What is Public authority? And why does it matter that we understand it? Duncan Green discusses the hypothesis behind the new ESRC-funded Centre for Public Authority and International Development.
Thomas Hobbes argued that states are essential to guarantee security. In their absence there would be a ‘war of all against all’ in which life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. But in most fragile and conflict-affected areas, that degree of bloodbath is strikingly absent – individuals, families and communities find ways to survive and resolve disputes in ways that stop short of a massacre, but often bypass formal state institutions. How do they do it?
Helping answer that question is going to be part of my work for the next few years, as I take up a role in a new Centre for Public Authority and International Development (CPAID) hosted at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at LSE and funded by the Economic and Social Research Fund. Building on previous LSE research projects such as the Justice and Security Research Programme, the Centre will look at countries involved in prolonged conflict, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia and Burundi, as well as the now relatively peaceful states of Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Ethiopia.
The hypothesis we aim to test is in the title of the new Centre. In the clear (if rather dense) prose of the project document:
“CPAID uses the term ‘public authority’ to refer to any social institution or mechanism that exists beyond the immediate family and exercises a degree of voluntary compliance. It is a broad term that can include, for example, clans and notions of kinship, chiefs and customary leaders, aid agencies, police, military personnel, peacekeepers, business enterprises, worker associations, religious beliefs and organisations, civil society groups, vigilantes, local healers, medical staff in clinics or running public health programmes, opinion setters on the media, militia commanders, civil servants, locally elected councils, members of parliament – as well as, sometimes, presidents and ideas about national identity. These authorities are particularly relevant in much of sub-Saharan Africa, where claims about public authority, and the connections between public authorities and the practice of governance are persistently negotiated and can be fiercely contested.
Thus, public authority is a notion that helps free our research from problematic and misleading assumptions and projections about the nature of statehood, formal authority and formal governance. In the locations in which CPAID will research, actual public authority is mostly made up of informal, semi-formal or ‘twilight’ institutions, including those associated with rebel groups, border trade networks and diverse international actors. Even where the state is present, its manifestations are often unrecognisable as such, or deeply and complexly hybridised.”
Based on previous LSE research, CPAID is kicking off with three particular ways of understanding Public Authority:
The political marketplace – a concept developed by CPAID member Alex de Waal – refers to transactional politics whereby political loyalties and political services are exchanged for material reward. This is an updated, internationally integrated form of patrimonial politics that competes with, and often displaces, processes of state-building and institutional development. The political marketplace is measured and instrumentalised using the ‘political budget’, ‘the price of loyalty’, barriers to market entry and other regulatory elements, and the political-business models and skills of politicians. While monetised politics are found everywhere, in certain places the political market is the dominant logic of the exercise of power, with institutions reduced to a subordinate role. Political markets are increasingly regionalised. Political markets can be turbulent, violent and are integrated into regional and global networks of power and money. New policies and laws may present themselves as protecting the poor while enabling elite and foreign capture of resources.
Recently, new forms of public authority have emerged in countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia, which exhibit both patrimonial characteristics and long-term developmental aspirations. A growing number of political economists have used the foundational work of Mushtaq Khan to argue that in such countries, the political marketplace plays an important role in driving economic development.
Moral populism – the demonising of the ‘other’, or the glorification of exclusive groups or their beliefs and practices, is a further essential tool in the analysis of movements and shifts in public authority in both state and non-state institutions. Moral populism may be benign. For example, moral populism may be integral to authority in religious organisations, enhancing a sense of community among followers, and people may be attracted to faith-based political scripts in reaction to violent repression. Extremist forms of moral populism may also emerge in communities that are subject to severe violence and/or poverty, societal pressure or rapid change, or where many people are traumatized. We identify militant Islamism movements and organizations as manifestations of moral populism, usefully analysed with this lens. Previous research by the CPAID team has described in detail how forms of moral populism can suddenly trigger collective violence or mass flight when linked to moral panics (i.e. when there is a widespread view that people are under immediate threat from evil forces). Moral panics can be of an ethnic nature, but often can be linked to perceptions about things such as witchcraft, child sacrifice and satanic practices.
Public mutuality – In many African contexts, the only real protection available to the rural poor is membership of a locally-regulated moral community. More often than not, that moral community requires the vigorous exclusion of outsiders and sometimes violent forms of moral populism. A sense of mutuality is sustained in a context in which politics are attuned to conditions of persistent uncertainty, conflict and trauma. We seek to identify whether and how affected people are cultivating more inclusionary forms of mutuality and seeking to make them ‘public’, including by promoting principles such as integrity and civility in public authority, despite the extreme pressures. Public mutuality includes practices that sustain integrity, trust, civility, inclusion and dialogue, and non- violence.
Which all sounds absolutely fascinating. Not exactly sure what my role will be yet, but I’m hoping it will include plenty of conversations with communities about how power and public authority actually work, linking up to Oxfam’s work in these places. Over the next couple of decades, the aid world will increasingly zero in on fragile and conflict settings – the toughest nut to crack in development terms, so the sooner we start to understand what life, power and politics there is really like (rather than what we would like it to be), the better. Watch this space.
This article was first published on the From Poverty to Power blog.
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.