Waste at a trash dump in Naples- Image from USAToday
Today, the Guardian has an excellent short article on the public waste crisis in Naples, which has reached such an extreme level that the Italian army was called in to bulldoze the "festering piles of rubbish". Because the city's dumps are full, refuse has just started to pile up over the last few years, leading residents to simply burn refuse in an effort to try to clear clogged sidewalks and alleyways.
In addition to being a major public health and environmental problem, Naples's trash problem represents a massive failure of municipal government. The article points out that organized crime has played a significant role in blocking action by the local government to address the problem:
The problem has been compounded by the city's mafia, the camorra, which is said to make millions of euros from the transport and illegal dumping of waste. It is accused of sabotaging plans for new incinerators.
Anti-mafia investigators say the camorra even processes waste from factories across Italy at cut-price rates.
Camorra-controlled waste disposal - by burial or burning - has poisoned the environment so badly that people in some parts of the Campania region are three times more likely to get liver cancer than in the rest of the country, Italy's National Research Council told Reuters news agency.
Reading this article strongly reminded me of the description of differences in government performance between Northern and Southern Italy in Robert Putnam's Making Democracy Work. In this book, Putnam argues that the reason that government works well in northern Italy but struggles to provide basic services in the South is that Southern Italy lacks the civic networks that are present in the North of the country. The general ark of this article fits that story- local and regional government in Naples are clogged by corruption, and ordinary citizens are unable to engage in effective collective action to overcome these blockages. I'm interested to go back to Putnam's book to see if he explicitly looks at waste removal, or if there are other studies of community and municipal public goods provision in Italy.
Although Making Democracy Work is one of the books used by certain Yale professors to help first year poli sci grad students learn how to tear empirical research apart (see also this excellent critique by Princeton's Carles Boix and UCLA's Dan Posner), things like this Naples article will keep me coming back to it for a long time.