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Entering the ‘negotiation of rule’

Gemma van der Haar, Bart Weijs | 13 November 2013

The key challenge for the future of international engagement with non-state actors in fragile settings is to enter into debates on the normative assumptions and aspirations of international engagement, on local perspectives on desirable change and, ultimately, on the desirability of international engagement. Are international agencies prepared and equipped to play a meaningful role in these debates? 

As the role of non-state institutions in providing basic services and security in fragile, conflict-affected settings has become more visible, the question arises whether and how international agencies might engage with these institutions. This question was the starting point of a roundtable debate at the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies in Istanbul. The roundtable, entitled ‘Engaging with ‘non-state’ governance: NGOs/donors working with non-state actors in fragile settings’, brought together experts from a range of disciplines and backgrounds (see box). Building on the rich discussion, a number of key points were highlighted that indicate the direction the debate might take from here.

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 BrokerFrauke de Weijer (ECDPM) and Gemma van der Haar (IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States). 

The discussion brought out clearly that when international agencies engage with non-state institutions they are entering a highly complex field in which they can potentially ‘do harm’. As Marjoke Oosterom, from the Institute of Development Studies, said: “Any form of engagement, informing, consulting, collaborating, even ignoring, means intervening in local politics”.

Engagement entails risks not only for the agency itself but, more importantly, for local actors. The local legitimacy of non-state, customary institutions may actually depend on them keeping a distance from international agencies, as  Romain Malejacq from the Radboud University Nijmegen argued for the case of Afghanistan. Complex processes of political change and the negotiation of authority may be crosscut by the interference of international agencies focusing on one amongst multiple institutions. This may have unforeseen consequences for the balance of power and for accountability between authorities and citizens.

International agencies are “tempted to pick and choose” actors that look like us or agree with us, as Olivia Rutazibwa from the University of Portsmouth pointed out. In a similar vein, Morgan Brigg from the Centre for Global Cooperation Research stated that we are “held hostage by our idea of the state“ and have difficulty recognizing “other forms of political community”. Paul Knox Clarke of ALNAP said that, when no suitable institutions are found, there is a tendency “to create organizational forms that reflect what we know”. In his keynote speech opening the conference, David Chandler of the University of Westminster said that this is the inherent paradox – and danger – of the idea that international engagement is about ”finding the organic processes and plussing them up”.

Clearly, the criticism voiced above calls for critical reflection on the justification of international engagement. Why is it so difficult to put non-engagement on the table? Why has the aid community not been able - despite the emphasis on empowerment and the professed intention to ‘help people help themselves’ - to take local processes of change and recovery as a starting point and tailor intervention to local realities rather than global aspirations? Mareike Schomerus from the London School of Economics  rightly questioned why we are still asking the legitimacy question “the wrong way around”, while we should be asking local people what they think about the legitimacy of international agencies?

It is evident that international engagement is not neutral: it works with particular understandings of state, governance and development. One of the key propositions made during the roundtable was not to try and rid the debate of such normative considerations, but to be open and honest about them. In the words of Olivia Rutazibwa, this would make it possible to “create the political space for local actors to agree or disagree with our ideas”.  

The key challenge for the future of international engagement is to enter into such debates: on the normative assumptions and aspirations of international engagement, on local perspectives on desirable change and, ultimately, on the desirability of international engagement. The starting point is that seeking engagement with non-state actors implies entering complex and shifting arenas of rule negotiation. It inserts international agencies into processes of negotiation that take place on the ground, not only between local actors and the agencies themselves, but also between local citizens and different, possibly competing, authorities. Are international agencies prepared and equipped to play a meaningful role in these debates?

We therefore suggest this would require considering the following (see box):

How can agencies play a meaningful role in debates on engagement?

-       Accepting that agencies might have to “flip the question” and take in a “no”, abandoning the ambition to ‘engineer’ the process of change.

-       Working on relations of governance, making clear what kind of local contracts are negotiated between local citizens and their authorities, what kind of accountability mechanisms are created, and whether there is a role for international agencies to support citizens’ negotiation capacity.

-       Engaging with elites, coming to an understanding of how elites matter for change and how they may be or are engaged in assuming public responsibility.

Photo credit main picture: Ferdinand Reus

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About the author

Gemma van der Haar

Dr. Ir. Gemma van der Haar is an assistent professor at the Wageningen University

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Bart Weijs

Bart Weijs is the coordinator of the IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States

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