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Public service motivation: Love or money?

14 March 2014

Sumedh RaoSumedh Rao is a Research Fellow in the GSDRC, working on governance in situations of conflict and fragility, statebuilding and state fragility, political economy analysis, aid architecture, anti-corruption reforms, and civil service reform.

Ask what motivates workers, and the common response is a list of carrots and sticks. But offer a worker one of these carrots and they may just be insulted. When the Boston Fire Department replaced its policy of unlimited sick days with a 15-day sick day limit, ten times more firefighters called in sick on the following Christmas and New Years’ Day than the year before. When the Fire Department decided to cancel the firefighters’ holiday bonuses in retaliation, the firemen went on to claim almost twice as many sick days as before, apparently angered by the new system.

Samuel Bowles, who looked at this case study, argues[1] that the result of the new system was that firefighters abused it and abandoned their previous ethic of serving the public even when injured or not feeling well. 

Carrots and sticks are messages and they can signal distrust in employees and encourage them to ‘game the system’ – to be more selfish instead of being altruistic or public-minded. Humans are not donkeys and need much more nuanced motivators. To achieve the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, delivering health, education and other life-sustaining public services, we need to find these motivators. This is why the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence and the GSDRC are running an e-discussion[2] to find evidence and experiences on what does and doesn’t work for public service motivation.

Well, what about money as a motivator? Surprisingly, money doesn’t seem to be what attracts people to public sector jobs or what keeps them there. One study[3] found that people are attracted to these jobs because of greater opportunities to help people. Higher earnings, better job security and working hours aren’t the appeal, and can actually put off some health and education workers.  

This is good news, both for developing countries with tight resources but also richer countries having to cut budgets following the global recession.

So what are the key non-financial factors that motivate? Different studies and authors have different findings but there are common themes.

Three nonfinancial motivators emerged from a global staff survey[4]  across a range of sectors: praise and commendation from an immediate manager, attention from leaders, and opportunities to lead projects or task forces. These were found to be even more effective motivators than the highest-rated financial incentives.

Dan Ariely[5] argues that what’s important is seeing the fruits of our labour; feeling appreciated; knowing that we are helping others, even unconsciously; and positive reinforcement about our abilities.

Dan Pink[6] argues that for simple, repetitive tasks, money can be a motivator. But with more complex jobs, you need to pay enough for people to forget about compensation and focus on the work, and then allow autonomy, mastery and purpose. The work should satisfy the desire to direct one’s own life (autonomy), the urge to get better and better at something (mastery) and the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves (purpose).

It seems the key to maintaining public service motivation would be, in fact, letting people do public service – visible, appreciated work that helps others, and which they get better at over time. How do we best enable them to successfully carry out public service work?  

Civil services can face very challenging conditions. In some countries public sector jobs are sinecures – paid positions with little or no work – given as patronage. In other countries the public sector has to compete against other employers such as ‘project implementation units’ paid for by foreign donors who can offer better conditions.

While better-resourced countries struggle to maintain morale within their public sectors, how are developing countries to maintain theirs? And how do we ensure we cater to different people within different contexts, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach?

I’d like to ask you, the reader, to share your thoughts on what works. With the reminder, of course, that you are free to do so, it’s always good to improve your discussion skills, and that your comments will be helpful and very much appreciated.

Is that motivating enough?


[1] Bowles, S. (2012). Machiavelli’s Mistake: Why Good Laws Are No Substitute for Good Citizens. Draft for UCLA Legal Theory Workshop. http://www.law.ucla.edu/workshops-colloquia/Documents/Samuel%20Bowles.Machiavelli’s%20Mistake.pdf

[3] Georgellis, Y., Iossa, E., & Tabvuma, V. (2011). Crowding out intrinsic motivation in the public sector. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 21(3), 473-493. http://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/16577/1/Crowding_Out_Intrinsic_Motivation__Georgellis_final.pdf

[4] Dewhurst, M., Guthridge, M. & Mohr, E. (2009). Motivating People: Getting Beyond Money. McKinsey Quarterly, November 2009. http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Motivating_people_Getting_beyond_money_2460

[5] Gross, J. (2013, April 10). What motivates us at work? 7 fascinating studies that give insights. TED Blog. Retrieved 13 March 2014. http://blog.ted.com/2013/04/10/what-motivates-us-at-work-7-fascinating-studies-that-give-insights/

[6] Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin. http://www.danpink.com/books/drive/

Violence in South Sudan illustrates the perils of state building

14 January 2014

paul-jackson165x212Paul Jackson is a political economist working predominantly on conflict and post-conflict reconstruction. Core areas of interest include decentralisation and governance, conflict analysis, and security sector reform.

