Whose legitimacy? The spectrum of authority

Peace & Security05 Nov 2013Marjoke Oosterom

We need to understand the legitimacy of (non-)state authorities in (post-) conflict settings from the perspective of citizens. This was my point for the recent roundtable at the World Conference on Human Security and Humanitarian Responses in Istanbul. 

The issue of how forms of non-state authority evolve in (post-) conflict settings was discussed by a number of panels. To humanitarian actors, these remain challenging questions: With which non-state authority should we engage and how? And how does engagement affect the legitimacy of the humanitarian agency and of the (non-)state authority itself? The roundtable organized by the IS Academy on Human Security in Fragile States and The Broker (see box 1), looked at this topic in depth. For me, two points stood out:

  • The dichotomy between state and non-state authorities is unhelpful. A decision not to engage with one or any of them will affect local politics.
  • Who decides what is legitimate about state and non-state authorities?

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).

In a (post-) conflict setting, boundaries between state and non-state authorities are blurred. This is why Koen Vlassenroot, of the Conflict Research Group (CRG) at the University of Ghent spoke of local complexities or a ‘war complex’. Here, the state and the spectrum of non-state authorities are networked. State officials play a formal role while simultaneously participating in the informal networks that constitute a war economy, formed by businessmen, military and politicians. Elites and their families occupy positions across the divide. In the middle of all this, citizens navigate both state and non-state authorities for their security and access to livelihoods and services. Be they armed militias, customary leaders, war lords, or simply individuals in a village who have commanded the respect of their community; citizens develop relationships with them.

Are we asking the right question?

I wondered whether we are asking the right question concerning legitimacy. Should we start by asking how ‘we’ (the highly diverse community of aid actors, donors, and researchers) are to work with ‘them’ (the spectrum of forms of authority), or should we start by asking how citizens at the local level see, respond to and engage with non-state authorities ? Concerning interventions, the question then becomes: how does engagement with any of these authorities affect citizen perceptions of state legitimacy and the legitimacy of others (see the youtubeclip below)?

My point here is that a local population living in a war complex is not a passive receiver of authority, be it state or non-state; just like citizens who are targeted by humanitarian actors are not passive receivers of relief. The relationships between citizens and (non-state) authority can be seen as a sort of social contract, as long as we recognize that it not a stable one. Nor is it necessarily a ‘good’ or accountable one, since ‘collaboration’ with armed non-state actors is often coerced. But in this relationship, citizens have agency – some negotiation capacity and ways of working with or around these actors to sustain a life. Sometimes they are even able to push back.

Gemma van der Haar, of Wageningen University, correctly pointed out that, within a population, different groups or people may have varying opinions on what legitimacy is. I would like to add that citizens are not uncritical of the legitimacy of such actors. In fact, it is not often the case that non-state authorities are either legitimate or not. People are willing to put up with a level of coercion and control if a certain level of security is ensured and/or certain services are provided. This suggests that certain actions and behaviours are perceived as legitimate, while others are not.

Whose legitimacy?

So, before ‘we’ do anything with non-state actors (whether it is to inform them, consult them, gain access through them, or actively involve them in implementation) we need to:

  1. understand local power dynamics, i.e. do a power analysis, and
  2. understand the relationships between a citizenry and those actors.

This point was also raised during the roundtable by Mareike Schomerus, of the London School of Economics: ‘We have to turn the question of legitimacy on its head!’ Then we will be better positioned to judge how any of ‘our’ actions intervenes in local politics.

There is more to come. Over the next two months, I will write about these issues from South Sudan and Zimbabwe, where I work on the project ‘Power, Violence, Citizenship and Agency’. Academics and practitioners will continue the debate online on The Broker. See also the Conciliation Resources site, where they are about to start talking about local civil society and community approaches to engaging non-state armed actors.

This blog post was published earlier on the IDS blog