A context of multiple institutions – Engaging in fragile settings

Peace & Security04 Nov 2013Frauke de Weijer

Fragile states are characterized by a variety of institutional arrangements that exist alongside each other. This institutional multiplicity is a complex phenomenon, but not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’. For donors and development organizations, it creates particular challenges when they are trying to match their approach to the local complexities of fragile states. Without sufficient understanding, their engagement can have unexpected outcomes.

In many fragile settings, and particularly in rural areas, the formal state is relatively absent. Non-state institutions may establish connections with formal state authorities, which may boost or undermine their authority and legitimacy. Especially in conflict or post-conflict settings, customary or non-state institutions may become associated with militias to protect their communities, as a strategy for survival or to strengthen their bargaining power in the wider political system. Such alliances shift the balance in the relationship between moral legitimacy and coercive power. And all of these interactions and dynamics are continuously adapting and responding to changing realities. Within these hybrid situations, institutional multiplicity emerges.

This article aims to highlight some of the key issues that require a deeper understanding when trying to engage with non-state actors in fragile settings (see box 1). Also, it presents some of the dilemmas for utilizing this understanding so as to arrive at more thoughtful policies and strategies for engaging in fragile settings. It ends with some practical ideas on how to engage in a context of institutional multiplicity.

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

This article was presented at the roundtable session at the World Conference of Humanitarian Studies in Istanbul (24-27 October 2013), 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).

Institutional multiplicity

In fragile settings, people live more by written and unwritten codes of behaviour, referred to as ‘organized patterns of behaviour’, or the ‘rules of the game’. These are the different ways in which people organize themselves to achieve certain ends. More narrowly defined, they can be seen as the formal and informal organizations and systems that govern societies.

The institutions we find in these settings range from formal state structures or more strongly liberal democratic examples found in most industrialized countries, to informal, non-codified customary arrangements – and a lot in between. The term ‘institutional multiplicity’, coined by the London School of Economics (LSE) Crisis States Research Centre, is a good descriptor of this situation. The importance of informal institutions, especially in fragile states, is now well recognized, but a deeper understanding of the forms this institutional multiplicity can take and what implications it may have for policies and approaches for peacebuilding, statebuilding and attaining resilient and prosperous societies, is not yet well understood.

Three concepts of multiplicity

The concept of institutional multiplicity can be understood in various ways, often in terms of one institutional system trying to displace the others.

1) The LSE Crisis States Research Centre conceptualizes the different institutional systems as rival to each other, and the task of statebuilding is seen as one which consolidates these institutional rule systems into one. This means that the formal state regime will gradually take over from the informal ones. This way of thinking underpins most current statebuilding approaches, where fragile states are seen as ‘lacking something’. In this conceptualization, the goal is to arrive at effective formal institutions, the form and function of which are well known. The implication from this is that governance institutions that do not conform to this image should be displaced.

2) Other conceptualizations view customary institutions as ‘governance assets’ that serve as an alternative to the state, and can perhaps be built upon. In this view, a state could be built from the bottom up, and these informal institutions can gradually take on the role of formal institutions.

Both of these ways of looking at institutional multiplicity, but the first in particular, tend to treat the different institutional systems as ‘rivaling’ or ‘in competition with’ each other, and development or peacebuilding as a process of one taking control over the others. However, in real life, the relationship between these various regimes is much more complex. The state may rely on a traditional chief to administer a particular area, for instance. Or a candidate parliamentarian may use his role as a tribal or religious leader to gain votes.

3) A third conceptualization then, based on the notion of hybrid political orders, takes more account of the connections and interactions between the different institutional regimes, and how legitimacy and accountability are continuously renegotiated between these various regimes. The – continuously changing – outcome of this negotiation determines the ability of the society to fulfil certain functions. Seen in this light, the overall functionality of the society as a whole largely depends on this negotiated outcome.

As stated above, institutional multiplicity is often couched in terms of competition between these rule systems. However, these interactions need not be competitive. Especially at local level, there is strong collaboration between the different institutions and, through making use of each other’s sources of power, knowledge and legitimacy, things get done. There are many examples of government officials drawing on the legitimizing power of a community leader to carry out a government programme. For example, in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Public Health used both tribal and Taliban leaders to authorize and mobilize a vaccination campaign. Such collaboration improved the functional performance of the system as a whole. Collaboration can also be negative however; for instance, traditional leaders may use their connections with state authorities to expropriate common property. Again in Afghanistan, nomadic leaders use their positions as parliamentarians to advocate for land for their respective tribal populations and then take the land for themselves.1

The simultaneous presence of different institutional regimes can lead to ‘forum shopping’, a term used to describe the phenomenon of people turning to the institution that they feel is best able to meet their needs. This behaviour is often perceived as negative, as it may lead to confusion, inconsistency and abuse. However, in some cases it can also serve as a source of resilience; it provides a society with something to fall back upon when formal institutions fail or become too deeply corrupted. In sum, institutional multiplicity is a complex phenomenon that describes a reality, but is not necessarily either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Implications for external engagement

Engaging with informal institutions will change the local dynamics and bargaining power of institutional multiplicity. Therefore, a number of key elements need to be taken into account while intervening in particular situations. These are governance dimensions (accountability, inclusiveness and legitimacy), functional effectiveness (such as solving conflict or managing water resources), and longer-term processes of statebuilding.

