‘Engineering’ non-state governance – engaging in fragile settings

Peace & Security01 Nov 2013Bart Weijs, Gemma van der Haar

One of the key insights from policy discourses on fragile states is that these states can contain a variety of non-state forms of public authority. It has been convincingly argued that in the absence of functioning states, societies are not ‘ungoverned’, but rely on traditional mechanisms, as well as on community-based arrangements, armed actors or opposition groups, humanitarian or development agencies and, in some cases, the private sector. This insight has resonated widely and has sparked an interest in building on non-state institutions for reconstruction and development.

Non-state institutions in fragile settings: Why are they on the agenda?

The issue of non-state institutions has been picked up in academic work examining how societies under conditions of crisis ‘work’, but also by the humanitarian and development communities looking beyond the assumed fragility of ‘fragile states’ to what may be functioning arrangements in society. This opens up new avenues for thinking about ways to foster human security and development in ‘fragile’ settings, in other words, to make societies in crisis ‘work better’. As this motivates NGOs and donors to look into the possibilities of working with or supporting non-state institutions, it also confronts them with some key questions that we are only just beginning to answer. What forms can this engagement take? What may realistically be expected of it? What are the main potential pitfalls and how can engagement be made more effective? There are no readily available answers to these questions. Frauke de Weijer outlines this in her article, ‘Engaging 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. 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, WUR, Sociology of Development and Change).

This project builds on earlier research within the IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States, a collaborative research programme of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wageningen University and five major Dutch NGOs. Research projects with Dutch agencies Oxfam Novib and Cordaid examined how people resort to a variety of institutional arrangements, involving both state and non-state institutions, in order to shape human security on the ground. This research confirmed the importance of non-state institutions, but also revealed that our understanding of how non-state institutions work, the interactions between different state and non-state institutions in a setting of institutional multiplicity, and the ways the legitimacy of such forms of institutionality is constructed, is still limited. Furthermore, it pointed to a critical knowledge gap where forms of engagement with non-state governance are concerned; namely, if we want to ‘work with what is there’, how do we do that? These were the starting points for the roundtable discussion.

There are two main reasons why non-state institutions and forms of public authority have gained prominence in the debate on fragile states, post-conflict reconstruction and human security.

  1. These institutions are an empirically observed reality that was, until recently, obscured by a discourse on the fragility and dysfunctionality of the central state that dominated the debate on fragile states.
  2. They offer potential avenues for intervention: pursuing human security, post-conflict reconstruction and state-building can now possibly be reached through other public actors than the state.

In critique of the notion of fragile states, alternative conceptualizations of governance and order have been put forward that have been of key importance to the enhanced visibility of non-state governance. We highlight just a few here (see box 1).

Box 2. Forms of institutional multiplicity

Discussing empirical realities in the ‘failed state’ of Somalia, Kenneth Menkhaus1 coined the idea of ‘governance without government’, highlighting how a central state is not a prerequisite for order and governance. This drives home the point that governance is in essence a societal capacity which may rely on formalized, centralized state institutions but does not need to rely on them. The concept of hybrid political orders developed by Boege2  emphasizes how states rely on societal, non-state institutions to carry out governance functions. They argue that, in contexts of historical or conflict-related state weakness, states rely heavily on these non-state, mostly customary institutions to create order and deliver basic services. This conceptualization was developed on the basis of observed realities in the Pacific region, where state and customary governance have become intertwined. A related concept is that of institutional multiplicity, coined by the Crisis States Research Centre3 and adopted in the framework of the IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States.4 The concept suggests that a multiplicity of governance institutions may be found in contexts of state fragility, including customary authorities, but also armed groups, aid agencies, churches, etc. Together, these form a field of multiple and partly overlapping governance ‘offers’ or governance ‘claims’ which may compete and interact in a variety of ways.5 

These conceptualizations help us understand ‘what is there’ in fragile states in terms of governance. As such, they have contributed to a better understanding of how social life functions under conditions of crisis.6 As a result, this academic emphasis on non-state governance ties in with the debate on post-conflict recovery7 and development, where centre-out, state-centred approaches have come under criticism.8 In this light, non-state institutions can be seen as offering potential avenues for reconstruction, peace-building and post-conflict development beyond ‘fixing’ the fragile state. Non-state institutions can be seen as cornerstones for pivotal functions, such as strengthening security and order9, the provision of basic services10, and the organization of local administration. This does not necessarily mean abandoning the traditional state-building objective, but suggests that state-building can be ‘hybrid’, meaning relying partly on non-state institutions.