The Christmas period in the newest nation in the world, South Sudan, has been a violent one. More than 1,000 people are believed to have died (BBC) with more than 120,000 forced to flee ethnic clashes (BBC) in one of the least developed countries in the world. The President of the UN Security Council, Gerard Arnaud, has warned that this could lead to a fully fledged ethnic war in the country and around 7,500 UN peacekeeping troops have deployed to the country. In a country that is awash with guns and with a long history of violence between ethnic groups, populist political rhetoric along ethnic lines is dangerous.

The situation remains confusing. President Kiir claims it was a coup attempt by former Vice-president Riek Machar. Meanwhile, the authorities arrested 10 other senior political figures and said they were searching for 5 more. Machar himself denies the coup claim and the situation is far more complex than the official version.

South Sudan overwhelmingly voted to break from Sudan in 2011 in the midst of great optimism for its economic future, partly driven by access to oil reserves. However, ongoing disputes, both internal and with Khartoum, delayed production until April 2013. At the same time, the country has been subject to significant international support aimed at creating a new and functioning set of state institutions within a democratic framework.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA/M), which currently holds power in Juba, led the fight against the North that culminated in independence, but it was not the only armed group involved. At the same time, it was also a divided movement with factionalism so deep that the war became as much a fight between southerners as with the north. Peace has been affected by continuing dissent from localised militias opposed to the SPLA.

The deepest divide was between the largest group, the Dinka and the second largest, the Nuer. The leader of the SPLA during the civil war was a Dinka, John Garang, and Machar was one of three Nuer SPLA commanders to break away from the SPLA and oppose the ‘dictatorial tendencies’ of Garang. Many Dinka have never forgiven Macher for this and only accepted his Vice-Presidency as a price for peace with the Nuer.

This places Kiir and Machar as political and ethnic rivals jostling for position before elections scheduled for 2015. In July Kiir fired his entire cabinet, including Machar, as a pre-emptive strike against political opponents. Since then Machar has been increasingly critical of the President. Machar himself remains deputy chairman of the SPLA and has based his criticism on a lack of reform by Kiir, claiming that Kiir was preventing the transformation of the SPLA from liberation movement in to a political party.

What is interesting is the wide ethnic and regional range of those arrested. Kiir may have arrested so many prominent and senior SPLA/M figures because there was a genuine threat to his leadership, in which case this is clearly not a democratic move within a political party. Alternatively it could signal that Kiir is cleaning out his rivals, taking advantage of the violence perpetrated by military hotheads. Either way, Kiir appears to have unleashed a series of political and violent forces that endanger the fragile democracy of South Sudan, and the personal rivalry of Machar and Kiir places South Sudan, and thousands of people living in appalling conditions, in considerable danger.

A major part of the problem is that this infighting within the SPLA/M is not new. A ferociously brave resistance movement, the SPLA was frequently let down by poor organisation and this has continued in to the peace. With around 55% of the South’s budget allocated to defence, and a lack of progress with professionalization, the SPLA remains a corrupt grouping of local ethnic groups tied together with cash payments rather than a professional army. A spark could ignite a more comprehensive civil war in the south.

What can the international community learn from this? The US and UK, amongst others, have played a significant part in ending the civil war in Sudan and setting the south on to a democratic path. However, calls for respect for human rights, democratic government and a wider role for civil society are consistently ignored. This might be surprising given the high level of international support for the country, but the SPLA/M appears to believe that the international partners will not abandon a country where they have invested so much time and money, which is starting to produce oil, and which is effectively a bulwark against the ‘rogue state’ of Sudan to the north.

A peace agreement that excluded several ‘other armed groups’, relying on the SPLA/M to incorporate them into the new state when it has been unable to integrate ethnic groups itself, has proved extremely problematic. The resulting moves towards democracy have been taken on very shaky political ground that has remained largely unexplored by the international community, which has built a state infrastructure by the book, but on foundations of sand.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 1918-2013

6 December 2013

A tribute to Madiba

We were deeply saddened, like much of the rest of the world, to read about the death of Nelson Mandela. When he began his ‘long walk to freedom’, both of us were teenagers, and his story – of strength, compassion, sacrifice, compromise and hope – inspired us on the paths that eventually led us to the Developmental Leadership Program.

