ARI on TwitterARI on LinkedinARI on FacebookARI on iTunesARI RSS Feed

Understanding and engaging local level governance in fragile states

Ken Menkhaus is Professor of Political Science at Davidson College, with nearly thirty years of research experience in the Horn of Africa. He addressed an audience from the UK’s Stabilisation Unit at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, prior to delivering a lecture for the Department of War Studies at King’s College London on Monday 3 November 2014.

Professor Menkhaus began by outlining the typical attributes of fragile states. They have weak central governments and are often recovering from violent conflict. Levels of trust are low while grievances are high. National administrations generally lack the capacity to deal with politically-charged issues such as land disputes. As the ‘rules of the game’ have yet to be set and agreed by all actors, challenges relating to the setting of precedents are central. Settlements should be inclusive and recognise that some parties to the conflict will fear permanent exclusion from power following watershed elections. Power-sharing can provide a way to build trust and prevent renewed conflict.

Inclusive Local Governance

In terms of local governance, Prof. Menkhaus distinguished between formal, informal, and hybrid arrangements. An example of the formal would be the forty-seven counties of Kenya; whereas the informal typically involves dispute resolution by customary elders. Formal and informal practices often coexist, and therefore most fragile states experience hybrid local governance. This arrangement hinges on relations between community interest groups and invokes informal coalitions between business leaders, clerics, elders, women, and youth, as a means to resolve local problems. Such coping mechanisms are by their nature consultative and therefore ideally suited to addressing complex post-conflict issues. For example, in Wajir, north-east Kenya, violent clashes between rival clans at the marketplace led a group of women to organise themselves. They formed a Peace and Development Committee which mediated with clan elders to stop the violence and establish a safe space. The story is chronicled in this video, and the peace held until a boundary dispute in June 2014.

Despite the inclusive nature of such structures, national elites often contest the authority of local governance coalitions due to their ambiguous role under the post-conflict legislative framework and fears that they pose a threat to central government. However, in Ethiopia, where 90% of crimes are resolved in the community, the regime has come to recognise the benefit of strong local governance. The state has thus sought to formalise informal practices and relationships, which have successfully resolved conflicts.

Going local

As Menkhaus has argued elsewhere, an emphasis on supporting inclusive local governance has begun to gain currency within sections of the international community of state-builders, as illustrated in recent comments by Finnish Minister for International Development, Pekka Haavisto. Admittedly, it may be necessary to establish a threshold for illiberal practices, and to establish ‘sunset clauses’ for engagement with some groups; however, where possible, donors should provide ‘surgical assistance’ to these actors. Funding should be limited to small sums and allocated transparently to different actors so that there is an opportunity to build trust between local political actors. Technical ‘quick fixes’ could include investment in refurbishing communications infrastructure, as improvements to the cellular network can facilitate contact with parties to the conflict, expediting opportunities to resolve disputes.

Coping Mechanisms

As noted at the recent ARI event on urban violence, cities – due to their cosmopolitan nature – can serve as places of refuge but also as the centres of conflict. Moreover, local governance in fragile states does not always take the form of inclusive institutions with transparent practices.

In many states recovering from conflict, more immediate coping mechanisms might result in protection rackets or vigilante justice. For example, in Mogadishu, Somalia, ‘neighbourhood watch groups’ take payment to protect the local community. This provides the youth with an occupation, but it strikes a delicate balance between extortion and taxation. In Somaliland, clan elders co-operate with the police force to resolve infractions of the law and dispense justice without the right to a trial or appeal. When a crime has been committed, the elders assemble to identify the perpetrator. They then call the police to arrest the suspect, and agree the compensation to be paid to the victim.

Such practices raise questions over the legitimacy of hybrid local governance arrangements; however, we should recognise that these mechanisms remain an organic response to insecurity and lawlessness and must, therefore, be protected rather than undermined. This applies both to national governments and external actors committed to ‘do no harm’ – one of ten basic principles for engagement in fragile states. State-builders therefore, need to respect hybrid local governance arrangements as a temporary coping mechanism, recognising that these responses emerge organically, whereas national governance transitions are considerably more complex and may take a generation to complete. The primary challenge for the international community is that local leaders are unlikely to carry formal titles or present clear ‘plug-in’ mechanisms. Hence, such hybrid local governance arrangements often remain invisible to state-builders except those with experienced country teams able to draw on contextual knowledge and conduct detailed political economy analysis.

Pockets of Stability

Prof. Menkhaus argued that state-builders should recognise the potential of hybrid local governance to lay the ground for long-term development. First and foremost, in providing peace, security and justice to communities, strong local governance can enhance the legitimacy of a fragile national government. Indeed, small pockets of stability can constitute building blocks for national statehood. Strong local governance can help to establish precedents and forge a social compact. In theory, such arrangements can encourage participation as an initial step on the path to democracy and accountability. In practice, locally-elected officials in post-conflict states tend to represent the interests of the group who voted for them until an environment of mutual trust is established among political actors.

Such local actors can provide state-builders with an alternative interlocutor when national government proves dysfunctional. This can increase pressure on national elites to overcome their differences and engage meaningfully, as the ‘dual-track’ approach adopted by the US and others in Somalia has demonstrated. Strengthening local governance arrangements in Somalia has enhanced efforts to mitigate piracy and the Islamic insurgency, and improved national security. Once established and capable, local governance actors can help to manage conflict and provide early warning signals; however, community coalitions remain vulnerable to interference by national political elites sponsoring local proxies and spoilers.

Learning How to Build a State

Crucially, Prof. Menkhaus argued that the most important benefit of understanding hybrid local governance is its potential to provide external actors with a state-building model which is grounded in post-conflict realities. Experience of working with local actors can help development practitioners move beyond attempts to recreate states in the likeness of Western nations. This will help policy-makers move beyond the ‘state-in-a-box’ approach, and instead attempt to grapple with fragile states on their own terms.

by Nick Branson, Senior Researcher, Africa Research Institute

Home page image: Puntland reconciliation meeting, by permission of Interpeace/ PDRC

Related content:

Event: Somaliland’s Political Transition