‘Engineering’ non-state governance
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‘ .
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.
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.
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).
Discussing empirical realities in the ‘failed state’ of Somalia, Kenneth Menkhaus
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.
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. Stam
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:
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).
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.