LSE’s Tom Goodfellow seeks to refocus a debate that has lost sight of the critical importance of differentiation among states that are institutionally complex and changing. This post originally appeared on African Arguments.
Hybridity, it seems, is everywhere today. In the wake of a decade of ruminating over the problems of “failed” and “fragile” states, there has been a rush to claim that the idea of “hybridity” offers a better way forward for understanding the world’s most troubled and conflict-affected places.
This trend is spawning a new language among scholars concerned with conflict and development, in which “hybrid” is the prefix of choice. The emerging literature abounds with terms such as hybrid governance, hybrid political order, hybrid public authority, hybrid institutions, hybrid contexts, hybrid security, hybrid structures, hybrid actors, and hybrid political spaces. Just as observers commented on the proliferation of “democracy with adjectives” to explain the various forms of “semi-democracy” emerging after the Cold War, today we can talk of ‘hybridity with nouns’.
The over-riding emphasis in most cases seems to be about turning a negative discourse into a more positive one: instead of focusing on the state and what it is not or does not do in particular contexts, we should focus primarily on what social and political structures do exist. In other words, more important than the failings of the state are the realities of what and who is fulfilling the roles we conventionally assume that the state should fulfil. This reality, many authors now argue, is one characterized by a high degree of “hybridity”. These ideas seem to have been taken up with particular vigour regarding parts of Africa.
There is clearly value in this perspective. In its worst forms, the state failure discourse was analytically bankrupt as well as being an obstacle to constructive thinking about solutions. It is also apparent that there is indeed a need in many contexts to engage seriously with what non-state actors substituting for the state are doing, and to do so with a view to the medium and even long term rather than assuming that their roles constitute temporary aberrations on the road to a ‘successful’ state in the Weberian mould.
Nevertheless, this focus on hybridity begs many questions. Those interested in hybrid forms of governance emphasize how formal and informal institutions (usually taken to mean institutions of the state versus those of non-state organizations) “co-exist, overlap and intertwine”. There is, however, often a distinct neglect in this new literature of the fundamental differentiation encapsulated within this statement: the mere co-existence of different institutional forms amounts to something very different from their intertwining or merging in some way. This distinction can be quite critical, as I will argue below.
Even more fundamentally, however, the hybridity concept begs the question of what kind of public authority anywhere in the world does not feature both formal and informal institutions in some combination. If hybridity is everywhere, how do we determine when this is a problem and an indicator of vulnerability to conflict, and when it is a solution? Currently, it seems that many advocates of the concept want it both ways: hybridity is posited as the defining characteristic of disorder in the DRC, yet a source of resilience in relatively stable Somaliland.
The new focus within development studies gained impetus after an influential 2008 paper by Volker Boege and his colleagues, which explicitly pitched the idea of ‘hybrid political orders’ (HPOs) as a new way of understanding what hitherto had been termed ‘fragile states’. In the paper, however, they discuss situations such as the incorporation of chiefs into local government in relatively peaceful African states, as well as endemic war zones elsewhere on the continent. More or less any situation in which non-state actors play a significant role is classed as “hybrid”.