Why ‘going with the grain’ is harder for donors than is often appreciated

This is a talk I gave at the New Perspectives on Conflict and Security Second Annual Conference on ‘Civil War and the State-building Challenge‘, held at the University of Birmingham on the 17th and 18th September 2012, sponsored by the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation & Security (ICCS). My talk was in the closing roundtable on ‘Practitioner Perspectives: Government, Military and Civil Society’, and I was joined by Dr Andrew Rathmell (Coffey International Development); Steven Jermy (Royal Navy – retired); Richard Jermy (UK Government’s Stabilisation Unit and Ministry of Defence); and James Fennell (theIDLgroup). 

Many thanks to Ted for inviting me to speak on this panel. I find myself humbled, as I am not really a practitioner, and I’m in very impressive company here today. I reckon I’m probably the only person on the panel not to have been shot at at some point! I’m an academic first and foremost who engages in policy work from time to time. I am the director of the Governance & Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC), which provides rapid research and knowledge management services on governance, social development, conflict and humanitarian issues to clients such as DFID, AusAID, the OECD and so on, and I have also acted as a consultant and policy advisor to various aid agencies on corruption and anti-corruption in particular. To my mind, this does not make me a ‘practitioner’. However, I’m also a student of donor agencies in particular and how they ‘do’ statebuilding work, particularly when it comes to governance issues, and so I hope to provide some insights into the challenges here. My focus here will be on aid agencies, because that’s what I’m most interested in, but the same general principles apply to other international actors, both state and non-state. These are reflections rather than reporting on completed research, although this does touch upon where my own research is going.  As a typical academic, I will be leaving us with more questions, rather than with answers, but the questions are important ones, I think.

The main point I hope to make is this: state-building requires both knowledge of and sensitivity to context. It involves, as the folks at the Africa Power & Politics Programme (APPP) have claimed, ‘going with the grain’ – working with what actually exists on the ground, rather than an idealised version of what we wish was there instead. No ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions where the starting point is an ideal Weberian state, in other words. The challenge is that this ‘context’ is often particularistic, characterised by neopatrimonialism and low levels of social and political trust, and where the lines between one’s public and private roles are blurred at best. The context also often involves the threat of renewed violence – being on a knife edge. So how do actors who are committed – by international treaty as well as by belief – to principles of universality ‘work with the grain’ in these contexts?

I’d like to illustrate the way this challenge looks on the ground by focusing on a particular study, and not one that would jump to most people’s minds as relevant one for state-building. In 2011, NORAD – the Norwegian aid agency – published a commissioned study on ‘Contextual Choices in Fighting Corruption’. It is a very long study, some of which is relevant to our discussion (and some not, of course), but one of its key contributions is that it provides compelling evidence for the need to differentiate between particularlistic and universalistic forms of governance in many developing countries and to build interventions accordingly.

 Universalism is described as a system where ‘every citizen is treated equally by the state and all public resources are distributed impartially’.

Particularism is the opposite of this. Politics may be competitive (sort of), but the principle is that the state exists as the spoils and these spoils will not be distributed impartially. It is where the state, such as it is, treats ‘a person not as an indistinct individual, but according to particular ties or group affiliations’.

The report goes on to argue that the main reason why so many governance interventions fail is because the international community doesn’t recognise this simple truth: most of the institution building we try to do is based on the presumption of universalism. These institutions are then planted in particularistic contexts and fail as a result. The risk of failure, of course, increases in more unstable environments.

The report sets out a number of lessons, but 3 that are relevant here are as follows:

  • Firstly, institution building that attempts to shift a state from particularism to universalism is, in fact, the equivalent of regime change. This is a highly political process, not just a technical one, and both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ need to be supported.
  •  Secondly, the international community has played an ‘ambiguous and inconsistent role and has thus sabotaged its own efforts’. Failing to ‘go with the grain’ means that we often end up actually working with predators who pay lip service to principals of universalism while continuing to rape the state and its people.
  •  Finally, ‘sticks’, as opposed to ‘carrots’, can actually be dangerous in these sort of contexts, because some people will always be above the law and justice will often be arbitrary and highly political and highly particularistic.

I have heard more than one senior official in a number of donor organisations refer to this study as ‘unworkable’, ‘not relevant for the way in which we have to operate’, ‘fine for the “academic” world, but not for our “real” world’. The main complaint seems to be that the study recommends that donors deal with the context that they find on the ground, which is almost invariably particularlistic, despite the fact that donors must be committed to universality as an over-arching principle.