DLP’s research over the years has inevitably looked at Mandela’s leadership – from Jo-Ansie van Wyk’s study of the ANC, business and development, to Monique Theron’s work on African heads of state. But Madiba was not just a ‘big man’ of history; he was the embodiment of what we call ‘developmental leadership’. He used his power and authority in order to mobilise people and resources for developmental ends, overcoming many deeply entrenched collective action problems. He didn’t simply rule but instead brought people together in coalitions for change and, in doing so, changed the world.

There are a small number of former leaders who we – as a global family – revere, rather than simply remember, for their willingness to fight long and hard to help end inequality. They privileged the poor and the disadvantaged, and they did so for as long as they could. They articulated the hopes of the millions.

Our current leaders could well learn this lesson. Inequality in South Africa is rising, a potential threat to Mandela’s legacy there; around the world, inequality has never been so stark and threatens existing progress on poverty reduction. Our leaders should celebrate Mandela’s life not through words but through deeds, and give us back the hope we all felt when we saw him leave prison almost 25 years ago. He deserves no less.

Heather Marquette David HudsonHeather Marquette, Reader in Development Politics at IDD, and David Hudson, Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at UCL, are directors of research for the Developmental Leadership Program (DLP).

Photo of Nelson Mandela courtesy of South Africa The Good News

Making ‘climate compatible development’ possible in coastal areas

19 November 2013

Fiona NunanFiona Nunan is Lecturer in Environment and Development in IDD, specialising in natural resource governance and management in developing country settings, particularly within inland fisheries and coastal locations in East and Southern Africa, and in exploring the links between poverty and the environment.

As the 19th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meets (11th – 22nd November 2013) in Warsaw, building adaptation capacity within the context of development must be firmly on the agenda. Approaches such as ‘climate-smart development’, ‘low carbon development’ and ‘climate compatible development’ reflect a desire to bring together efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and increase storage or sinks for carbon dioxide, increase adaptive capacity and develop adaptation strategies, and to reduce poverty. Whilst these approaches are attractive, questions remain as to how far these objectives can be tackled together.

Climate compatible development

“Development that minimises the harm caused by climate impacts, while maximising the many human development opportunities presented by a low emissions, more resilient, future” (Mitchell and Maxwell 2010).

This approach to development is advocated by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), the funders of this research.

Climate Compatible Development

Climate Compatible Development
Reproduced from Mitchell and Maxwell (2010)

Our research in Sri Lanka and Kenya on the potential for climate compatible development in coastal areas has identified a range of policy mechanisms that already exist, or could be fairly readily adopted, that could contribute towards achieving these multiple goals.

Climate change presents considerable challenges for coastal areas, which are already under significant pressure from diverse sources and are often sites of contestation, with competing, and at times conflicting, demands for the use of land, extraction of natural resources and access to beaches and fishing grounds. The impacts of climate change will magnify and deepen such challenges, presenting an urgent need for adaptation strategies for local and national populations. Coastal ecosystems also present extensive opportunities for climate change mitigation through carbon capture and storage, as well as being important areas for livelihoods and economic development.

Examples of packages mechanisms for CCD

Multiple policy instruments and approaches already exist that could support the delivery of CCD in coastal areas including:

  • Integrated coastal zone management
  • Climate change mainstreaming
  • Payments for ecosystems services schemes
  • Protected area status
  • Environmental impact assessment and strategic environmental assessment
  • Collaborative forms of natural resource management.

To strengthen the potential of delivering on CCD, such mechanisms could be brought together as a package of complementary measures to enable delivery on mitigation, adaptation and development. Examples of such packages are:

1. Integrated coastal zone management/collaborative forms of natural resource management/ protected area status/climate change mainstreaming

ICZM very often involves the participation of coastal communities, but there may be multiple forms of collaborative natural resource management that could be coordinated for a more effective, integrated approach. Protected area status can strengthen the mitigation and adaptation potential of coastal ecosystems and contribute to improved livelihoods. ICZM can strengthen the resilience of ecosystems to climate change as well as carbon storage potential.

2. Payments for ecosystem services/collaborative forms of natural resource management/ protected area status/climate change mainstreaming

Community-based PES schemes require a form of collaborative natural resource management between communities and relevant government departments, with appropriate policy and legal support. Protected area status and climate change mainstreaming can strengthen the contribution of PES to mitigation and adaptation, and, with a strong poverty orientation in the design, to improved livelihoods.

