I was sitting recently in a rather productive meeting of a project on conflict and fragility, and as the group at the table grappled with the many complex aspects of the topic one increasingly stood out to me: the omnipresent, ambiguous, and often problematic role of patronage and informal politics in countries emerging from conflict. I’ve posted a version of my meeting notes below–and, after that, some thoughts on the challenges that this poses for peacebuilding simulation.
In focusing—quite appropriately—on the key role of effective institutional development and state-building approaches, the development and peacebuilding community needs to be careful that it pays adequate attention to the key role that informal institutions (including patron-client relations and neopatrimonial patterns of political management) play in governance in fragile and war-affected countries. In the long term, there is little doubt that effective political institutions operating under the rule of law and enjoying broad legitimacy in the eyes of citizens are a fundamental contributor to both political stability and social and economic development. In the short-term (and sometimes beyond this), however, local leaders may see patronage-based politics not only as a key method of pursuing their own narrow personal, political, or economic interests, but also as a key—and often the single most important—mechanism of political stabilization. Specifically, informal allocation of resources may be used to win the support or acquiescence of key social constituencies, knit together political coalitions, and generate and distribute tangible benefits associated with peace so as to secure the cooperation of potential spoilers. In many cases, this involves creating alternate channels of resource distribution that circumvent, and even erode, the formal institutions of the state. In other cases, it may involve toleration of corruption or organized crime (itself a distributable benefit), or even the use of these to generate off-the-books resources for political leaders.
Donors have dealt this in a variety of ways. Aid agencies have typically stressed the importance of creating structures, upholding the rule of law, and fighting corruption. The international community has also, at other times, turned a blind eye to patronage-based policies when these are seen as strengthening whatever actors the international community sees as essential to peacebuilding. The international community has also been actively involved in such fostering activities, notably in military-lead local development efforts in the context of stabilization and counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find all three orientations present at once, depending on the conflict, the donor, and the donor counter institution involved (aid agencies, foreign ministries, the military/security/intelligence community). Evidence of this can also be found in the frequent disconnect between the assumptions of the development community those engaged in the theory and the practice of population-centric COIN.
Similar complexity is evident in public attitudes within fragile and conflict-affected countries themselves. Perceptions of corruption may be deeply corrosive of the popular legitimacy of institutions and political structures, ultimately contributing to political instability and violence. However, not all patronage (and, indeed, not all corruption) may be seen as “corrupt.” On the contrary, constituents may see such informal politics as evidence of social engagement, service delivery, and political attention. It may also be seen as an essential coping mechanism for ordinary citizens seeking to deal with the alien bureaucratic complexities of possibly (socially, geographically) emerging or reemerging state. Within conflict-affected governments, there may be a similar range of attitudes, with technocrats sharing the globalized notions of modern statebuilding and institution-building, while more “political” leaders, ministers, and functionaries viewing these same issues much more through the prism of local politics and immediate political interests. Moreover, local parties are certainly capable of shaping their message depending on the audience, playing to themes of institutional capacity-building while engaged with donors, while practicing the calculus of neopatrimonialism in practice.
None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has ever been involved in fragile and conflict-affected countries. Nor is any of this intended to argue the merits of corruption or patronage politics as an alternative approach to conflict resolution and statebuilding. This is particularly true given the perils of path-dependency: consolidation and entrenchment of neopatrimonialism as a response to the imperatives of stabilization risks locking countries into a dangerous and downward spiral of distributive inequalities, rising and/or unmet expectation, fiscal over-extension, increasing corruption, deteriorating efficacy, growing obstacles to reform, and declining legitimacy as a consequence of all of this.
However, it is to suggest that, conceptually, the peacebuilding and reconstruction community has largely failed to deal with this, and that as a consequence there is a current and potentially growing disconnect in both theory and practice. How is it that patronage politics can be limited, contained, channeled, or attenuated in ways that create maximum benefits in terms of stability and legitimization, and the least damage in terms of corruption, inefficiency, inequality, and delegitimization? How is it that we encourage countries emerging from conflict to look more like Jordan and less like Yemen—both places where neopatrimonialism has played a key role in domestic politics, but with strikingly different developmental and institutional outcomes?
If we accept that this is an important underlying dynamic on fragile and conflict-affected countries, how can we adequately capture it in educational training simulations?
One way, of course, would be to include a flow of material incentives, whereby patrons attempt to divert aid and fiscal resources to client constituencies, and clients attempt to maximize their earnings. The problem with this approach is that it fails to adequately capture the normative, cultural, and ideological aspects of this—reducing political loyalty to little more than apolitical rent-seeking. Yet we know that in many cases, however, that clients regard the flow of patronage as a form of political engagement and concern, and that the neopatrimonial allocation or diversion of resources may not been seen by recipients as corruption but as a form of wholly appropriate constituency service.
This normative/cultural/ideological component is important, too. It helps to shape whether informal politics is seen as legitimate and hence legitimizing, or is seen as corrupt, venal, and hence delegitimizing of the state and political elites.
Another simulation approach would be to design the briefing notes in such a way as to stress the social links (whether ethnic, regional, or otherwise) between patrons and clients in an effort to generate some sense of attachment above-and-beyond simple resource maximization. The problem with this approach, it seems to me, is that it might risk portraying neopatrimonialism as simply some sort of embedded and relatively unchangeable primordial politics, thereby understating the potential dynamism of it all.
A third simulation approach would be to assign participants who are close friends to the same patron-client groupings, so as to underpin the resource politics with intangible attachments too. This could be hard to do in many simulation settings, however.
I suppose the best way of doing this might be a combination of all three, to the extent this is possible. Do any of the Paxsims readership have other ideas? If so, feel free to post them as comments!