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Reforming the state from within: public servants and knowledge transfer in post-2008 Ecuador



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Gordon, Ellen 


This thesis examines how public servants have experienced rapid state reform in Ecuador since the country’s 2008 Constitution which signalled unprecedented, radical change for the state. It traces how plans for transforming by educating public servants were delivered through the Institute of Higher National Studies (IAEN), a state university offering postgraduate courses for bureaucrats. Its students are state workers in diverse roles across the country. This entry point serves to characterise the state reform from an everyday perspective with a broad geographical reach, but also from the particular historical positioning of the IAEN within the Ecuadorian state. This research moves beyond government narratives of transformation to excavate what public servants perceive has changed since 2008.

The thesis makes contributions to the field(s) of political geography and anthropology of the state, as well as intervening in debate on state reform in Latin America and beyond. It foregrounds the everyday experience of working in the state, rather than measuring public servants’ accounts and interpretations of the reform against the transformation promised by the government post-2008. It sheds light on the potential challenges to state reform, highlighting how institutions defy state rationality, even when deeply implicated in national development projects. It argues that public servants are co-constructors of state knowledge. However, although they create the state, they also submit to the hierarchies they are implicated in as employees and citizens.

This thesis demonstrates that reform lands unevenly in ways which bring long-standing spatial hierarchies and forms of structural violence, which were directly addressed in the 2008 Constitution, to the surface. It highlights that whilst attempts to change the state-civil society dynamic have penetrated the common sense about working in the state, legacies of colonialism, specific historical geographies of the state, and cynicism regarding the post-2008 reforms present serious challenges. It does this drawing on interviews, observation, and documentary research to outline the major themes that characterise public servants’ experiences of work in the state. This approach pieces together local-level, national, and disaggregated understandings of the state, and the overlapping roles played by public servants.

This thesis is organised in a way that branches out from the institutional entry point to the broader experiences of the state across the five substantive chapters. Chapter 1 provides historical and political context on the state in Ecuador to introduce this research. Chapter 2 discusses the contributions this thesis makes to political geography and anthropology, whilst also linking the context closely to its main concerns. Chapter 3 discusses the methodological approach of the research. Chapter 4 examines the IAEN as an institution, using interviews with staff and analysing government discourse about the central role of the institution in transforming the state from within. Chapter 5 focuses on teaching at the IAEN, comparing syllabi and observations of classroom interactions to chart how the state is characterised at the institute. Chapter 6 draws on interviews with students (who are public servants) to understand how they interpret their engagement with the IAEN, highlighting the importance of their mobility across the state for knowledge transfer. Chapter 7 examines the civil servants accounts of everyday work, and draws on an observation at a public office, to understand the local experiences of working during reform and how this helps us to characterise the state from the ground up. Chapter 8 examines how the context of crisis represents change and continuities to the state since 2008, focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic and a national strike. A concluding chapter summarises the findings of this thesis, outlining its key arguments and contributions.





Radcliffe, Sarah


2008 Constitution, anthropology of the state, Ecuador, political geography, public servants, state


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
This PhD research was fully funded by the ESRC. I received a Knowledge Exchange studentship.