How schools become recognized by the state: the routinized exercise of symbolic power

How do schools become recognized by the state? Let us look at a particular example from a primary school located in a village south of Hargeisa. The school was built in the colonial period but closed during the civil war in the late 1980s. In 1997, it was re-opened by two teachers living in the village. The two teachers mobilized some of the villagers to teach in the school. The reopening of the school was welcomed in the village and parents soon began sending their children to the school. The staff did not receive salaries until 2001 when a diaspora group began supporting the school.59 The group was formed in the Somali diaspora in London, UK with the purpose of supporting family members with the costs of funerals, marriages, and other such social events. An office was set up in Hargeisa to engage in other activities, such as supporting the village hospital and building a road connecting the village with Hargeisa. A current group member explains how connections to other diaspora members were created:

[O]ne of the other members knew some people living in Norway that are also from [our town] and we contacted them and asked. ‘Don’t you want to help us to do something in our old town?’ […] Later we made contact with diasporas in different countries: in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, even Australia, and Japan. They are now also paying. We give US$20 each per month. Ten of these go to the road we want to make and ten goes to school rehabilitation.60


The chairman of the diaspora group did not disclose the total amount that the organization receives monthly, but he did mention that they have approximately 300 paying members from across the world.61 However, it became increasingly difficult to finance the school’s running costs. Teacher salaries were paid late, and some teachers did not receive a salary at all. In light of these financial problems, the current chairman of the group arranged a meeting with government officials at a hotel in Hargeisa in 2015. During the meeting, it was agreed that the teachers’ salaries and other running costs would come under the responsibility of the MoEHE.62 The school would in return be recognized as a government school and officially become part of the state’s infrastructure. Moreover, the MoEHE promised to provide other materials like a fence to keep away hyenas. Representatives from the ministry visited the school shortly after the hotel meeting and placed the cornerstone for the fence.

The example of this school provides additional evidence to the issues demonstrated in the historical section: practices of organizing education delivery are initiated by non-state, local, and private actors, after which the state becomes involved. In other words, and linking back to the theoretical discussion, the state constitutes an ‘effect’ of practices in which a variety of actors are engaged.

Without being very directly involved in the organization of primary education in this particular school, the state administration extended its administrative reach. The organization of the education sector at the local level, through the organization and functioning of the school, further strengthened the ‘idea’ of the state and its symbolic power. Loveman calls this type of administrative extension ‘co-optation’.63 She compares co-optation to a cooperative venture with the following example: ‘a church-run poorhouse or orphanage could be made a state institution with no change in staff and minor, if any, change in administrative practice’.64 The government’s co-optation of the diaspora/community constructed school happened along similar lines, with limited effort and with no change in the daily management of the school, which continues with the same administration and staff. The school’s registration as a state school at the ministry brought only a few practical changes: an inspector from the ministry of education occasionally visits the school, some of the teachers are now on the government payroll, and the school is more likely to receive support from international donors.

More generally, the diaspora/community-supported school is an illustration of broader dynamics in the state recognition of schools. As a legal advisor from the ministry of education explained: ‘[t]he [diaspora/community] group will pay teachers [and] hire teachers. Then they contact the government and ask how [the ministry] can contribute. [For example,] maybe the government can pay 50% of the teachers’ salaries’.65 While there are no written policies on how the state administration recognizes ‘new’ schools and while this is decided on a case-by-case basis, a basic unwritten rule is that the state administration only recognizes and supports a school when they are already up and running. As a member of the diaspora/community group puts it: ‘unless you start something – you don’t get anything’.66 According to a staff member of the MoEHE, the community has to show that:

they have teachers [and] that there are enough students. Often there is some initial teaching first and then they come and ask for help. We have limited resources so we need to be sure that the school will be used and doesn’t close down soon after it has opened.67

This process of co-optation by the state can be seen as a mode of ‘primitive accumulation of symbolic power’.68 These practices have been routinized and naturalized into understandings of ‘how things are done’, which are generally accepted by the actors involved. This process involves clear advantages for the state: by involving non-state actors, it extends its reach and builds its symbolic power. In this example, the school was also promised a range of things by the state, which did not materialize. The fence, for example, was never constructed. Moreover, the diaspora group continues to finance teacher salaries, which MoEHE only partly covers.

This situation is not an exception: the state frequently fails to live up to its promises, illustrating that the state’s symbolic power is not only based on financial resources. Nor is the symbolic power of the state only the result of the state enforcing its rules. Instead, nonstate actors also invoke the state themselves, since relying on the state still has a number of advantages in ‘getting the job done’. First, the state is productive in ‘put[ting] together the small pieces to make it work’ as the headteacher from the village school expresses it.69 Though the state administration does not fully cover school expenses, it is helpful in covering some of the running costs, though this is minimal. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, the state framework becomes productive for non-state actors in gaining access to particular external resources. In the words of the chairman from the diaspora/community group: ‘NGOs only support[us] when[the] government accepts [the school],so[we]want acknowledgment from the ministry.’70 In other words, being part of the state infrastructure provides access to international donors and NGOs. Donors and NGOs do not support school projects without the authorization from the state administration, or any other development project for that matter.71 Hence, the symbolic power of the state is also based on its position as a gatekeeper, through which other actors can connect and operate.

In sum, this case has shown two dynamics. On the one hand, non-state actors are central in providing public services. The diaspora, in collaboration with local actors, ensures that the school functions, including after the state reneged on its promises. This further illustrates that the distinction between state and non-state is not very clear-cut in the daily practices of delivering public education and how both statehood and public services are co-produced by state and non-state actors. On the other hand, these nonstate actors continue to invoke the state and look for state registration, as it involves a range of advantages. It, therefore, shows how the state boundary is the outcome of interactions between schools and the state and is actively produced and maintained by the actors involved. In this case, the village school actively looked for state registration and refers to the state when necessary.

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