Any form of external engagement should thus be assessed in terms of its short-term versus long-term effects, and local versus national effects.

There is a lack of real consensus on theories of change about transitions in governance. Coupled with the fluidity and constant renegotiation of power, legitimacy and authority between the different institutional regimes, however, it would be hard to argue that the process of transitions in governance is well understood. Given the inherent unpredictability and uncertainty about long-term outcomes, what can then serve as a compass for intervention? How should ‘do no harm’ be interpreted when engaging in contexts of institutional multiplicity? These are all daunting questions, and it may be tempting to just stay away from them completely. Yet, such a reflex ignores the reality that the current ways of engaging already affect these institutional dynamics.

Some strategic dilemmas

It is well known that the risks of intervention are higher in fragile situations than in general development contexts (see for example the statement by Winnie Awirimu, Wageningen University, above). Alternatively, the risks of non-intervention are also higher, because of the risk of escalation and a downward spiral into conflict or state collapse.

There are prospects and dangers associated with engaging in a situation of institutional multiplicity (see box 2). In deciding on the best approach, the concept of ‘do no harm’ should therefore take precedence. This concept refers to the principle of being conscious of – and minimizing – the potential harmful impact of engagement.

Because of the dangers, there is an argument for not meddling in these institutional dynamics, since they cannot be fully understood and engagement is likely to lead to adverse consequences. Therefore, it is wise to engage only with the formal state actors, as we understand this clear, formal framework with clearly established boundaries.

The counter argument however, is that all forms of engagement with domestic actors, formal or informal, state or non-state, are inherently political and change the playing field.

Considering the specific emphasis of the debate to which this article serves as a background, the box below presents some of the opportunities for and dangers of engaging with non-state actors. A similar box could be drawn up for engaging with state actors.

Box 2 Possible opportunities for and dangers of engaging with non-state actors

The opportunities for engaging with non-state actors include the following:

– Formal institutions are often not physically present in the real life dynamics of a community, or they exist in a diluted and negotiated form. Engaging with actors who are present is likely to be more effective in enhancing accountability and functional governance performance than working through formal institutions that may only exist on paper.

– The ‘actually lived’ systems of accountability are often heavily dependent on non-state institutions and their relationships with state institutions, citizens and each other. Localized rules of the game tend to explain more of people’s behaviour than formal rules and laws. As such, the opportunities for enhancing accountability may be higher when engaging with non-state actors.

– Often, a mode of working has been established by the system of actors on the ground – including state and non-state institutions – that is relatively effective in performing particular functions, such as dispute resolution, natural resource management, collective asset management, and so forth. Working with these actors is likely to be more effective than working outside them or creating parallel systems.

The dangers of engaging with non-state actors include the following:

Engaging with non-state actors can erode their accountability to their own constituency as they become more focused on outward accountability.

– Not fully understanding the values and shifting alliances of non-state actors can mean unknowingly endorsing values that go counter to one’s own. On the other side of the coin, specifically endorsing non-state institutions based on particular values – and not others – can pit institutional regimes against each other. This can risk turning collaboration – or a workable status quo – into competition.

Engaging with certain non-state actors can increase their relative influence and bargaining power, thereby reducing the influence of other non-state actors, including those with a potential positive impact on social change. It can also increase their relative influence vis-à-vis state actors, thereby potentially undermining the buildup of a stronger state. These effects are difficult to predict.

Engaging with state actors, non-state actors, or both? And how?

The starting point must always be an initial mapping of the institutional dynamics to deepen understanding of trends and dynamics, including weighing opportunities and risks. After careful consideration of the risks and opportunities, potential leverage points for action and finding ways to implement them can be identified. This then needs to be coupled with continuous vigilance of the effects of one’s actions on the institutional dynamics testing one’s assumptions.

Considering the inherent knowability of the medium- and long-term effects of influencing the relative balance in the institutional regimes, it may not be possible to immediately understand the consequences of one’s actions. However, by being explicit about the theory of change underpinning the engagement, it is possible to create opportunities to test this. For example, by discussing the theory of change with a broad range of actors from the various institutional regimes at an early stage, by continually testing one’s assumptions during the engagement, and by monitoring the changes in the outcomes of the institutional bargaining thereafter.


  1. Report by the Afghan Analysts Network, forthcoming.