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Ethnic Structure, Inequality and Public Sector Governance

1 Apr 2004

  • Author(s): Yusuf Bangura
  • Source: The Baltic Times (On-line Issue TBT No. 401)

The links between ethnic structure and inequality are imprecise because of the multiple factors and rules that determine selection into public institutions.

Electoral rules, party systems and voter preferences strongly influence the constitution of cabinets and parliaments, whereas "representation" in the bureaucracy is largely determined by nonelectoral factors. The latter may include ethnicity-based citizenship laws, colonial policies that favour one group at the expense of others, rules of indigeneity that give preferences to "sons of the soil," merit-based rules that produce unequal outcomes, patronage regimes that distort the recruitment process; and cleavage-sensitive policies that seek to correct historical disadvantages or ensure balance.

[These] studies suggest that ethnic structures per se do not automatically determine political behaviour. Polarization does not occur only in bipolar [two roughly equal groups predominating in a multiethnic setting] or tripolar [three large groups in a multiethnic setting] settings. It can also occur even in fragmented multiethnic societies when there are high levels of inequality between groups, or when there are other cleavages (race, religion, geography) than those based on ethnicity alone that divide society into two or three groups. When groups fragment the chances for cooperation across ethnic lines are higher than when group preferences are homogenous, irrespective of the ethnic structure. However, fragmentation that leads to cross-ethnic co-operation is more likely to occur in unipolar and multipolar settings than in bipolar and tripolar ones. The latter often require ethnically sensitive institutions that provide incentives for co-operation and to avoid conflicts.

Sixteen countries have been studied: Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Botswana, Ghana, Fiji, India, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Spain, Switzerland, Tanzania, and Trinidad and Tobago. The project's researchers have collected data on ethnic cleavages and inequalities in four public institutions: civil service, cabinet, parliament and party system. They have analysed whether the distribution of offices is ethnically balanced or uneven, examined perceptions about the distribution and rules governing it and studied the role of voter preferences in constituting these institutions.

The Lithuanian ethnicity constitutes 83 percent of the population and the Tswana in Botswana 70 percent. Feeling less threatened by the presence of Russian and other minorities at independence, the Lithuanian ethnic group avoided the initial citizenship laws in Latvia and Estonia that discriminated against Soviet-era immigrants.

Minorities are weakly integrated in the Lithuanian public sector. Even though they constitute 17 percent of the population, they account for an average of only 9.6 percent of parliamentarians in the four parliaments formed since independence. The situation is worse in governmental bodies, such as the cabinet and upper reaches of the civil service. In the 12 governments formed since independence only two individuals of minority background have served as ministers and two as heads of civil service ministries. Minorities are mostly found in sections dealing with finance and bookkeeping and at the lower end of the bureaucracy.

The study highlights a process of assimilation of minorities, who are made to feel "invisible" in order to climb the political and administrative ladder. Despite these imbalances, the preferences of ethnic Lithuanians have fragmented into more than five parties, providing scope for intergroup cooperation. Many of the minority parliamentarians tend to be elected on the platform of Lithuanian-led, left-leaning parties. Minorities, especially Poles who constitute a majority in a few regions, have also organized separately. The fragmentation of the ethnic Lithuanian preferences has allowed for the formation of coalition governments in which minority parties have participated.

Ethnic Latvians dominate Latvia's public sector. Even though minorities constitute 42 percent of the population, they account for only 20 percent of parliamentarians and are unrepresented in the Cabinet, since, unlike in Lithuania, minority parties have not been part of the coalitions that have governed the country since independence. In 10 major ministries surveyed, 92 percent of employees are ethnic Latvians. However, minorities have a higher level of representation in the security ministries, especially the prisons, fire force and police force.

These high levels of inequality are a product of the efforts by Latvian leaders to convert the country to its pre-Soviet status of a unipolar nation state through citizenship laws (Latvians are 75 percent of the citizens and only 58 percent of the population; Russians are 17.9 percent of citizens and 29 percent of residents) and language policies, as well as the relative acceptance by minorities of their non-indigenous status. Latvia's ethnic structure was transformed during Soviet occupation, when large numbers of Slavs migrated into Latvia. A process of intense Russification ensued under communist rule. By 1989, the population share of ethnic Latvians had dropped from 75 percent in 1935 to 52 percent in 1989; and that of the Russian population had risen from less than 12 percent to about 35 percent during the same period. The Russian minority became hegemonic in an ethnically bipolar setting.

These are fragments from the research report prepared for the March 25 - 27 conference in Riga on ethnic inequality and public sector governance organized by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, UNDP Latvia and the Latvian Ministry of Integration.

The Baltic Times, No. 401



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.