Building on whose values?

Karlijn Muiderman, Alies Rijper | 01 November 2013

“We need to go back to a more fundamental question: should we be there in the first place?” This rather provocative point, raised by Olivia Umurerwa Rutazibwa (University of Portsmouth), proved central to a round table debate on engaging with non-state actors in fragile settings. The aim of the discussion was to move one step beyond simply describing the status quo. Rather, it focused on gaining an insight into how, if at all, NGOs and donors might engage with non-state actors.

The roundtable was organized by The Broker and the IS Academy Human Security and Fragile States at the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies in Istanbul from 24 to 27 October 2013 (see box). Research has made it clear that our understanding of how non-state institutions in fragile states work is still limited. There is a particular lack of knowledge on the level at which different state and non-state institutions interact dynamically, and on how legitimacy is constructed. This critical knowledge gap may undermine forms of engagement with non-state governance: if we want to ‘work with what is there’, how are we to do that? This was the background against which the round table discussion was held.

Olivia Rutazibwa was reacting to an earlier comment about the legitimacy of non-state actors to perform their functions. According to Mareike Schomerus (LSE), the legitimacy question should be turned on its head: “Local people should actually question international agencies on their legitimacy, and we should listen to the voices of the poor.”

Box 1. The Broker and the IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States

The roundtable session at the World Conference of Humanitarian Studies in Istanbul (24-27 October 2013) was organized by The Broker and the IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States. It involved key stakeholders and leading thinkers on the issue of how to engage with non-state governance and institutional multiplicity in ‘fragile’ settings. In preparation for the roundtable, three articles were published, by The Broker, Frauke de Weijer (ECDPM) and Gemma van der Haar (IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States). 

Schomerus raised one of the central questions of the debate: “Why is it so difficult for representatives of international agencies to make this shift?” According to Rutazibwa, however, the problem is the assumption in policy and practice that we are going to be involved anyway. The idea of not intervening is often not even on the table, nor is the question of the legitimacy of the intervening agencies. These comments on legitimacy raise questions about whether external donors and organizations are doing what local communities need. 

In practice, when international agencies intervene, they are concerned with developing a particular kind of state based on liberal values and they struggle to recognize other forms of political community. Without this underlying idea interventions would look very chaotic, because external agencies often do not know enough about the political distribution of power in the places in which they intervene. This again brought the discussion back to the question of whether we should intervene in the first place. There was real concern that intervening without proper understanding of existing socio-political structures may do more harm than good.

But how can non-state actors be distinguished from state actors? Koen Vlassenroot (Conflict Research Group, UGhent) underlined that it is often very hard, and not always that useful, to make this distinction. In reality, many state actors act like non-state actors, while many non-state actors refer to statehood (watch his statement on youtube below). Because this local complexity is misinterpreted, engaging with non-state actors without involving the state runs the risk of achieving the opposite, undermining or further marginalizing the state, and possibly allowing non-state actors to become dominant. In Eastern Congo, for example, there is a real risk of non-state actors – in this case militias – overpowering the state, with unpredictable consequences for security. Moreover, there is tension between what interventions aim to achieve – based on normative  assumptions about a certain type of political system – and local realities,  which are driven by different dynamics. It is important to realize that intervening agencies are themselves part of these local complexities. This relates to what Frauke de Weijer wrote in her article on local complexities in fragile settings.

Intervening in local politics

Discussions on fragile states often assume that the state is largely absent in certain areas, leaving a gap for non-state actors to fill. However, in many fragile settings the state is very much engaged, it is just not the kind of state that we would like to see. This remark refers back to our 'obsession' with liberal state values, as a member of the audience provocatively put it. An example from Somaliland showed the extent to which state-building is a non-linear process. After the collapse of the state of Somaliland, people did not want to be ruled by the state again and allowed it to grow only as much as they deemed fit. The international community has also avoided excessively strong involvement of the state, working mostly with civil society. Recently however, people have gradually started to realize that it is important to strengthen the state, and that the state should legitimize and register non-state actors.

The bottom line is that engagement always means intervening in local politics, and that intervening actors become part of local reality. It is clear that intervening agencies often know far too little about local dynamics and the possible results of their engagement. Working in conflict settings adds another layer to local complexity, and the deepening of interventions due to the human security agenda may further increase the risks of doing harm. Before engagement, it is crucial to be clear about objectives, to have a thorough understanding of  local complexities and to understand that intervening actors are becoming part of that complexity – and what this means for the long-term goals of the interventions. 

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About the author

Karlijn Muiderman

Former knowledge broker and coordinator of Sahel Watch and the Migration Trail

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Alies Rijper

Alies Rijper is project editor human security at The Broker.

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