So who is operating in the “real” world here – the academics who say that we need to start with what is really happening on the ground, even if we don’t like it, or the practitioners who argue that this is just not possible for them? Is this a question of development’s idealism coming up against International Relations’ realpolitik?

The NORAD study is only one example. Others of note – beside the APPP’s ‘going with the grain’, include Mick Moore’s team at IDS calling for us to look at an ‘upside down view of governance’, Michael Johnston’s work for the 2011 World Development Report on anti-corruption in post-conflict environments, where he calls on us to ‘first, do no harm’, and so on. Essentially they are all making the same point – the reason why so many international interventions in fragile environments seem to fail is because they don’t actually work with the ‘real world’. The ‘real world’ is messy, unfair, violent, filled with ‘big men’, both grand and petty corruption, and unequal access to often very limited resources. Where it does work, it tends to be in ways in which those of us living in Weberian bureaucracies rarely recognise – through a combination of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ governance systems. I hesitate to use either of those words, and certainly not as a dichotomy, but it has to be said they’re good short-hand for my purpose.

So what is wrong with particularism anyway? Why is it so difficult for donors and other actors to operate in a particularistic way?

Firstly, this is very much a domestic political issue. Would the British public – or any other public for that matter – understand why we’re working with ‘big men’, supporting nepotistic systems, allowing some to receive the benefit of our support but not others? Would we find it acceptable to turn a blind eye to the undesirable behaviour of some of our ‘partner governments’ in the short-term with the promise of greater stability, fairness and effectiveness in the longer term? Regardless of party politics, this is unlikely to go over well with any but the most realist of voters.

Secondly, this is a high risk strategy, both for those who are the ‘state-builders’ and those who are ‘being built’. Particularlism doesn’t necessarily have to mean ‘predatory’, but the reality is that it often is. Universalism, on the other hand, is rarely predatory and is much less likely to lead to vast inequality. And inequality – more than corruption itself, more than particularlism – is what should be of a concern to state-builders. As long as a sense remains that it will be ‘our turn to eat’ at some point, most people seem to be willing to wait. When it is clear that it will never be ‘our turn to eat’, when someone else, a different group perhaps, is clearly having much more to eat than anyone else, then serious problems emerge. This is much, much more likely to happen under a particularistic way of governing than under a universalistic one. ‘Going with the grain’ may make sense in the short-term, but there is a very high risk that we could just be storing up serious problems for the future – all carrying the stamp of approval from the international community.

Finally, we simply do not know enough about the contexts in which we work to be able to make intelligent decisions about how to engage within a particularistic framework. There has been a flurry of activity in the last 5 or so years in developing analytical frameworks – around what’s called ‘political economy analysis’ or conflict analysis – in order to help our understanding. But even at their best, these are of very limited usefulness. They are often done by individuals with (hopefully) some knowledge of a country or region, over a very short period of time, with fairly limited resources, to serve a very specific purpose for the commissioning agency, and are usually secret with little opportunity for genuine peer review or evaluation or for response from the government being analysed. What they cannot even begin to replace is implicit, in-depth knowledge of a particular context over time, driven not by the needs of a funder but by the needs of the people on the ground.

There is an excellent (if lengthy!) quote from Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, his book about his journey on foot across Afghanistan, published in 2004.

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neo-colonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographic societies and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generate fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home governments would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

Post-conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organisation long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neo-colonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgement they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation and oppression.

Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.

To me, this raises some really difficult questions for donors and other actors. Why do we not have people on the ground for the long-haul? Where is the in-depth knowledge of countries with which we have engaged for many, many decades? To whom are we actually accountable when we talk about particularism vs. universalism, when we talk about ‘going with the grain’? As long as we continue to see state-building interventions as discrete activities, time bound and largely led by/done by external actors with barely a footprint on the ground, this challenge will never disappear.

So I end with what I hope are 3 interesting questions that emerge from this discussion.

Firstly, why is ‘going with the grain so difficult for us? To whom does universality most matter? I suggest that it is us – the international community – in the short-term, but it is them – people in fragile environments – in the long-term. I might be wrong, though, and the evidence for this is unclear.

Secondly, when we know so little about context, relying on short – often unpublished and rarely, if ever, peer reviewed – reports to provide our in-depth knowledge, how do we ensure that we bear the brunt of failure? How do we become truly accountable for our state-building policies, as well as our actions, regardless of the context?

Finally, how do we engage with particularistic contexts in ways that don’t encourage or reward predatory behaviour? How do we help to lesson inequality in unequal systems?


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