Non-state institutions in fragile settings: What do we know?

Many case studies underline the importance of non-state institutions in people’s everyday lives. In the cases studied in the framework of the IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States, on Afghanistan, Somaliland and Haiti, we identified vibrant non-state institutions which local respondents experienced as vital for issues, such as the administration of justice, provision of basic services like water, or disaster response. These institutions included customary authorities, community-level committees, and aid agencies, and their legitimacy relied strongly on local trust and acknowledgement (see e.g. Stam11 and van der Haar.12 Respondents contrasted ‘home-grown’ institutions with the state, which they experienced as distant, invisible, inept or corrupt.

However, our case study and the studies of others also suggest that it can be highly complex to understand the workings and reach of non-state governance. We briefly indicate why this is so:

Form does not equal function: Non-state institutions cannot be judged on the basis of their form alone, or put differently: the effective capacity and reach, the legitimacy and responsiveness of specific forms of authority or governance arrangements cannot be derived from their form. Traditional or customary institutions are not legitimate by definition, nor is governance by armed groups necessarily illegitimate. It is necessary to empirically study which institutions people actually turn to in order to address specific problems and with what results. We can then fill in that picture, as we did to some degree in the Afghanistan and Somaliland case studies, where we studied what types of institutions people addressed to solve problems relating to water governance, extreme drought and the administration of justice.

Factoring in change: Forms of public authority that derive their weight from tradition tend to be more subject to transformation than the term ‘traditional’ implies. Their local legitimacy seems to derive less from tradition as such, but more from the sense of familiarity and predictability experienced by the local population, and by the possibilities of the population to hold leaders to account. The importance of local accountability was expressed by local respondents in both our case studies. In the Afghanistan case study, the decline of the traditional Mirab institution for water distribution was in part related to its loss of local legitimacy. Legitimacy will usually derive from a combination of origin (being acquainted), performance (is governance ‘good enough’ by local standards), and ideology (serving a just cause). Legitimacy and effectiveness are not a given and not static; they are constantly being produced against the backdrop of broader political and economic changes, or critical events such as conflict or disaster. Alongside traditional institutions, we see the bottom-up emergence of community-level arrangements in the form of committees, councils or ‘groups’, either spontaneously or at the initiative of humanitarian or development agencies.

Factoring in institutional multiplicity: Institutions do not develop in isolation. In settings of institutional multiplicity, different institutions interact and shape each other in multiple ways. This can happen indirectly, as norms are carried over from one domain to the other, or directly, as modes of collaboration and rules of engagement are established. It is also necessary to factor in the state. Mostly, home-grown institutions function in a context in which the state is present in some way, as a reference or as a resource for addressing crisis situations. Non-state institutions change in form, function and capacity, as changing scenarios of state formation and disintegration unfold.

Factoring in diversity: The question ‘what works’ may yield a variety of answers, depending on who is asked and in relation to what specific problem. A better question would be: What works for whom, when and where? This would allow for detecting how the legitimacy and effectiveness of different types of institutions is shaped by differences in power, gender, identity and economic interests. It would also allow a more differentiated picture on where governance is robust and where gaps occur and needs are unmet.

Engaging with non-state institutions: What are the complexities?

The complexity of engaging with non-state institutions derives from two core factors. One factor is the very complexity of non-state governance and institutional change, discussed above. The second source of complexity derives from the directionality of engagement, that is, the purposes that drive it. Agencies interested in working with non-state institutions want to contribute to specific goals related to human security, peace-building or reconstruction. The heterogeneity in form, function, capacity and legitimacy of non-state institutions – in space, time and scale – makes it very hard for agencies to know which institutions they could work with and what they might expect from their engagement. This is further complicated by the dynamic within the landscape of institutional multiplicity where institutions react to each other. These varying and changing local scenarios make it hard to predict the outcome of interventions. A traditional institution that is vital in one context may be marginal in another, and engagement may influence the relative importance of different institutions (for example, in Chiapas, Mexico, NGO support for the autonomous Zapatista local governments was crucial to their survival).

