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Decentralisation Hybridized

Annina Aeberli

4. Questions of understanding, discourses and power

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1Having now mapped the different interpretations of decentralisation; we may now bring them together and compare them. As I have already explained in the introduction, my research has evolved around an interface as defined by Long. It should have become clear up to now that the different understandings of the international community, the South Sudanese government and the South Sudanese communities meet or collide at the interface of the concept of decentralisation in South Sudan. In this chapter, I first shortly compare these different understandings, but then, the research should be taken one step further: These understandings are not static but dynamic as they are influenced by each other and by powers at work at the interface, the point of encounter. The different groups have different powers to impose their interpretation on others. I demonstrate how the powerful state-building discourse translates into practice, but also how the people of South Sudan are able to actively adapt and make use of such discourses for their own ends.

4.1. Comparing the different interpretations of decentralisation

2At first glance, the different discourses around decentralisation presented in this paper appear similar. The international community, the government, and the non-governmental South Sudanese all stake great hope on decentralisation. It is intended to bring democracy, popular participation in politics, thereby leading to better governance, transparency, accountability, efficiency and responsiveness. Decentralisation is also hoped to facilitate development, improved service delivery, poverty reduction, and contribute to peace and stability.

3A closer analysis, however, reveals that the various groups understand decentralisation quite differently which bears a great potential for misunderstandings. The global international community has a technical understanding of decentralisation based on the distribution of power and responsibility to lower levels of government in order to create effective, “Western” states. These states should then be able to function according to international standards and, correspondingly, not threaten international stability or neighbouring countries.

4Local people, on the other hand, have no care for international stability or the Western ideal of the state. They support, of course, improved service delivery and the transfer of power to local governments, but their understanding and expectations of decentralisation go beyond these technical matters. The local people want to rule themselves. For them, decentralisation is a way to bring the state to their community, often understood as the physical presence of “their people” in political and administrative positions. Decentralisation is thus a means of geographically localizing the state, making it possible to occupy or, humanize and personalize the state by filling it with community members. Significantly, the “self” in self-rule is strongly influenced by locational and tribal identities which determine whether someone is foreign or native. People in all, or at least most, positions in government must be native – differently defined on different levels – in their understanding of decentralisation. Additionally, administrative borders must conform with local identities – though often conflicting and contested – otherwise “real” decentralisation, in form of self-rule, would be stymied.

5The South Sudanese Government and the international community in South Sudan’s understanding of decentralisation moves between those of these two poles, the local people and the international community writ large. The government is committed to at least part of the international definition of “state” quite seriously – local governments are expected to bring development and services to the people, as indicated by Garang’s famous statement “take the towns to the people”. Conversely, the GoSS is also aware of the people’s demand for self-rule, integrating it into the Local Government Act as acknowledgment of traditional authorities. In their understanding, however, self-rule is limited to participation in determining local needs. The government’s understanding of decentralisation is therefore quite paternalistic – a fatherly state that feeds its children.

6Finally, the international organizations working in South Sudan pursue the goal of creating an effective Western-style state but, at the same time, they want to avoid colonialist imposition, and are willing to integrate traditional authorities into the new state. In doing so, they seek to indigenize the Western ideal of state through respect for the demands and traditions of the people, thus legitimating the state-building process. They also took up the government and Local Government Board’s emphasis on service delivery. Of course, this is simply logical in the context of South Sudan where, in the absence of established institutions, it is too early to focus on principles of good governance, such as transparency or efficiency which are other mentioned goals of decentralisation.

7This summary illustrates the hybridization of the concept of decentralisation as it moves through time and space. Hybridization implies that one can never be sure that different people have the same understanding of any word, especially of the buzzwords nowadays used in the area of state-building or development as their connotations may vary widely. As a result, one should always clarify what one talks about and not assume the own understanding as given. This is the only way to escape dangerous misunderstandings and misled development interventions.

