Why is life in fragile/conflict states not more ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’? New research programme on ‘Public Authority’

Thomas Hobbes argued that states are essential to guarantee security. In their absence there would be a ‘war of all against all’ in which

Doesn't Happen. Why not?
Doesn’t Happen. Why not?

life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. But in most fragile and conflict affected areas, that degree of bloodbath is strikingly absent – individuals, families and communities find ways to survive and resolve disputes in ways that stop short of a massacre, but often bypass formal state institutions. How do they do it?

Helping answer that question is going to be part of my work for the next few years, as I take up a role in a new LSE-run ‘Centre for Public Authority and International Development’ (CPAID, hosted by the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa). Building on previous LSE research centres such as the Justice and Security Research Programme, the centre will look at countries involved in prolonged conflict, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia and Burundi, as well as the now relatively peaceful states of Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Ethiopia.

The hypothesis we aim to test is in the title of the new Centre. In the clear (if rather dense) prose of the project document:

‘CPAID uses the term ‘public authority’ to refer to any social institution or mechanism that exists beyond the immediate family and exercises a degree of voluntary compliance. It is a broad term that can include, for example, clans and notions of kinship, chiefs and customary leaders, aid agencies, police, military personnel, peacekeepers, business enterprises, worker associations, religious beliefs and organisations, civil society groups, vigilantes, local healers, medical staff in clinics or running public health programmes, opinion setters on the media, militia commanders, civil servants, locally elected councils, members of parliament – as well as, sometimes, presidents and ideas about national identity. These authorities are particularly relevant in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, where claims about public authority, and the connections between public authorities and the practice of governance are persistently negotiated and can be fiercely contested.

Thus, public authority is a notion that helps free our research from problematic and misleading assumptions and projections about the nature of statehood, formal authority and formal governance. In the locations in which CPAID will research, actual public authority is mostly made up of informal, semi-formal or ‘twilight’ institutions, including those associated with rebel groups, border trade networks and diverse international actors. Even where the state is present, its manifestations are often unrecognisable as such, or deeply and complexly hybridised.’

economic-behavior-through-a-social-lens-10-728Based on previous LSE research, CPAID is kicking off with 3 particular ways of understanding Public Authority:

‘The political marketplace – a concept developed by CPAID member Alex de Waal – refers to transactional politics whereby political loyalties and political services are exchanged for material reward. This is an updated, internationally integrated form of patrimonial politics that competes with, and often displaces, processes of state-building and institutional development. The political marketplace is measured and instrumentalised using the ‘political budget’, ‘the price of loyalty’, barriers to market entry and other regulatory elements, and the political-business models and skills of politicians. While monetized politics are found everywhere, in certain places the political market is the dominant logic of the exercise of power, with institutions reduced to a subordinate role. Political markets are increasingly regionalized. Political markets can be turbulent, violent and are integrated into regional and global networks of power and money. New policies and laws may present themselves as protecting the poor while enabling elite and foreign capture of resources.

Recently, new forms of public authority have emerged in countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia, which exhibit both patrimonial characteristics and long-term developmental aspirations. A growing number of political economists have used the foundational work of Mushtaq Khan  to argue that in such countries, the political marketplace plays an important role in driving economic development.

Moral populism – the demonising of the ‘other’, or the glorification of exclusive groups or their beliefs and practices, is a further essential tool in the analysis of movements and shifts in public authority in both state and non-state institutions. Moral populism may be benign. For example, moral populism may be integral to authority in religious organisations, enhancing a sense of community among followers, and people may be attracted to faith-based political scripts in reaction to violent repression. Extremist forms of

OECD axes of fragility
OECD axes of fragility

moral populism may also emerge in communities that are subject to severe violence and/or poverty, societal pressure or rapid change, or where many people are traumatized. We identify militant Islamism movements and organizations as manifestations of moral populism, usefully analysed with this lens. Previous research by the CPAID team has described in detail how forms of moral populism can suddenly trigger collective violence or mass flight when linked to moral panics (i.e. when there is a widespread view that people are under immediate threat from evil forces). Moral panics can be of an ethnic nature, but often can be linked to perceptions about things such as witchcraft, child sacrifice and satanic practices.

Public mutuality – In many African contexts, the only real protection available to the rural poor is membership of a locally regulated moral community. More often than not, that moral community requires the vigorous exclusion of outsiders and sometimes violent forms of moral populism. A sense of mutuality is sustained in a context in which politics are attuned to conditions of persistent uncertainty, conflict and trauma. We seek to identify whether and how affected people are cultivating more inclusionary forms of mutuality and seeking to make them ‘public’, including by promoting principles such as integrity and civility in public authority, despite the extreme pressures. Public mutuality includes practices that sustain integrity, trust, civility, inclusion and dialogue, and non- violence.’

