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Governance at the Margins: Understanding the Role of Intermediaries in Fragile States


Delving deep into the world of “what governance looks like? from below”, Dr. Anuradha Joshi, Senior Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, the University of Sussex, introduced us to the insightful research she and her colleagues have been working on, at the Adam Smith International’s Thought Leaders Forum. Dr. Joshi’s presentation, “Governance at the Margins”, casts a new light on how marginalised communities approach and demand accountability in fragile contexts, and the significant role that intermediaries play in this process.

The Intermediaries: Brokers of Public Goods

Central to the research that Dr. Joshi presented is the study of intermediaries, who serve as a crucial link between marginalised communities and public authorities. Functioning as brokers, these intermediaries, who can vary from political party brokers to retired government officials, are often found actively engaged in the resolution of public goods issues.  

Intermediaries, however, do not operate in a vacuum. Their motivations, effectiveness, and operations are deeply intertwined with the social, political, and familial dynamics of the locations they serve. Their ability to serve as intermediaries and the legitimacy they command hinges upon their capacity to resolve conflicts and meet governance needs. 

Power Dynamics: The Many Faces of Authority 

The complexities of governance in fragile states manifest themselves when one delves into the different forms of authorities that the A4EA research brought to the fore. From ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar to traditional structures in Pakistan, these diverse authorities wield power and have legitimacy in solving problems, often overlapping and even cooperating with state institutions. In our own work at ASI, we have seen this phenomenon playing out in contexts such as Somalia, where the multiplicity of competing actors is one of the key features of the context we engage with. 

In such fragile contexts, authority is a mixed bag. It is influenced by various factors, including conflict, history, geographical location, and the degree of government legitimacy. The importance of high-level authorities varies from place to place, often relying on a combination of familial, social, and political capital. In some areas, such as Mozambique, the political competition between key parties has given rise to parallel and conflicting networks of authority, leading to high levels of self-provision and low public expectations, with profound implications for public policy and development programs. 

Navigating Dilemmas: The Challenge of Governance Programming 

The A4EA research not only provides a detailed picture of governance in fragile states but also highlights the dilemmas and challenges that development practitioners face when working in such complex contexts. For instance, the research underscores the difficulty of focusing on localised solutions, the complexity of governance actors and systems, and the risks associated with engaging in politics.  

One of the key questions is therefore whether to work with the grain, and possibly perpetuating the status quo, or challenging it, which may risk upsetting delicate power balances. Working on stabilisation and state-building programmes in fragile contexts, this is a question ASI delivery teams attempt to answer; and these questions come up also in the context of working with traditional justice systems. The A4EA research underscores the need for a nuanced understanding of these dynamics when strategising interventions at the local level. 

Dr. Joshi speaking at an internal ASI event, called Thought Leaders Forum. In this small snippet, Dr. Yoshi explains the importance of accountability in Governance

Looking Ahead: Implications for Development Practice and Policy 

The implications of these research findings are far-reaching, particularly for development practitioners working in fragile states. The findings shed light on the importance of acknowledging and addressing the risks associated with engaging with structures at the very local level.

It underscores the need for development actors to consider the challenges of working at scale across multiple locations and understand why the status quo is the way it is. This knowledge is vital in the development of strategies that can truly make a positive impact on the ground.  

Moreover, the research also points towards the potential value of working closely with these intermediaries, who often hold significant influence within their communities. Recognising their roles and understanding their motivations and operations can provide the key to a more effective engagement and development work in these diverse locations.

For instance, the research sheds light on how these intermediaries work to reinforce and redistribute zakat, as was seen during the COVID period.

The study also highlights the continued dominance of local patriarchal structures in these governance systems. Women often need to resort to male intermediaries to resolve problems.

However, it was noted that in some cases, female intermediaries could leverage their gender norms to their advantage, such as when they were elected or chosen as village leaders during periods of conflict.

The study also explores instances where informal arrangements led by intermediaries play a significant role in governance.

For instance, the study finds that in Myanmar, villages created their own rules, locally enforced by village leaders. Also in Myanmar,  , the local community built a prison to hold criminals until the police could come and take them away. These unique arrangements and local solutions have significant implications for public policy and development programmes.

Finally, Dr. Joshi’s and colleagues research underscores the need for fostering a culture of accountability when working with organisations across the board – this can include local governments, armed organisations and higher-level public authorities.

In conclusion, the A4EA research on “Governance at the Margins” is an important contribution to our understanding of governance in fragile contexts. By shedding light on the complex web of authority, the role of intermediaries, and the intricate dynamics of local governance systems, the research offers valuable insights for development practitioners navigating these challenging terrains. The challenge now is to take these insights and translate them into effective, context-specific strategies and interventions that can truly make a positive impact on the ground.

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