Observations of an American journalist in Azerbaijan, Russia and USA.
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Litter and collective action
Everywhere you turn in Azerbaijan, collective action problems confront you. “Collective action problems” is a term describing situations where behavior most advantageous for individuals produces results that are the worst for the group. The over-fishing of the oceans is a good example. Everyone suffers, but no single individual has an incentive to change his or her behavior. Even it is in the individual self-interest of a fisherman to keep fishing, even while the fishery as a whole is collapsing.
Azerbaijan is not unique in its level of collective action problems. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that many such problems that had been “solved” suddenly needed to be addressed in a new way. The old order – which imposed a solution on these problems – has fallen away. And the new order is unwilling or unable fix the problems.
The latest example came up yesterday as I was strolling with an Azerbaijani friend through a park area. It was quite lovely: woods, a steep mountain side, a view of the mountains on the other side of the river, and a view of years of accumulated garbage left behind by the people using the place for picnics.
My Azerbaijani friend remarked on the scene. He deplored the readiness of people to leave their garbage spread around the scene. But he also noted that there were no trash barrels. So, even if an entire troop of enterprising Boy Scouts came in and scoured the place, picking it absolutely clean of trash, the people still would have no place to throw their picnic debris.
Of course, you might say that the government should provide trash barrels, but this government does not provide for such services that benefit the collective. The government provides services that benefit well-connected individuals, but does not invest in sectors that benefit the general society. So, education and health care, for example, suffer from severe under-funding, while millions are spent on projects such as the museums glorifying certain leaders or Olympic-size athletic facilities.
When it comes down to it, such collective action problems are generally solved by governments. For example, no one individual has the incentive to educate the children of society. As a society, we acknowledge this, and so we pay taxes to fund this effort. No one individual has an incentive to collect the trash at these public places or to provide trash barrels. So, this service should be provided by a government.
But – this government does not. And when the government is not accountable, then it will not step in to solve these collective action problems. The trash problem is striking throughout Azerbaijan – but it is not simply a matter of mentality. No one likes to live around garbage. But because the government is not accountable to the people, it is not forced to respond to ordinary problems such as trash disposal, education, and health care. And the common areas used by ordinary people continue to be fouled by garbage, while the wealthy can build walls around private estates that presumably are cleaned by a private cleaning staff.
On a side note, I did learn a useful phrase that sounds very musical to me: Bura zibilidir. (There’s trash here.)
Included are a photo of trash and a view of the mountain valley, down the hill from the trashed picnic area.