8Of course, these processes of negotiation and hybridization do not take place in a power vacuum. Different actors employ different tools and exercise various powers in order to get, or to impose, what they want. That said, it should be noted that it is facile to distinguish between the powerful and the powerless within these negotiations. According to Foucault (1977, 93-94), power is ubiquitous, not because it subjugates everything, but because it comes from everywhere. It is embedded in everyday relationships, and is therefore under constant renegotiation. This further implies that dominant power structures are not fixed, but, as advocated by proponents of the actor-oriented approach, may be changed by people. Scott (1985, 42) states that “the economic givens are crucial; they define much, but not all, of the situation that human actors face; they place limits on the responses that are possible, imaginable. But those limits are wide and, within them, human actors fashion their own response, their own experience of class, their own history”. Long (2001, 13) explains that “it is theoretically unsatisfactory to base one’s analysis on the concept of external determination”. He endorses a perspective similar to Scott, arguing that to account for “the central role played by human action and consciousness”, one needs to analyze the interaction(s) between internal and external factors. In this understanding, people are transformed from passive puppets to actors.

9Consequently these processes of hybridization around decentralisation are strongly influenced by existing power structures, as different actors utilize different resources in influencing the outcome of hybridization. I will now demonstrate how the international state-building and decentralisation discourse “works”, prior to an examination of the means of the people to get what they want.

4.2. The power of the state-building discourse

10This section illustrates how the international state-building discourse translates into practice. Escobar (1995, 5), an authority on power and discourse, with reference to Foucault, argues that discourse “produces permissible modes of being and thinking while disqualifying and even making others impossible”. Thus, a dominant discourse shapes people’s reality by determining what can be said and thought and, therefore, what finds its way into practice. He also cites Foucault in observing:

“Discourse is not just words and that words are not ‘wind, an external whisper, a beating of wings that one has difficulty in hearing in the serious matter of history’. Discourse is not the expression of thought; it is a practice with conditions, rules, and historical transformations” (Foucault 1972, 209; cited in Escobar 1995, 216).

11Consequently, if we talk about discourses it is important to keep in mind that they shape reality. This is also the case with the international state-building discourse. I now want to explain how this discourse translates into the level of the actual practices which means policy interventions in so-called developing or fragile countries.

4.2.1 Mechanisms at play in legitimating interventions

12There are basically two discursive mechanisms at play in legitimating interventions. In the first, superiority of the so-called developed countries is established through the use of labels such as “ethnic”, or “fragile”, imposed by the international community on the so-called developing world. The second mechanism, in connecting peace, stability, development, and poverty reduction with “efficient [Western-model] states”, implicitly calls for social engineering and intervention.

13The first technique – labelling – has been explained by Escobar (1995, 109), who notes that “[l]abels are by no means neutral” and “embody concrete relationships of power and influence the categories with which we think and act”. Labels reduce a complex situation to one of its constituent aspects; thus, a country such as South Sudan is reduced to one of its characteristics, namely “post-conflict”. Such characteristics, furthermore, are presented as rational categories, obscuring their political character (Escobar 1995, 110). In the context of state-building, the labels are based on a Western measurement scale – non-Western states are evaluated and categorized according to their proximity to the ideal of the Western nation and welfare state. As a result, states that do not conform to the ideal are called “fragile”, “failed”, and so forth (Hagmann and Hoehne 2009, 45). To return to Escobar, these labels are not neutral, but based on a normative conception of the world that elevates the Western state to a “good” to be reached by everyone, implicitly creating a clear hierarchy. The West, which has already reached the ideal stage of political development, is superior to the rest of the world as it struggles to reach this goal.

14As purported superiority per se, however, is not an acceptable reason for intervention, the secondary construction of the Western state as indispensable is crucial. The foregoing analysis has demonstrated the presumed mutual reinforcement between the state, security, peace, and development, in the international state-building discourse. Duffield (2001, 16) refers to this as “the merging of development and security” because “achieving one is now regarded as essential for securing the other”. It is commonly believed that fragile states are not only obstacles to development and poverty reduction, but also havens for terrorism and international crime (Brabant 2010a, 2). Underdevelopment is now perceived as not only undesirable, but dangerous (Duffield 2001, 16). As a result, societies must be altered in order to avoid such problems (2001, 15).

