Transforming the state: building security from below

Zimbabwe is often held up as the typical ‘fragile state’ in need of wholesale ‘security’ and ‘governance’ reform. Indeed such issues are high on the agenda of those debating Zimbabwe’s transition. While we await the outcome of the vote on the new Constitution held on Saturday (almost certainly an endorsement), thoughts must turn to other aspects of the transition. Building a basis for effective governance and security from below is an essential part of realising the ambitions of the proposed Constitution. Developing a framework for support, including by donors who will now hopefully reengage with Zimbabwe, is essential.

A recent paper from the LSE’s Justice and Security Research Programme by Robin Luckham from IDS and Tom Kirk from LSE offers some interesting perspectives, and challenges some of the core assumptions of a standard, donor-led reform agenda. Its findings are highly relevant to Zimbabwe, and it is well worth reading in full.

It starts from the observation that in many ‘fragile state’ settings, there are ‘hybrid political orders’ operating. Far from a situation of state failure, according to the OECD such societies:

[c]ontinue to function, to form institutions, to negotiate politically, and to set and meet expectations. Traditional forms of authority are not necessarily inimical to the development of rules-based political systems … In fact, the challenge is to understand how traditional and formal systems interact in any particular context, and to look for ways of constructively combining them. (OECD 2011)

This is certainly the case in Zimbabwe where a lack of security is creating vulnerability and risk for many citizens. Yet as the LSE paper notes:

“much mainstream academic and policy thinking that security is an almost self-evident public good unproblematically delivered by states or by the international community in situations of state failure. For the most part, this mainstream has showed little interest in unpeeling security’s multiple layers of meaning; it has not properly investigated the relationship of security to political power; it has not scrutinised security as a politically contested object; and it has not on the whole looked at it from the perspective of end-users, i.e. those who are secured. Whilst new approaches to human and citizen security have challenged the state-centric bias of previous security thinking, they still tend to overlook security’s relationships to political power, including its deeply contested nature in hybrid political orders”.

So what are hybrid political orders? This literature refers to such phenomena as ‘legal pluralism’, ‘twilight institutions’ and ‘mediated’ or ‘negotiated’ states. Public authority is not fixed, and is continuously produced through negotiation across a range of actors. This challenges to rethink the nature of ‘the state’ in such settings, and indeed its assumed functions, including security, which may be delivered through multiple processes.

Even the World Bank, long an advocate of standard, western style governance reforms appears to accept elements of this argument. In its flagship World Development Report publication of 2011 it argued for ‘collaborative, inclusive-enough coalitions’ which ’restore confidence and transform institutions and help create continued momentum for positive change’. This is not an image of standardised, imposed governance and security reform.

But what political processes might help form such coalitions to deliver security? This is far from straightforward. Simplistic reform measures often advocated by donors as part of ‘post-conflict’ reconstruction interventions will not work. The LSE paper argues that “donor policies and programmes aiming to reform the security sectors of fragile and contested states should be viewed with a heavy dose of caution”. The paper notes the extreme mismatch between a policy literature which “tends to assume that states and their security and justice institutions are capable in principle of delivering security if reforms are pushed through” and a critical research literature which “suggests that insecurity and violence may be entrenched in the heart of the state itself and ‘work’ to the benefit of predatory state and other elites”.

The paper goes on “Thus, in countries with corrupt or abusive institutions… those responsible for delivering security and justice are often the perpetrators of insecurity…Conversely the alleged agents of insecurity… may offer alternative forms of protection or even claim to act as liberators”. Thus in Zimbabwe, the state has often been a major source of insecurity, leading violence during election periods, intimidating people not towing the line, and overseeing a security apparatus that has its tentacles spread into every corner. Yet at a local level, it is sometimes war veterans – often seen as agents of disorder and disruption – who keep the peace, negotiating security through pacts with local leaders, traditional, religious and others. Allied at some moments with the central state, but highly disillusioned and resistant at others, such processes are typical of hybrid political orders, perpetually negotiated, always contingent and highly context specific. This is why generalised narratives about violence, insecurity and disorder are always inadequate, and require locating and specifying in better understandings of what happens in particular places, as we have long argued in our work on land reform.

Yet at a moment of potential transition, how can the state be reformed to allow for justice, security and rights for citizens after a period of turmoil, and capture by elites? A locale-specific, negotiated arrangement is clearly not enough, and is always fragile. In terms of the literature surveyed in the LSE paper, Zimbabwe can be characterised as a ‘Contested Leviathan’, a setting where state power is contested, but the apparatus of control is still in place, through the armed forces and the security services in particular, allied to a narrow political elite with waning support.

As the literature shows from numerous cases, “These contested Leviathans seldom give up their claims on power willingly or peacefully. Even when they do start to cede power to democratically elected governments, as in Egypt and Burma, their security apparatus may seek to co-opt the transitions and mould them to their own security-dominated vision of the polity”… “Under hybrid governance systems, security arrangements often protect elites, including security elites, and reinforce inequalities in power and wealth. They tend all too often to be deployed to close political spaces, reduce political participation and resist accountability”….[Formal arrangements] in turn “interconnect with the parallel powers of hybrid political orders, including systems of patronage, and the manipulation of ethnic and religious identities as instruments of security policy” [Such] “regimes and their security apparatuses may sometimes even thrive upon durable disorder and insecurity” Does this sound like Zimbabwe? Certainly it does, as Brian Raftopoulos and others have vividly described.

My colleague Mariz Tadros has shown in the case of Egypt, agents of state security act as parallel powers, intersecting with other corporate and political interests, and with influence deep into civil society. This can help perpetuate the legacies of injustice, even in supposedly democratic or ‘post-conflict’ states. For any country in transition, including Zimbabwe, this is an important lesson, felt acutely in Central America, and most recently in the Middle East.

The LSE paper makes the case that we need to understand what security looks like ‘from below’, i.e. from the perspective of ‘end users’ be these citizens of states, members of local communities or those who are marginalised. It is from here that a rebuilding of security must start, accepting hybrid political orders, but also addressing the political and social inequalities that come with them. A political process for rebuilding security, and with it the state itself, must start the paper argues with asking: “What are their vernacular understandings of security and how do these reflect the hybrid and contested nature of political authority at a local level? What connects their particular and local experiences and understandings to wider conceptions of citizen and of human security?

Only with a view of security from below can a legitimate and accountable state be rebuilt. This is an important set of ideas that has much relevance for the immediate future of Zimbabwe, and begins to put flesh on the idea of ‘rebuilding public authority from below’ we floated in our book. I hope those involved in this debate will learn as much as I did from this impressive paper and review of the literature.

Next week, the blog will reflect on the outcome of the vote on the Constitution, and in particular the implications for the land issue.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s