When the State Minds the Gap
The Politics of Social Subnational Inequality in Latin America
In many countries around the world the chances of being poor, illiterate, or sick are strongly determined by one’s place of residence within the country. Living in one subnational unit versus another can be just as -or even more- important than race, gender, or class as a determinant of differential access to opportunities and wellbeing. But the subnational dimension of inequality receives scarce scholarly attention, and when it does, it is measured inappropriately, it is overly focused on economic variables such as growth, income, and consumption, and its political implications are often overlooked.
I address these gaps by asking why some countries are more successful than others at reducing within-country unevenness in education and health. I argue that territorial equalization is produced by autonomous technocrats, working in contexts in which subnational political elites are weakened, and economic resources have been made more readily available. Four mechanisms link technocratic autonomy with subnational inequality reduction: a) taming corruption and clientelism; b) technocratic allocation of resources; c) controlled decentralisation; and d) policy adaptability. The particular combination of mechanisms for subnational inequality reduction depends on whether the country´s subnational elites have historically been weak or strong.
I develop the argument through a multi-method comparison of two social policy sectors –health and education—in two Latin American countries –Colombia and Peru--. Several contributions derive from this study. First, it shows that decentralization policies might be detrimental for subnational inequality reduction. Instead, policies that give autonomy to subnational authorities in some aspects but keep tight control in other aspects are more conducive to territorial equalization. Second, it demonstrates that the territorial implementation of social policies should not be taken for granted, and documents available pathways to reach out the welfare state. Third, it shows that it is possible for state actors to build the state and increase its infrastructural capacity in the short term, even in contexts riddled with state weakness.