Entering the ‘negotiation of rule’
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.
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).
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”.
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
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):
– 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
– Engaging with