3. Land-use planning/EIA and SEA/climate change mainstreaming

As there are very often multiple land uses and demands in coastal areas, land-use planning systems have the potential to make a real difference to the resilience of coastal areas to climate change and to the mitigation potential of coastal ecosystems. Land-use planning also has significant effects on local livelihoods – in both positive and negative ways. Bringing together land use planning with strategic environmental assessment and climate change mainstreaming could result in a much more holistic, resilient approach to planning for CCD.

Kalpitiya Lagoon, Sri Lanka (photo credit: Priyantha Kumara)

Kalpitiya Lagoon, Sri Lanka (photo credit: Priyantha Kumara)

What does policy need to promote CCD in coastal areas?

To enable such mechanisms, or packages of mechanisms, to deliver on CCD in practice, significant leadership is needed to bring people and ideas together across sectors and between stakeholder groups. In particular, what would be needed includes:

  • Coordinated policy across sectors, which include environment, climate change, land use planning and forestry.
  • Strengthened integrated management of coastal areas, including measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change and to reduce poverty of local people.
  • Effective participation of coastal communities in governance structures and processes, with strengthened and coordinated collaborative management.
  • Implementation of existing policy, with the resources (financial, technical and political will) to support implementation.

Clearly the potential is there for climate compatible development to happen in coastal areas, but a genuinely coordinated and integrated approach to policy and management is needed, with effective participation of a range of stakeholders, including local users of natural resources, and financial resources to ensure implementation.

This blog is an output from a project funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Netherlands Directorate-General for International Cooperation (DGIS) for the benefit of developing countries. However, the views expressed and information contained in it are not necessarily those of or endorsed by DFID, DGIS or the entities managing the delivery of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, which can accept no responsibility or liability for such views, completeness or accuracy of the information or for any reliance placed on them.

Fishing for decentralisation in Yemen

6 November 2013

nickson-andrewAndrew Nickson is Honorary Reader in Public Management and Latin American Studies in IDD and has extensive worldwide experience of teaching, research and consultancy on public administration reform, decentralisation, and the reform of basic service delivery and regulation of privatised public utilities. He is currently in Yemen, contributing to UNICEF’s strategic thinking in the direction of greater engagement with district councils and local level planning.

Yemen, the ancient Kingdom of Sheba, is facing a critical juncture in its tumultuous recent history. Formerly divided into South Yemen and North Yemen, unification took place in 1990, followed by two decades of growing authoritarian rule by military-backed regimes. Student uprisings in the Arab Spring forced President Saleh to leave office in November 2012, but not to leave the country. Since March this year a 565-delegate National Dialogue Conference (NDC) has been in session, striving to agree on the future shape of the country against a backdrop of terrorist strikes, drone attacks, kidnappings and assassinations. The NDC initiative is strongly supported by the international community, including the presence of a Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General. A separatist movement (Hiraak) in the south is pressing for a federal system with only two states. This would be followed by a referendum, which they hope would then lead to secession and a return to separate statehood for South Yemen (and, by default, North Yemen). They argue that the international community has already accepted the precedent in the case of Sudan, where greater autonomy for the south was followed by a referendum in favour of secession and eventual statehood for South Sudan, which has now become the newest member of the United Nations. But other parties are pressing for an alternative federal arrangement comprising five states, each with a high degree of autonomy, but without the risks to national unity posed by the two-state model.

Old Sana'a street crowd - photo credit Stefan Geens Old Sana’a street crowd – Photo credit Stefan Geens

Yemen (pop. 25m) is currently a unitary state with 21 regional governorates and 333 district councils, as well as over 130,000 communities, most of which are in remote desert areas. Yet in its discussions so far, none of the eight working groups of the NDC have given any attention to the extremely weak presence of the state at the district level, which is limited mainly to field offices of some central government line ministries. District council elections were last held in 2004 and the mandate of the handpicked councillors was extended for a further seven years when their three year mandate expired. In the absence of basic electoral accountability, corruption and mismanagement has flourished. Citizen participation in local service delivery is now virtually non-existent in many parts of the country, especially where tribal sheikhs have monopolised councillor posts.  Meanwhile Yemen has one of the worst indicators of human development in the world. The health and education sectors receive only 4% and 17% respectively of public expenditure, the majority of which is swallowed up by the security services (armed forces and police). UNICEF figures for 2012 show that an alarming 50% of under-fives are stunted, 15% suffer from severe malnutrition, 50% of households in rural areas do not have access to safe water, only 17% of births of children under five were registered, and the maternal mortality rate, at 200 per 100,000 live births, was one of the highest in the world.

