Ulysses, the sirens and the art of navigation: Political and technical rationality in Latin America

Javier Santiso Guimaras, Laurence Whitehead

Research output: Working paper


The paper focuses on relations between experts and politicians in Latin America. It is divided into three parts. The first outlines the distinctive features of the political economy of expertise in Latin America. This provides the context to the second part, which focuses on the analysis of cognitive institutions that produce applied economic policy knowledge in the region, and the formation of policy-making epistemic communities. In order to provide a mapping of these institutions we focused on a taxonomy based on State and Non-State institutions, with a special mention also to international organizations and country case studies such as Peru and Uruguay. Mapping the cognitive capacities, strengths and weaknesses is, however, not sufficient in order to understand the way the game is played, i.e. the way policies are constructed, played and interplayed, a dimension to which the third and last part is devoted, focusing here again on case studies such as Chilean institutions like the Superintendencia. The paper has therefore two major aims. First, we contribute to the mapping of the contemporary cognitive institutions that produce applied knowledge on economic policies. This is crucial in countries where political rationality frequently overshadows technical rationality, weak and scarce cognitive institutions being rather the norm than the exception. Secondly, we show that the presence of these cognitive institutions contributes to the democratic governance promoting higher deliberative quality in public space. This is a necessary condition for an adequate articulation between technical rationality and political rationality, although it is not sufficient: high densities of cognitive institutions do not necessarily lead to better policy outcomes. The articulation between both rationalities, technical and political, is crucial in order to get sound outputs. Here the concept of democratic epistemic communities is therefore important to take into account: technocratic cognitive institutions are important but the existence of an articulated epistemic community, spaces of deliberation and arenas of interaction between "experts" and "politicians" are fundamental. If the key institutions for development are those that promote governance accountability and provide information on government actions, authorising citizens to sanction behaviour that limits the capturing of rent, then technopols (or more precisely cognitive institutions, i.e. institutions with technical and policy-oriented capacities embedded in the policy making process) carry out a central role. But above all they need to be adequately articulated with the world of policy making and policy makers as well as rooted in the local political and social context in order to produce adequate and efficient economic policies. It is not bright economic architects that are scarce in the region (i.e. macroeconomist scientists with Ivy League pedigrees) but rather economic engineers, able to implement sound policies, technically articulated but also politically viable.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages77
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2006
Externally publishedYes


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