African communities are witnessing a perplexing proliferation of diverse arrangements of mutual security that draw upon old and new solidarities and inventively merge market logic with reciprocal forms of distribution and sharing. The dynamics of such voluntary arrangements and their broader social impacts emerge as increasingly important topics of study. The changing nature of global economies poses challenging questions about the novel relationships between state and market, and the potential of human agency to find alternatives to address growing inequalities. This collection focuses on local institutions of mutual security as alternative – yet also interdependent – forms of distribution that have become particularly relevant in the current era of global financialization and the changing dynamics between private and public social spheres. Various voluntary associations and informal economic networks, financial mutuals and savings/credit groups are becoming central in regulating access to resources and defining patterns of association in African communities. The articles in this themed part-issue explore these social security networks and organizations, concentrating on their ambiguous potential to empower the marginal as well as to contribute to social strife and political conflict. Ethnographic cases from diverse parts of Africa illustrate the impacts of the environments of uncertainty on the emergence of novel forms of association. The contributions suggest that contemporary mutual help arrangements should be seen as being central to the emergence of new social spaces and power configurations in such settings, revealing a broader social dynamic of globalization.
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