Unlike the 1994 national dialogue in Bolivia, where independent civil society organisations (CSOs) played a major role in its deliberations, the NDC is dominated by political parties and vested interests. Whatever is the final outcome of its bargaining on the future shape of Yemen, it would be naïve to think that this reconfiguration will somehow be a panacea for meeting the urgent development needs of the people. In fact, the NDC urgently needs to incorporate the issues of citizen participation and the role of district councils in its deliberations. Why so? Because in country after country where, in the name of ‘decentralisation’, governmental reforms have preferentially strengthened an intermediate (state or provincial) tier of government, the latter has almost always sucked powers not only downwards from central government but also upwards from local government. This “decentralisation of centralisation”, with its attendant growth of an often venal and self-serving bureaucracy, has invariably produced negative consequences for basic service delivery and citizen empowerment at the local level.

Old Town SanaaOld Town Sanaa – Photo credit: Richard Messenger

Empire without End?

24 September 2013

campbell-adrianAdrian Campbell is a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department. He is an organizational theorist with longstanding interests and experience in the associated fields of leadership and human resource management and he has researched, taught and consulted in these fields for over thirty years. Adrian is a strong believer in organizational analysis (primarily the interaction between the three factors of structure, power and culture, and between rational and non-rational motivation) rather than the prevailing fashion for institutional analysis. The experience of the contradictions involved in the reform of Russian federalism led him towards a preoccupation with the concept of empire which is now the main focus of his research.

The paper East, West, Rome’s best? The imperial turn explores in more detail why the period of unipolarity experienced after the end of the Cold War ended with the emergence of China and other rising powers. Adrian argues that the current changes with respect to the transfer of power within the global system are suggestive of the Roman concept of ‘translatio imperii’-meaning there is a succession of one ephemeral empire to the next  with each attaining a semblance of eternity that empires aspire to but never achieve.

Focusing on Russia and the background to its recent diplomatic success over Syria, this blog post presents Adrian’s views on why the concept of empires may still be relevant in the 21st century. To him, the West could not anticipate the return of the Russians because they failed to understand the latter’s attachment to the idea of their country as an eternal empire. Read on and learn more about empires and their significance today.

During the recent Syria crisis I found myself recalling an image from September, 1994; a blustering, furious speech by the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin, protesting about NATO airstrikes on Serb positions around Sarajevo, his anger seemingly not so much over the strikes as such but how the West had shown that Russia could safely be ignored.  Only seven months earlier, in February, 1994, Russia had secured a rescinding of NATO’s threat in return for Serb agreement to withdraw their artillery. That agreement (eerily similar to the recent agreement on Syria) had been hailed by the Kremlin as ‘diplomatic victory of global significance’, one that (as the LA Times put it) gave Russia ‘that old superpower feeling’. In the event, neither the agreement nor the feeling were to last.

It is possible, but unlikely, that the same sequence of events will be repeated this time around. Russia in 1994 was at a historical low whilst the US was enjoying its unipolar moment. Russia has spent much of the intervening period (during which it was generally written off as an international player by expert opinion) playing a longer game, strengthening links with China, Central Asia, Indonesia, Latin America, supporting multi-lateral organisations that `excluded the West (whether or not they served any other purpose) and  (so far) containing or reversing the effects of the Western-backed ‘colour revolutions’ in neighbouring states. French analyst Emmanuel Todd, who had correctly predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, observed in 2001 that the West appeared to have forgotten that chess was Russia’s national game (indeed, the ‘checkmate’ image has recurred in the media in recent weeks).

Part of the problem is the degree to which views of Russia are tied to perceptions of the leader – just as Bill Clinton reportedly had difficulty seeing Russia other than through the prism of the chaotic personality of his friend Boris, so the West tends to see Russia in terms of the idiosyncrasies of its current president, and thereby ignore the historical dimensions of current disagreements. For example, when Putin, at the end of his 9-11 New York Times article, referred to the dangers of exceptionalism whatever the motivation, many in his home audience would have seen a direct reference to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where the anti-hero, Raskolnikov, writes an article that justifies crime if committed by extraordinary people with higher ideals. Raskolnikov, whose name recalls the Russian term for the religious schism of the 11th century between Byzantium and Rome is the most striking of many Russian fictional characters who embody the country’s Russia’s troubled and paradoxical relationship with Western modernity, an early form of the hybrid identity of post-colonial literature.

