are relevant in a democracy—the ability to provide routine services efficiently, to provide for the security of citizens, to administer public business, to enforce the law in an appropriate manner, to regulate, collect taxes, respond to emergencies, and so forth. Latin American states were strong on the ability to act irregularly— repressive actions with excessive force, big development projects—but rather weak, with pockets of capacity, on the everyday qualities of stateness. Recent work by O’Donnell and associates on horizontal accountability and the quality of democracy has made the connection between democratization and state (and not just regime), stressing especially the requirement that the actions of state officials be legally bounded (1). But most of the work on civil society participation in Latin America has paid scant attention to the debilitating effect that state weakness has on the prospect of greater social or grassroots control of the state.


Deepening Democracy requires not simply the creation of a countervailing sphere of deliberation—but also an active process of making the state public—of rebuilding the state so that it can actually defend public interests.

Read it at Lasa Forum 2006:


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: