Christine Cheng on the political economy of post-conflict peacebuilding

Christine Cheng a été l’une des premières universitaires à retourner au Libéria après la fin de la guerre civile. Elle travaille principalement sur les questions d’économies dans les situations post-conflits, la politique africaine et les questions de genre. Le livre tiré de sa thèse et intitulé « Post-Conflict Transitions and Extralegal Groups » sera publié par les Presses Universitaires d’Oxford en 2013. Merci à elle d’avoir bien voulu répondre à nos questions.

What are the challenges that extra-legal groups pose during the creation of a post-conflict order?

These groups pose a certain number of challenges, but they also present opportunities. When I started my research, I really thought of these groups as a very negative factor. Then, I realized they did not necessarily have to be perceived that way and that they could have positive functions as well.

In simple terms, extralegal group pose a clear challenge to the state. In a weak central state with poor security capabilities, these groups present a security threat. The groups themselves take over areas rich in natural resources in order to make profit. Because the business environment demands governance, they end up providing basic functions such as contract enforcement and dispute resolution. At the most basic level, they look almost like states, and they provide a more meaningful form of governance than the central state. These groups have an interest in maintaining the status quo because it is quite lucrative for them to do so. If the state ever tries to reclaim its territory, the process can easily be circumvented as the extralegal group becomes more powerful over time. As the group grows stronger, they can bribe the police, the courts or the politicians. For its part, the state can co-opt or confront them (or leave them alone). The dilemma is a difficult one with problematic consequences no matter which path is chosen.

What would be the long-term consequences for the system itself to maintain states that are not able to control their territories? The international system is based on the “organized hypocrisy” that states are equals, while your research identifies long-term patterns of state formation. How do the international, national and sub-national levels interact with each other?

The international system operates with a veneer of sovereignty and not much more. In answer to your first question, if states aren’t able to control their territories, then in most cases, not much happens to the system as a whole. Consider that the US has pockets of gang-controlled territories. The same is true in Italy with the Mafia or in Japan with the Yakuza. Not being able to completely control your territory doesn’t necessarily threaten your statehood or the international system. Regarding the patterns of state formation that I identify in my research, I would say that these are interesting temporary phenomenon occurring at the sub-national level that help us understand governance better. When there is a governance vacuum, someone will fill it. However, it is unlikely that these groups will ever be recognized as states per se. The best they can hope for is some degree of autonomy from the central state. The international community becomes important in influencing or even structuring how the relationship between extralegal groups and the central government will evolve over time.

Your own research is based on an extended study of Liberia. To what extent is it possible to draw lessons from one case and generalize about post-conflict peacebuilding?

There are many different ways to study a problem or approach a research question. As a scholar, you should choose the way that best answers your question and is the most interesting to you. In my own work, I would say that the framework is the generalizable element- but it comes wrapped in an important historical, social, and cultural context. In seeking generalizability, I think the importance of context is often lost. On top of this, it’s also difficult to disaggregate the contextual factors from the phenomenon under study.

For post-conflict peacebuilding, we should be careful about drawing conclusions about other cases based on the findings for one case. Generalizing assumes broad and consistent patterns of human behaviour and interaction. But peacebuilding is deeply contingent. I think it’s more appropriate to consider under what conditions might a certain political or institutional reform work, under what conditions are local leaders most likely to achieve economic growth. This is a more useful way of approaching the “lessons” of statebuilding and peacebuilding.


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