As the Cold War ended, it was assumed by many that a capitalist Russia,  minus the ideology of Communism, would become part of, or at least a poor relation of, the West and that any remaining friction would disappear once Russia dropped its ‘imperial baggage’. The implied analogy was with Britain, which had accepted the inevitability of decline and had transferred its global role to the United States.  This view ignored an important peculiarity of the Russian case. Unlike the colonial empires of Western Europe, which were cohesive nation states before they expanded overseas, Russia was an empire before it became a nation state and as a land-based empire there was no clear boundary between metropole and dependencies.  Russian national identity is thus attached to empire as a concept in a way that has no analogy in Western Europe (this is not to be confused with ethno-nationalism in Russia which in fact undermines any aspiration to wider influence).

More fundamentally, Russia shares with China an implicit view of the state as eternal – that periods of instability and collapse are merely temporary phases in a longer cycle. In the West all empires and superpowers ultimately look back to the decline and fall of Rome (or rather its Western half) in the fifth century, a source of fascination from Gibbon to Paul Kennedy.  The Eastern Roman empire, of which the Russian empire became to some extent the successor state, lasted another thousand years, so the myth of decline is less powerful.

The concept of decline is even less relevant to China, where successive reinventions of empire have occurred over broadly the same location, enabling a more convincing approximation of eternity than Rome was able to achieve. In the West where geographically dispersed rival imperial centres have vied for supremacy over centuries, only the USA after 1945 and more particularly after 1991, ever attained a position of (briefly) unrivalled leadership of the Western world – precisely at the point the Western world as a whole began to lose its own leading position (it is curious to note how Iran, over millennia has both retained its imperial vocation and also its role as a pivot between East and West).

China and Rome, in different ways and isolation from each other, both created the concept of universal empire, which under various guises has survived to the present day. It is unclear whether these different concepts of universalism will compete or merge, or a combination of the two.

The Eagle and the DragonThis question lies behind an upsurge of interest in comparative research on Ancient Rome and China in recent years. One major exhibition in Rome in 2009 brought together artefacts from ancient Rome and China under the title ‘the Eagle and the Dragon. It was interesting to note that the Italian language poster for the exhibition (pictured) placed the Roman and Chinese statues confronting each other as mutually alien civilizations, whereas the English language poster (also pictured) preferred to place the two statues shoulder to shoulder, facing the future together, altogether a more comforting view for the current leaders of the West.The Two Empires

America’s concept of manifest destiny was linked to the Roman concept of ‘translatio imperii’, the transfer of imperial legitimacy westwards from Troy to Rome and ultimately (several transfers later)  to the United States, the ‘last empire’. An alternative view (popular in nineteenth century Russia) was that imperial legitimacy went eastwards to Byzantium and then to Russia. Uncertainty about  the nature of China’s emerging global power is reflected in the way its rise can be accommodated with either version of the translatio imperii myth;  it can be seen receiving legitimacy westwards across the Pacific from the United States, or eastwards across central Asia from Russia. Of course the translatio imperii is a mythical construct, but it is one that has retained an intuitive appeal for anyone attempting to make sense of longer term geopolitical trends. It also brings out the ambiguity of the rise of China – on the one hand China, as the ancient ‘middle kingdom’ has no need to see itself as heir to Rome, having, unlike the other great powers, a quite separate and older history. On the other hand, China is emerging as a dominant power in a global system that has been created by powers which were, or which saw themselves as being, the heirs of Rome.

Campbell, A. (2013). East, West, Rome’s best? The imperial turn. Global Discourse, 3(1), 34-47.

In search of a new paradigm for international interventions.

21 August 2013

Nicolas Lemay-HebertNicolas Lemay-Hébert is a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department. He is interested in peacebuilding and statebuilding, humanitarian interventions in post-conflict or post-disaster contexts, and local narratives of resistance to international interventions. Nicolas co-convenes the postgraduate module on Governance and Statebuilding.

Nicolas presented a paper called The Unfulfilled Potential of the Light Footprint Approach for Peace Missions at the International Studies Association Conference at San Francisco in April 2013.  He described a consensus emerging in the statebuilding literature about the unintended consequences of international peacebuilding missions, which often contribute towards creating local tensions instead of creating conditions for lasting peace. The paper analyses the potential of the local ownership paradigm applied to international peacebuilding missions, especially when coupled with the participatory intervention framework. With particular emphasis on the ‘light footprint’ approach of Afghanistan, the paper seeks to contribute to a different understanding of the impacts of peacebuilding missions on local settings, while placing emphasis on new possibilities for international interventions.

