Faced with contemporary violent social conflicts, international development stakeholders often respond with a combination of security and development through the reconstruction of the state, also known as statebuilding. However, this popular approach fails to address the social driving forces behind violence because of its technical and apolitical nature. 

The fall of the USSR brought an increase in intrastate conflicts, such as in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tensions between the two Cold War blocs gave way to socially rooted violence within states. This violence feeds on internal dysfunction, manipulation by warlords, and constructed identities to exacerbate tensions between communities based on religion, clan or patronage. These crises are characterized by repeated cycles of violence. Entire regions find themselves trapped in protracted crises, as is the case in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in the Sahel region.

These changes have led international development stakeholders such as the Agence Française de Développement, the Department for International Development, or the World Bank to draw up responses in the form of interventions combining  development and security. This new paradigm assigns a new mission to external interventions: contributing to resolving problems of underdevelopment and conflict simultaneously. Armed forces and financiers are now working together on crisis resolution in order to bring back peace, combining military force (security) and action on the social grounds underpinning crises (development).

Statebuilding has become one of the pillars of this response, alongside the deployment of UN missions and the organization of elections under international supervision.

The new mantra of statebuilding

Statebuilding consists of the development of international regulatory mechanisms meant to restore the sovereignty of fragile states. It seeks to strengthen government institutions, particularly administrations, the goal being to improve the provision of state services. This approach claims to be apolitical and technical. 

International aid backs up the national institutions in order to strengthen skills and capacities, without making any biased judgements on the political decisions taken by the local governments. From this point of view, the state is a structure, an adaptable model of bureaucracy that can be transferred between cultures and contexts.

This approach to statebuilding has several advantages. First of all, (re)constructing administrations achieves a twofold objective: it ensures territorial security by strengthening police and military forces, while supporting the central administration’s redeployment of essential public services (again combining security and development). This approach is inspired by a Weberian interpretation of the state in which law and order are maintained through a robust administration that takes part in the construction of a civic identity and the provision of public services.

Furthermore, by depoliticizing the political object that is the state and by emphasizing questions of institutional capacities, international stakeholders are shielding themselves from the risk of being accused of neocolonialism or political interference. On top of that,  statebuilding is in practice also a faster and easier intervention. It is easier to take part in the rehabilitation of public administrations and to finance training programs for state officials than to get involved in resolving local conflicts and strengthening social cohesion.   

And yet, this approach has not lived up to expectations for at least three reasons.

A misplaced focus on administrations

The intervention of statebuilding signals a desire to disengage from social and political processes to focus solely on the administrative tasks of reforming state institutions. But when the state’s social base is weak and when society is highly divided, there is little chance for bureaucratic reinforcement to survive after international aid is terminated (such as in the cases of Somalia and Afghanistan). 

As David Chandler, professor of International Relations at the University of Westminster, has pointed out, “states have never been able to rebuild sustainably unless they had a wide social base and could provide individuals and social groups with the possibility of expressing their interests through the government structures under (re)construction.” 

Furthermore, if there is not an ‘idea of the state’ that is shared by the entire population, there is a high risk to international stakeholders of financing artificial institutions without great legitimacy or sustainability. 

Diversity in the levels of governance is neglected

Statebuilding is firstly interested in recomposing the official bureaucratic structures of a central authority, but is not or barely interested in the existing power structures or forms of local legitimacy. 

Yet, several levels of governance exist in fragile contexts. The state is not the only one to provide essential services. It shares this mission with other structures whose relations with the administration range from syncretism to competition. These alternative systems of governance can appear, for example, in the form of churches, non-governmental organizations, international solidarity networks, and traditional or informal power management mechanisms. 

The lack of analysis of the informal structures and non-governmental networks locks the statebuilding approach into a construction that is disconnected from local realities, limiting its foothold in society.

Neo-patrimonial way of functioning limits reform

In fragile contexts, actors of conflict like warlords, the military, and (what remains of) the government  share political power and the control of certain sections of the economy. There is no longer a clear distinction between the economic and political orders: public assets are privatized by the elite, making themselves richer and maintaining a system of clientelism. 

In the end, this ‘neopatrimonial’ system of operation leads to a weakening of the administration and the breakdown of public services. The goal of the administration then becomes the survival of its personnel and maintaining its sources of financing. 

As researcher Theodore Trefon has observed, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo , the administration is incapable of providing people with public services and focuses its activities on “issuing permits, certificates and letters of recommendation while wielding the stamps and seals representative of their authority.” Civil servants are poorly paid, so they heavily tax the population and players in the formal sector while cashing in on the provision of public services by collecting illegal parafiscal levies. 

The transformation of the “failed state” into a “service-provider state” often runs up against resistance from intermediary bodies in the administration whose bureaucratic culture, relatively independent of politics, enables them to get around the public policies set at state-level.

What are the possible lines of action? 

Strengthening social bonds 

Does the failure of the state come from a lack of material capacities or the weakness of a political project used to bring different communities together under one banner? In other words, is a fragile state firstly the result of a lack of legitimacy and social cohesion much more than the weakness of its institutions? 

By focusing on questions of legitimacy and reconciliation rather than questions of material power, it becomes essential for stakeholders in international aid to emphasize the strengthening of social cohesion. 

As researcher Nicolas Lemay-Hébert has pointed out, “building a state brings up the question of how the state’s stakeholders define, create and reinforce a collective identity so as to create the social bonds necessary to the legitimacy of government structures.” Without actions to overcome antagonism between communities, institutions will have a hard time asserting themselves and statebuilding will remain a futile pursuit. Strengthening social bonds, defining a collective identity and “living together” are a prerequisite for setting out a lasting foundation for government structures in society. 

Improving the “international-local” nexus 

International stakeholders must apply the resources necessary for a better understanding of the context at hand. This entails taking into account local perceptions and the legitimacy of the stakeholders in place. Systems of governance around the world are grounded in particular social interactions, exchanges of ideas, varied historical heritage, values and traditions. These political systems are deeply rooted in unique social and cultural realities that must be taken into account if international stakeholders want to support a dynamic of positive reconstruction. As a minimum, international stakeholders need to work on the following questions:

  • What legitimacy does the administration have in the eyes of the population? 
  • What interests do the state representatives defend? What are the power structures and the roles played by these representatives? 
  • What are basic services still in place? Who provides them? Who are the stakeholders in the alternative social sector? How do they work and what are their interactions with the state? 

By asking these crucial questions and trying to answer them, the stakeholders involved in aid will be able to reinforce the effectiveness of their actions in fragile countries.