An additional complexity relates to the purposes of engagement with non-state actors. This engagement will often be mostly instrumental; that is, a means to reach broader goals of human security, development or even citizenship. But even when couched in a language of strengthening local capacity, engaging with non-state institutions is a form of institutional engineering. It will tend to effect institutions’ material and symbolic resources, relative legitimacy, accountability arrangements, as well as the linkages and interaction with other institutions. Engaging with non-state institutions therefore means becoming implicated in processes of institutional change in a context of institutional multiplicity.

Engagement is never neutral. It brings agencies’ judgements about what is good governance, or good enough governance, into the local scene. To be sure, local populations in fragile settings also assess the institutions and public authorities ‘on offer’. But the engagement of aid agencies or donors confronts non-state institutions with a frame of reference that derives from global rather than local notions of order, justice and wellbeing. In practice, this will tend to result in additional demands placed on non-state institutions, which may or may not be easily reconcilable with local demands. Local actors may reject or, on the contrary, employ the outsiders’ criteria (e.g . women’s rights or minority rights) to forge change. Finally, engagement will bring non-state institutions into a regime of monitoring and supervision, which may also have undesirable affects (e.g. negatively affecting the local legitimacy).

Questions for engaging with non-state institutions

As agencies seek to work with or support non-state institutions in fragile settings, they want to know which institutions are strong and legitimate enough and can help them reach their ultimate objectives. They want to know what forms of engagement are appropriate to avoid unintended, negative effects. Finally, they want to know what longer term effects their engagement would have on, for example, overall state-building efforts. Each of these questions points to considerable dilemmas (see the youtube clip where Gemma van der Haar elaborates on a dilemma). Agencies fear the risk of supporting local despotism, of fostering inequality and exclusion, or of crowding out the emerging state. These are real dilemmas to which there are no ready answers. Against this background, this debate aims to bring out the concerns and reflections, and the emerging experiences and insights of experts and agencies active in this field, to start building some of the answers from there.


  1. Menkhaus, K. (2006) Governance without government in Somalia: spoilers, state-building and the politics of coping, International Security 31 (3): 74-106.
  2. Boege, V. , A. Brown and K. Clements (2009) Hybrid political orders, not fragile states, Peace Review 21(1): 13-21
  3. Di John, J. (2008) Conceptualising the causes and consequences of failed states: a critical review of the literature. Working paper # 25, London: Crisis States Research Centre
  4. Christoplos, I. and D. Hilhorst (2009) Human security and capacity in fragile states: A scoping paper, Disaster Studies Occasional Paper 01
  5. Van der Haar, G. and M. Heijke (2013) Conflict, governance and institutional multiplicity: Parallel governance in Kosovoand Chiapas, Mexico,in Hilhorst (ed) Disaster, Conflict and Society in Crises: Everyday politics of crisis response. London: Taylor & Francis.
  6. Hilhorst (ed) (2013) Disaster, Conflict and Society in Crises: Everyday politics of crisis response. London: Taylor & Francis.
  7. Barakat, S. and S.A. Zyck (2009) The Evolution of Post-conflict Recovery, Third World Quarterly 30(6): 1069-1086
  8. Hilhorst, D., I. Christoplos and G. van der Haar (2010) Reconstruction ‘From Below’: a new magic bullet or shooting from the hip?, Third World Quarterly, 31 (7): 1107-1124
  9. Baker, B. & Scheye, E. (2007) Multi-layered justice and security delivery in post-conflict and fragile states. Conflict, Security & Development, 7 (4): 503–528
  10. Noor, M., N. Douma, G. van der Haar, D. Hilhorst, I. van der Molen and N. Stel (2010) Multi-Stakeholder Processes, Service Delivery and State Institutions. Theoretical framework & Methodologies Network for Peace, Security and Development, the Netherlands, working paper
  11. Stam, T., B. Weijs and G. van der Haar (2013) People shaping their own human security in Haiti, IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States Research Brief #9
  12. Van der Haar (2013) State and non-state institutions in conflict-affected societies: Who do people turn to for human security?,IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States Occasional Paper 06