Below is a chat I had with him about the issues raised in the paper.

What is responsible for the shift in the ideology of liberal internationalism/ the orthodox peace framework to the local ownership paradigm in international peacebuilding?

First of all, I think “shift” might be too strong a word. The liberal peace paradigm (labelled “liberal interventionism” or “liberal internationalism”) is still the dominant form of internationally-supported peacebuilding. Liberal peace refers here to the idea that certain kinds of society will tend to be more peaceful, both in their domestic affairs and in their international relations, than “illiberal” states. Hence, liberal peacebuilding implies not just managing instability between states, the traditional focus of the International Relations discipline, but also building peace within states on the basis of liberal democracy and market economics. In this context, the increased attention to local ownership shows more a shift in the means of intervention than a shift in the paradigm of intervention.[1] This shift in the means of intervention can be traced to the “lessons learned” in Kosovo and in Timor-Leste for the United Nations (UN), and in Iraq for the US. The UN administered both Kosovo and Timor-Leste, and one of the lessons of the “Timor-Leste experiment” identified by Vieira de Mello himself is that “there must be the will to cede power as soon as possible.

The United Nations, the keenest of proponents of decolonisation, has in East Timor and Kosovo found itself accorded neo-colonial powers. The result was initially unsettling.”[2] The local and international consequences of the UN having to administer these two territories – described in earlier works[3] – led many at the UN Department of Peace-Keeping Operations (DPKO) to ‘fight like hell’ to prevent the creation of a new mission of this sort, in the words of one of them (interview in 2008). Thus, even if debates surrounding the concept of local ownership have already been quite vibrant in the security sector reform and aid and development literatures, they only appeared recently in the peacebuilding literature, mainly following the Timorese, Kosovar and Iraqi experiences.

Is there a difference between the local ownership paradigm and participatory intervention framework?

Image by the US Department of State

Delegates at Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga, or Grand Council, in June 2002

The main difference is that the local ownership concept is broader, straddling different disciplines and debates, whereas the “participatory intervention” framework is more specific to the field of intervention, statebuilding and peacebuilding. Local ownership can be defined as a process where the solutions to a particular society’s needs are developed in concert with the people who are going to live with, and uphold, these solutions in the long run. As for the participatory intervention framework (put forth by Jarat Chopra and Tanja Hohe), it implies “granting space for local voices to be expressed and for communities to get directly involved in the evolution of their own cultural or political foundations.” This means “giving time for an indigenous paradigm to coexist with, or to gradually transform during the creation of, modern institutions.”[4] What is interesting about this framework is that it highlights to academics and practitioners the importance of creating policies “appropriate to the context they are implemented in.” The focus is on the nature of the relationship, rather than on discussions such as “who are the locals?” and the extent the ownership process must be legitimately viewed as local to qualify as such. Thus, this framework contributes in its own way to emancipatory debates in peacebuilding.

In what way can a combined implementation of these two peacebuilding processes prevent the unintended consequences of international peacebuilding missions?

Local ownership or the participatory intervention framework do not fit neatly with top-down approaches to peacebuilding and statebuilding. Within this perspective, local actors have to be recognised as true partners in the statebuilding process rather than mere recipients of foreign aid. If one wants to allow space for local actors in a participatory framework, authority can hardly be monopolised by the international actors. The use of the concept by many international actors as a mere legitimizing principle for the same old international policies tends to discredit this framework. However, by focusing on policies “appropriate to the context they are implemented in,” the participatory intervention framework is designed to mitigate the most blatant consequences of massive international presence on small locales, in line with the “do no harm” approach.

What is meant by the light footprint approach in international peacebuilding missions? How is this different from previously adopted approaches of international peacebuilding missions?

“Light footprint” was a term coined during the planning of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) by Lakhdar Brahimi, serving as Special Representative of the Secretary General to Afghanistan from October 2001 through December 2004. The light footprint approach advocates that UN activities should be limited to those that are appropriate to the local needs and context, and, in order to ensure local capacity-building, international staff should be limited to the minimum required so that nationals can take over from the UN as soon as possible.

