State fragility and formation: democracy in retreat workshop

Shifts in the way states and societies are organised around the world suggest a crisis of democracy. A collaborative workshop at La Trobe University, Melbourne, (28 April) considered whether democracy is an appropriate framework for efforts to make sense of the struggles of so-called fragile states.

DLP Senior Partner Chris Roche, and Dr Sarah Phillips, author of a number of DLP studies on political settlements and state formation, were among the panellists who asked what role democracy plays in the formation of states, and in their stability or lack of it. Is the often violent contestation of power and authority in post-conflict societies a sign of democracy in retreat, or does it show that the principles underpinning it are being challenged and renegotiated?  Other panellists included Dr Bart Klem of the University of Melbourne and Dr Jasmine Westendorf of La Trobe University.

Drawing on findings from her previous research for DLP, Sarah Phillips discussed the norm of state-monopolised violence from a Yemeni perspective, examining how some of the assumptions that underpin it break down when unhinged from their Western origins.

She suggested that a monopoly on violence is not necessarily something that all states strive for all of the time; and that the logic of state-monopolised violence implicitly establishes a clear dichotomy between state violence and non-state violent actors.

Using examples from popular Yemeni discourses about al-Qa'ida, her findings suggest that state actors can, in fact, encourage and make use of violent non-state actors that apparently challenge their authority – or, at least, that citizens may widely interpret them as doing so. She also argued that the norm of state-monopolised violence may help to produce the very threats to stability it is believed to contain; a too-rigid conceptualisation of the links between the coercive capacity of the state and political stability can create the conditions that foment protest and insurgence.

Chris’s presentation questioned the assumptions behind much aid and good governance programming. He began by asking whether ‘state failure’ was a useful lens through which to view the processes of state formation and reordering, particularly since ‘success’ and ‘failure’ is usually measured against idealised models of western states and Weberian notions of governance . Some researchers prefer terms such as putative states (266 KB PDF), emerging or hybrid states or even ‘unfinished states’. Alex de Waal suggests the notion of ‘political marketplace’ might be a more useful framework to understand for contemporary systems of governance in some parts of the world.

Terms like these, emphasising the processes by which states emerge rather than passing judgement on the basis of idealised models, help refocus attention on the interplay between ‘traditional’ and introduced systems of governance, as well as the links to local and global political economies. This in turn reveals what really drives change, what inherent strengths traditional governance systems already have, and what perverse incentives might be introduced if traditional or local ‘rules of the game’ are not properly understood.

In the Pacific, for instance, little attention has been paid until recently to how ‘big man’ roles and Westminster type electoral systems interact. In any case, the relationship between security or peace and democracy is not at all clear, and the evidence suggests that a narrow focus on elections or any particular form of narrowly defined democracy can in fact increase conflict. Mary Kaldor, for instance, has argued that most modern states’ administrative and tax systems were built in order to wage war. Anthony Giddens draws attention to the key role played by ‘internal pacification’ through the implicit bargain between states and their citizens where protection is offered in exchange for funds raised through taxation.

States are increasingly tied into a range of global and local forms of governance that intersect state sovereignty and state control. The state as a bounded whole and autonomous actor is an outdated concept – and was never an accurate description.

Chris concluded that research, policy and practice could usefully explore local, bottom-up processes of democratisation, participation and voice; it should also look more closely at transnational or global democracy, and consider how domestic economic and political decisions in one state can indirectly influence state accountability to citizens elsewhere.

Zooming down to the level of local interactions and zooming out to the level of broader influences may help us to both understand processes of state formation in an interconnected and uncertain world and help suggest how policy might need to shift to take into account of these linkages. 

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About DLP

The Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) is an international research initiative that explores how leadership, power and political processes drive or block successful development.

DLP focuses on the crucial role of home-grown leaderships and coalitions in forging legitimate political settlements and institutions that promote developmental outcomes, such as sustainable growth, political stability and inclusive social development.

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