Economics, Conflict Resolution, COIN and Development: Corruption Still Very Thorny
Last week I was lucky enough to attend an excellent day-long roundtable event at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. It was part of the launch of a new programme at IISS on ‘Economics and Conflict Resolution’. Some great people spoke, and for myself it amounted in part as a refresher on all things to do with conflict, security and development, but also an update on the leading academic and practitioner thinking in this area.
Given current endeavours in Afghanistan and the troubled dependence of NATO strategy on a legitimate and effective host government ally (see previous post on this), corruption came up quite a bit. At the end of the session Lord Malloch-Brown commented that while a huge amount of ground had been covered and great insights raised, there was so much in the day’s discussion that held deep and unresolved tensions.
They listed several of these, but one tension I perceive, and which I feel wasn’t emphasised enough, is the issue of how to deal with corruption in host nation partners. One of the DFID practitioners emphasised that even though there is an attrition rate on aid supplied to a developing state through corruption, you still have to keep pouring the aid into it as it will strengthen the state’s institutions. In this view, by-passing the state institutions, as many NGOs and donors do in development projects, will just serve to undermine them, which is a bad idea because strengthening the host state is the whole point. The money has to go to the central government, not because it is the most efficient, but because you have to build the legitimacy of the state.
I have a huge problem with this as it relies on the assumption that the host government ally deserves the donors’ belief in its potential for legitimacy. In some parts of the world (such as Somalia) the state is the most predatory and unpleasant entity that people have to face in their lives, and the forming of coalitions to revive the power of the central state can be the most dangerous of events regardless of efforts to improve central state legitimacy. In such parts of the world that have suffered protracted conflict and state collapse, power is all too often simply structured against the possibility of the sudden re-establishment of a legitimate state and a single set of governing institutions. Interests groups emerge which, when empowered within the state, will only endeavour to serve themselves.
However, I expect that the central state-building approach works (or at least, is not disastrous) where the state is not deeply and violently contested by a powerful and growing insurgency(/ies). In such a more benign scenario then you can have continuing runs of setbacks and dodgy dealings going right to the top as long as you feel you are slowly working towards that much longer term aim of a legitimate and effective state. Peace gives you time and room for continuous governance errors. But when you’re facing the Taliban who are building highly effective conflict institutions to maintain and expand their military and governing influence, I sense this model just won’t do. Counter-insurgency is all about governance, and it is essential to get the governance strategy right if all the other activities (including the application of force) are going to have utility. As certain previous studies have shown (including David Kilcullen’s original PhD thesis) in civil wars power usually leaks further and further down the state-society structure to the local level. The village community is the frontline in the governance strategy for all sides in civil wars, and it’s at that level that the Taliban concentrates and derives its potency.
Efforts to connect all these local governates up into a cohesive and singular state structure can come later (which, btw, I expect is the central Taliban leadership’s plan). Until then, one needs to concentrate on empowering what Ken Menkhaus calls a ‘mediated state’ where the central power has almost no influence at the community level, and instead one encourages and empowers the ‘mosaic’ of governates that communities almost inevitably self-form in the absence of central state power. And as DFID and other development agencies have repeatedly found, it tends to be village-level community governance that is the most trustworthy recipient of aid, because those communities understand better than anyone what the aid is meant for.
I feel it’s time to be brave with the implications of this and forget the central state building agenda in Afghanistan, and I don’t mean replacing that approach with the ’empowering regional governors’ cop-out that has also emerged, because it amounts to the same thing. The central (or regional) state is not an inevitable good. Give development power to those who deserve and need it most and let the central state form around that, not above it, before it, or even with primacy over it. Deep corruption in Afghan state institutions isn’t going to go anywhere soon, but if we change the governance strategy then we can change the entire strategic meaning of corruption in Afghanistan.
Of course, we may just be too far behind events now for such a shift to have any impact. And anyway, based on my conversations with those working in British defence and foreign affairs, the likelihood of such a shift in thinking being taken on board is almost nil.