Coordination and Coherence

Considering the multitude of external actors and the various layers of decision-making involved in state-building efforts, problems of coordination and coherence almost inevitably arise. Usually each actor pursues its own conception of state building, which is partly influenced by the nature of its mandate and has its own view regarding how measures should be rank- ordered, what objectives should be pursued in the short- to medium-run, and how these objectives are to be attained. In particular some international

NGOs and national development agencies compete over scarce resources, influence, and competencies. At the same time most of these actors, for reasons of prestige, seek to retain a certain measure of autonomy and control over their activities, which makes coordination—not to mention coherence-al- most impossible.


Legitimacy is a resource that is coveted by external actors, in particular democratically elected governments, who often face a dilemma. On the one hand, external actors must respond to expectations and demands of the local population affected by state failure, particular local groups or the ruling elite; on the other hand, however, in order to mobilize the necessary resources (i.e., their taxpayers’ money), their action must be considered legitimate by their own constituencies at home. At the same time, the input and output dimensions of legitimacy are critical, because depending on the case at hand, the performance of external actors is measured against one or the other dimension. Differences arise depending on whether the actor is answerable to the local population or its own public. Moreover, there sometimes is a tradeoff between the two dimensions: the objective of so-called local ownership (input legitimacy), for instance, may hamper effective decision-making and the implementation of political measures and, thus, lead to suboptimal, unintended outcomes (output legitimacy). Furthermore, external governments that seek the support of their national constituencies for state-building measures tend to tailor their mandate in a manner that frequently proves ineffective, and ultimately neither produces a satisfactory outcome in the field nor satisfies their own public. The promotion of NGOs and of particular values or blueprints of statehood may please the external actors’ own constituencies, but may lead to considerable problems of legitimacy in the field and, thereby, triggering unintended consequences.

The legitimacy issue already illustrates the gap of values and interests that often characterizes the difficult relationship of external state-builders and local actors. In a number of cases, the typical dilemmas at the field level, five of which are explored here, have been investigated, in particular with regard to peace agreements and transitional administrations (Cousens and Kumar 2001, Stedman, Rothchild, and Cousens 2002, Caplan 2005, Paris and Sisk 2008). First, each and every intervention affects directly or indirectly local power structures. In most instances, this is intended since external actors deliberately support particular groups and try to marginalize others. However, local actors, in particular political leaders, usually anticipate these changes and act accordingly, often by exploiting tensions and increasing the potential for the use of violence. In extreme cases, external actors may themselves become targets of violent acts and here they are left with a number of bad options: external actors may be forced to protect themselves, which makes it difficult to engage actively with local partners and civil society; they may strike back militarily, which increases the risk of civilian casualties and affects the legitimacy of the whole state-building undertaking; or they may leave the country and thereby loose any credibility vis-a-vis the locals. Second, as studies on financial, development, or humanitarian aid have shown, state building may foster rent-seeking behavior and aid dependency of large segments of the society.

Third, attaching political and economic conditionality to aid and assistance, which is to some degree part of any state-building strategy (but especially in the case of Liberalization First and Civil Society First), usually leads to supporting good performers instead of bad or poor performers. The latter, however, are often the true troublemakers; many postconflict countries remain at the risk of state failure because of particular spoiler groups that feel neglected from external aid, but still have the potential to destabilize the situation on the ground. Fourth, the notion of “local ownership” has proven to be rather ambivalent. On the one hand, external actors want to reestablish or to assure local ownership of the political decision making process in order to force groups and leaders to take responsibility for certain actions. On the other hand, quite often local actors show no interest in acting responsible and making compromises, if necessary, but rather expect the international community to do the (unpopular) work and even blame it for ineffective governance. Therefore, on several occasions neither difficult decisions are taken nor necessary measures are implemented by the local leaders; both are basically left to external state builders despite their intentions to foster local ownership.

Fifth, dealing with actual or potential spoilers, especially with armed nonstate actors, also leads to a number of dilemmas (Stedman 1997; Schneckener 2006a, 2009). They often harm any kind of state-building process since they frequently profit from state fragility and failure. In order to make some progress, external actors are sometimes forced to integrate some of them into the evolving political structures, which grant them privileges and liberties that, in turn, they can use to undermine the process of stabilizing and reforming state structures. In addition, the handling of para- or quasi-state structures, established, for example, by warlords, clan chiefs, big men, or rebel groups, is a particularly tricky issue (see Afghanistan, DR Congo, and Somalia). These have frequently replaced or coexist with state structures, and although they may offer a minimum of stability at the local level, they ultimately prevent the establishment of sustainable state structures—financed, implemented, or monitored by the international community. More often than not these para- state structures are detached from the central government and own a local monopoly of force, sometimes defined in territorial, sometimes in functional terms, hence competing with the central government’s attempt to project a monopoly on the use of force. The question arises as to whether such structures, which in individual cases may have a stabilizing effect, can be used as an interim solution or as building blocks in the (re-)establishment of statehood; or whether such a strategy will ultimately prevent the creation of an effective statehood because it strengthens militant actors and adversely affects the prospects of sustainable development (see in particular Mehler 2004). These typical dilemmas are compounded by the temporally limited engagement of external actors. Local elites are well aware of the fact that the internationals will leave one day and, hence, adjust their own policies accordingly. In particular those who do not have an interest in changing the status quo and try to defend their privileges will pursue a “filibuster strategy,” for instance by remaining aloof, engaging in noncommittal reform debates, establishing bureaucratic hurdles, or by demonstrating indifference. They simply know that time is on their side.

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