The Secretary General’s Report preparing the establishment of UNAMA states that ‘UNAMA should aim to bolster Afghan capacity (both official and non-governmental), relying on as limited an international presence and on as many Afghan staff as possible, and using common support services where possible, thereby leaving a light expatriate “footprint.” In the midst of calls for the setting up an international administration in Afghanistan (on the model of Timor-Leste and Kosovo), Lakhdar Brahimi mentioned in a press conference that the United Nations is “definitely” not seeking to form a protectorate. Brahimi added that “the bitter experience of the last 10 years shows that the solution must be carefully put together and be homegrown, so that it enjoys the support of all the internal and external players, and so that there are no spoilers from the inside or outside who would disrupt its implementation.” That’s what differentiates UNAMA from UNTAET and UNMIK, at least on the conceptual level.

What accounted for the failure of UNAMA especially when the light footprint approach was the core of the peacebuilding mission?

The reality of the light footprint was complicated in Afghanistan by the fact that, although UNAMA had few staff on the ground, the myriad of UN agencies and programs had a relatively heavy footprint, creating parallel service delivery mechanisms. The major difficulties in Afghanistan are not directly linked to the light footprint approach per se – UNAMA was a marginal component of the international intervention after all – but rather to three specific features of the intervention.

First, the policy of excluding the Talibans from the peace negotiations, a policy taken from an ideological standpoint in the first years of the intervention, clashes with the principle of a wide inclusion of local actors in the peacebuilding process as envisioned by Brahimi. Brahimi was already pushing for an inclusion of moderate Talibans in 2003 in a second Loya jirgah, and the US administration revived the idea of negotiations with moderate Talibans only in 2009 (too little, too late?). Second, there was only a low amount of financial aid that went directly to Afghan institutions. Many donors bypassed state institutions over fears of corruption, preferring to deal directly with local or international NGOs. Only approximately 25-30 per cent of all aid coming into the country is routed through the government, “eroding its legitimacy, planning capacity and authority.” This neglect of state institutions is bound to have an impact on the Afghan social contract. Third, the political obstacles to the extension of the security presence beyond Kabul have hurt the peacebuilding process.

The “light footprint” approach as devised by Brahimi is commonly mixed with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “light footprint” approach, which advocates minimal commitment of ground forces by the United States in Afghanistan. However, the two approaches should not be bundled together, as they are in fact completely different. After all, Rumsfeld’s conception has nothing to do with “working ourselves out of a job;” but has everything to do with the need to keep US troops for the forthcoming Iraqi invasion and focusing on the “war against terror” in the border areas. Furthermore, Brahimi never advocated a minimal security presence in the country. To the contrary, he relentlessly advocated for a security presence deployed over the entire Afghan territory. Finally, there was also the fact that the principle of local ownership was manipulated by certain donors. As Matteo Tondini points out, “some laws are officially passed by the Afghan parliament but are in fact drafted by ‘independent’ experts hired by foreign government cooperation agencies and assigned to local institutions, while the latter are in turn pressured by international donors to cooperate.”[5]

What lessons does the Afghan experience offer to future peacebuilding missions and wider statebuilding processes?

The “light footprint” approach should not be seen as a general template for state-building activities, which would turn this alternative model into what it tried to oppose from the outset. Chesterman, who is really critical also admits that “one element of the “light footprint” approach that is certainly of general application is the need to justify every post occupied by international staff rather than a local.”[6] It is actually the core meaning of the “light footprint” approach as conceived originally by Brahimi. So rather than tout it as a model, the light footprint approach should be understood as an attempt to apply the general lessons of the 1990s to a trying set of circumstances.

Interview by Francisca Darfour


[1] See: Nicolas Lemay-Hébert, “Review Essay: Critical Debates on Liberal Peacebuilding”, Civil Wars 15(2), 2013.

[2] Sergio Vieira de Mello, “Introductory Remark and Keynote Speech” in Nassrine Azimi and Chang Li Lin (eds) The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET): Debriefing and Lessons, London: Martinus Nijhoff, 2003.

[3] See: Nicolas Lemay-Hébert, “Coerced Transitions in Timor-Leste and Kosovo: Managing Competing Objectives of Institution-Building and Local Empowerment,” Democratization 19(3), 2012; Nicolas Lemay-Hébert , “The Bifurcation of the Two Worlds: Assessing the Gap Between the Internationals and Locals in State-Building Processes,” Third World Quarterly 32(10), 2011.

[4] Jarat Chopra and Tanja Hoje, “Participatory Intervention,” Global Governance 10(3), 2004.

[5] Matteo Tondini, “From Neo-Colonialism to a ‘Light Footprint Approach’: Restoring Justice Systems,” International Peacekeeping 15(2), 2008.

[6] Simon Chesterman, You, The People. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

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