Which all sounds absolutely fascinating. Not exactly sure what my role will be yet, but I’m hoping it will include plenty of conversations with communities about how power and public authority actually work, linking up to Oxfam’s work in these places. Over the next couple of decades, the aid world will increasingly zero in on fragile and conflict settings – the toughest nut to crack in development terms, so the sooner we start to understand what life, power and politics there is really like (rather than what we would like it to be), the better. Watch this space.

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8 Responses to “Why is life in fragile/conflict states not more ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’? New research programme on ‘Public Authority’”
  1. Alice Evans

    Congratulations! This sounds brilliant! NGO-academic collaboration to tackle a pressing development issue.

    For me, somewhat sceptical about how outsiders can build trust and public authority in FCAS, I think it’s really important to harness wider opportunities (besides aid). E.g. to work with TNCs to improve due diligence, transparency and independent audits of their supply chains, so they don’t exploit and worsen already weak systems of accountability, representation and and governance in places like Myanmar. Nice report on the need for this here: somo.nl/the-myanmar-dilemma/

  2. Annette Fisher

    Great to hear about this new research and will watch with interest for the findings. I have worked in Pakistan for the past four years, a country which in many ways is different to other fragile states and has a unique set of characteristics which play out in ways which both increase the fragility and at the same time bolster and justify the power of the state. I recently read some new research done in Pakistan ‘Mobilising Mass Anxieties’ which looks at how different groups in Pakistan use narratives to embed identity-based campaigns that target what the researchers refer to as the “mass anxieties” of a given population, i.e. the collective fears of dominant groups regarding the preservation of their identities, values and interests – fascinating findings and relevant to what you are looking at at LSE


  3. Alison Mathie

    Fascinating new research and great blog! Some of the explorations into horizontal and vertical forms of citizenship (broadly defined as acting for the common or public good) might be of interest, including some of the publications emerging from the Coady Institute’s studies of political and economic intersections. Here is one that looks at member-based organizations of various kinds:

  4. Masood Ul Mulk

    Interestingly the north west parts of Pakistan were heriditary states once. These States had the capacity to even tax a chicken. The strong State that was built in British times has now become so weak that hundreds of vehicles now ply on their roads bearing non custom paid numbers with the State only an onlooker. Why has the State lost the ability to tax and who has replaced it?

  5. Larry Garber

    Great Blog and look forward to the emerging research. Hope you will consider consequences of “elections” in the individual countries you are examining. The reality is that, for better or worse, they happen periodically even as they are seemingly irrelevant to the political dynamics that you are tracking. So beyond the material cost of conducting elections, are there other consequences?

  6. Patience Kabamba

    This project and concept definitions sound very interesting, but it is far from renovation and new way of thinking. We are still recycling old views of development in the same superficiality of analysis. It will result in a superficial understanding of social arrangements produced by economic wars provoked and sustained by innocent and peace loving weapons and bullets makers. Academic has being sold out to the people who support them financially and is therefore part of the legitimating institutions of the system which is dehumanizing the world. LSE is indeed part of the legitimating institutions that put money, marchandise and profit at the for front of human achievement. The project described in the blog, LSE and much of the western academic have to play the role of turning people’s attention away from the pervasive democratic dictatorship of the marchandise and objectification of human life. It is time to come back to more fondamental research on the genealogy, history and ontology of the political economy we live in. We need to move away from academic cretinism and to fight to humanize human life in the world and to stop fetishizing and naturalizing the object and objectifying nature.

  7. Francesco Gatta

    Hello Duncan:

    it is always a pleasure to read you. I see you are about to embark on this LSE-run project and, as a great fan of your discourse about global injustice and the need to dismantle this at-time fake dychotomy about problems of the global South and of the global North, I was wondering if you could help with the following:


    Thanks in advance for this.. and thanks for blog!


  8. Jane Banfield

    Im reading your article in the south of Central African Republic, where I am temporarily living looking after a lodge located in the Dzangha National Park the Owners’ absence. I feel incredibly privileged to be termporarily in such a region. It is heartening to read about this new institution to give validity to other forms of social organisation and I look forward to sharing the concept with my colleagues on the lodge staff here whom I work alongside. I believe they will be refreshed to hear of an alternative to the continued political discourse which comes across as encapsulated in the age old phrase ‘Plus ca change……”