When Governance Travels: The Implicit (Western) Bias of Social Science Concepts

The understanding of governance employed in this book largely follows the conceptualizations in American and European social sciences. However, applying the governance concept to areas of limited statehood reveals some implicit biases. The way in which the governance concept has been developed in the social sciences (and has become part of political practice) is strongly influenced by the experiences of Western modernity and of modern statehood as defined earlier.

The Distinction Between the “Public” and the “Private” Spheres

Defining governance and the modes of governance in terms of including state and nonstate actors in the provision of collective goods more often than not relies on the distinction between the “public” and “private” realms. This distinction, however, stems from modern statehood in its Western and Eurocentric understandings. This is problematic when we apply the governance concept to other historical contexts or other cultural experiences in the contemporary international system. Historically speaking, the modern Western notion of the “private sphere” is connected to processes of individualization and personalization that only emerged in the second half of eighteenth-century Europe leading to the separation of the public and the private (e.g., Bockenforde 1976; Keane 1988). As Conrad and Stange argue in their chapter, thinking of the “public” and the “private” spheres as binary categories is inherently problematic with regard to colonial rule. They demonstrate, for example, that the differences between state-funded administrative personnel and “private” actors among the colonizers were marginal at best—for example, the “private” East India Company exercised “public” authority on behalf of the British Empire. The same holds true for the definition of indigenous elites as “private” actors, since colonizers often gave local “chiefs” the authority to rule hierarchically.

Applying the public-private distinction to contemporary areas of limited statehood is just as difficult. Of course, we can still distinguish formally between the state and the nonstate sector including for-profit companies, on the one hand, and the nonprofit and civil society sector, on the other. But what does this mean in countries in which state institutions are so weak that government actors can easily exploit state resources for private purposes, while so-called private actors such as companies or NGOs provide much-needed collective goods with regard to education, public health, or infrastructure (e.g., Borzel et al. 2007; Fuhr et al. 2007; see chapters by Liese and Beisheim, and Borzel et al. in this volume). In other words, the implicit assumption of the public-private distinction according to which governments govern and private actors mind their own business is often turned on its head in areas of limited statehood. The distinction that comes with Western modernity, according to which “state = public” and “nonstate = private” is enormously problematic in areas of limited statehood.

Take the example of Palestine under Yasser Arafat: The Palestinian Authority was more or less corrupt at the time and the development aid provided by the international community to jump-start the Palestinian state ended up in private coffers. At the same time, the militant Islamist organization of Hamas provided crucial governance services in the social, education, and public health sectors of the Palestinian territories. So, who governed Palestine at the time? If we use the previously stated governance definition, Hamas is Janus-faced: On the one hand, it is a governance actor providing public services in Palestine. On the other hand and almost at the same time, it is a terrorist organization that undermines governance in the security realm. The same held true for the Palestinian Authority under Arafat: Its security agencies at least tried to maintain public security in the occupied territories, while Palestinian “state” actors undermined governance with regard to the provision of other collective goods.

The example of Palestine refers to widespread phenomena in areas of limited statehood: Rent-seeking governments distribute state revenues including development aid to maintain their rule via clientelistic networks (the so-called neopatrimonial state in sub-Saharan Africa, the Southern Caucasus, and elsewhere; see Erdmann 2002; Erdmann and Engel 2007). In other words, they transform public goods into club or even private goods. In a different way, the emergence of “shadow states” has to be considered here too (Koehler and Zurcher 2004; Zurcher 2007). On the one hand, formal state institutions have ceased to exist or to provide governance services in failing and failed states. On the other hand, informal governance institutions often emerge providing social and political order as well as collective goods, thereby preventing the country or the region from completely collapsing into anarchy. In some cases, such as the Southern Caucasus, shadow states survive over extended periods of time.

These examples challenge the way in which the concepts of “state” and “public” as well as “nonstate” and “private” are mostly used interchangeably in the social sciences based on the historical experience of Western modernity. They also show the implicit normative connotations of the distinction (see Ladwig et al. 2007; also chapter by Ladwig and Rudolf in this volume). We usually expect that state actors contribute to governance, that is, that they act in the public rather than the private interest. At least, they are supposed to justify their actions with regard to the common good (see Zurn 2005). While policy-makers might be power-seeking, state institutions in a consolidated state—no matter how “transformed”—are supposed to direct their practices toward governance in the common interest. And if they abuse their power, we can throw them out through democratic procedures or, in the worst case, through the judicial system. Limited statehood, however, consists of weak political institutions lacking the capacity to constrain power-maximizing actors. As a result, it becomes problematic to speak of “public” actors in such cases or to assume that state actors promote the public interest. As to private actors, we usually assume that private companies pursue their egoistic selfinterest, even if their businesses practices produce positive externalities for the community (jobs, welfare, etc.). But we also assume that private actors act within the confines of the law—and if not, that the courts will take care of them.

These assumptions that come with the “public-private” distinction are missing in areas of limited statehood. At least, they can no longer be taken for granted. The conceptual problem cannot be solved easily—for example, one could speak of “hybrid” regimes or forms of governance in order to avoid the distinction between the public and private realms or between state and nonstate actors (e.g., Bendel et al. 2002). But such a solution only sidesteps the problem to discern who provides governance services and who does not, and under which conditions. A possible way out would be to investigate empirically who serves as a governance actor-irrespective of a formal position in the political system or in society. In other words, one would search for functional equivalents of “public” actors (Draude 2007, 2008).

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