15I want to briefly argue, however, that this mutual reinforcement between peace, security, state, and development should be questioned. Brabant (2010a, 7; 2010b, 7-8), for example, stresses that, as processes of state formation are inherently conflict-inducing, tensions exist between state-building and peace-building. He (2010b, 8-9) also calls attention to the potential for tension between development and peace-building, as economic growth may lead to new inequalities. The same logic is true of decentralisation – there is a range of empirical evidence that should at least give pause to those asserting that decentralisation actually leads to poverty reduction and fewer conflicts (see, for example, Crawford and Hartmann 2008).

16Importantly, the second mechanism of linking peace, development, and security to the state would not be possible without wide international consensus as to the nature of the ideal state. Chandler (2006, 475-477) shows that this consensus is a recent phenomenon. The Cold War period was characterized by national self-interest and a formal understanding of sovereign equality underscored by the principle of non-intervention. The geopolitical division between the Soviet Union and the United States prevented the emergence of one model of state, of governance or of domestic policy commonly agreed on. Furthermore, the context of decolonization strongly encouraged the United Nations to defend the formal equality of all states independent of their capacities and policies. The consensus regarding the one right state model, the Western nation and welfare state, emerged later and was further strengthened by 9/11 when security issues became predominant (Chandler 2006, 475-477).  

17In sum, fragile and post-conflict states are perceived as a danger to development and poverty reduction, as well as peace and international security. This danger requires intervention in form of state-building – with decentralisation as a primary tool – which aims to impose the purportedly sole model of the state able to guarantee these goals: the Western welfare (nation) state. These two mechanisms together create a formula for automated intervention: labels cement Western hierarchical superiority, which, in combination with the demonization of the non-West as risk for international stability, serve to justify intervention.

4.2.2 The Western state as ideal

18The Western state model, whether in the guise of the “welfare state”,” nation-state”, or “modern state”, is the goal to which all states should aspire in the common Western perspective. Paris (1997, 56) refers to this paradigm guiding international interventions as “liberal internationalism”. Under this label, it is assumed that Western capitalist democracy is the solution for all states. This sets a “liberal democratic polity”, or democracy and a “market-oriented economy”, as universal development goals. Similarly, Barnett (2006, 88) observes that these objectives are based on “the belief that, to have legitimacy, the state must be organized around liberal-democratic principles, and that because liberal democracies are respectful of their societies and peaceful towards their neighbours, they are the foundation of a stable international order”. Decentralisation, particularly in the context of Africa, is an important aspect of the current international consensus on the nature of the state. Decentralisation is thus a tool in the modern, Western state-building project.

19As illustrated thus far, state-building and decentralisation are legitimized by the desire for international security and stability. Stability, in turn, is desirable because it preserves a particular world order that profits certain actors. Duffield (2005) and Donini (2010) explain that development and humanitarian aid are instruments of a form of global governance that aims at reaching ostensibly ungoverned spaces. This seems to be even more the case of state-building as an overarching policy. Western actors – though increasingly also non-Western actors, such as China or Brazil – access regions of previously-marginal international influence through state-building interventions. State-building, in combination with humanitarian aid and development, prepares the ground for resource extraction and the opening of new markets to international trade and finance. It also makes a transfer of values possible. A world of unitary states, as foreseen by state-building missions, therefore protects a particular world order, a particular power hierarchy and, in turn, the interests of certain actors.

20It would be fallacious, however, to reduce the motives underlying state-building to simple economic interests. The international community’s belief in their obligation to “save” the local people also plays an important part. As Wesley (2008, 374) explains, the construction of Western values and conceptions of the state as universal “goods” leads to a general belief that transforming fragile states into Western states improves the lives of many people. Similarly, Rist ([1997] 2002) describes development as modern faith. He compares development with religion, as despite the fact development is often demonstrated to be ineffective, it cannot be abandoned. Scott (1998, 342) describes the same phenomenon as the replacement of a belief in order and harmony under a unitary God with “a similar faith in the idea of progress vouchsafed by scientists, engineers, and planners”.

4.3. The power of the people

21The previous section demonstrated the power of the international state-building discourse, of which decentralisation is a part, and how such discourse facilitates intervention. In this section, I argue, however, that regardless of the power of international discourse, people always have the means to adapt and hybridize, as well as appropriate hegemonic discourses. This section is thus based on the Foucauldian understanding of power as diffusive and circulatory. In the context of state-building discourse, I further reference Foucault (1977, 96), who states that power always implies resistance, which is never located outside but inside power. A discourse is always subject to transformations (1977, 99). Resistance, the dominant discourse, and other associated discourses therefore influence each other, forming a network of power. Foucault’s phrasing may be understood as a guide to this section:

  • 1  Approximate translation by the author: “One has to admit to a complex and instable game where the (...)

 “Il faut admettre un jeu complexe et instable où le discours peut être à la fois instrument et effet de pouvoir, mais aussi obstacle, butée, point de résistance et départ pour une stratégie opposée. Le discours véhicule et produit du pouvoir ; il le renforce mais aussi le mine, l’expose, le rend fragile et permet de le barrer” (1976, 133).1

22Starting from the power of the international discourse, I want to show now how Foucault’s understanding comes in in South Sudan: the people use the international discourse to get what they want in ways unintended by the international community and by the GOSS.

4.3.1 Making use of the international discourse

23The mechanisms to legitimize interventions, as described above, are highly applicable to South Sudan. South Sudan is rarely referred to as fragile or failed yet as such labels would, of course, be rather nonsensical at the birth of a new state. It is, on the other hand, regularly referred to as “post-conflict” or “conflict-affected”. South Sudan has thus been appropriately labelled for international involvement in the name of development and regional stability.

24That said, it would be overly-simplistic to assume that the current state-building efforts in South Sudan are uniformly perceived as a forceful imposition of the international community. Certain people, particularly in the Government, welcome the international community, as in contrast to the hostile Northern government, it is perceived as a good friend. This is not to say that the question of whether the majority of South Sudanese actually wish for a commitment by the international community is unimportant, but that it should be recognized, that at least some people support international state-building.

25As South Sudan is categorized as “post-conflict”, the door is opened for significant international aid. If people manage to present their country or community as having many attributes such as poverty, or recent experience of conflict, then money channels can be accessed. Thus, local actors can also make use of the international discourse by instrumentally deploying certain buzzwords that trigger a “helping” response. In a sense, this supports Escobar’s argument (1995, 111) that these labels, invented by the “top”, force the people on the ground to reproduce them – which is undoubtedly true – but such practices could also be read as creating local benefits and opportunities through the strategic appropriation of language. That said, as some are better than others at making use of the international community through adaptation to their vocabulary, one should be attentive to the potential for inequality (de Sardan 2005, 183).

4.3.2 Power struggles and the historical aims pursued with decentralisation

26The “ethnic” label described by Chandler figures prominently in the description of South Sudan. Here, decentralisation enters as the proclaimed solution to tribal conflict, thus promoting reconciliation and, as often mentioned in informal talks conducted during my field work, building a nation out of such a diverse country. Of course, for the UNDP, which classifies its Local Government Recovery Programme as poverty reduction, decentralisation is also framed as a means of development and the solution to “poverty”. However, while decentralisation-as-state-building is a recent international discursive construction, the discourse surrounding decentralisation in South Sudan per se originated long before the current intervention. By this, I refer to Bayart’s notion of historicity and the historic hybridization that took place as different actors contributed to the current understanding of decentralisation in South Sudan.

  • 2  For a detailed description of this process, please refer to Section 2.3.

27The structure and discourse of the current model of decentralisation, based on three tiers of government, central, state, and local, and the further subdivision of the local government into County, Payam, and Boma, is the result of a long process of negotiation spanning South Sudanese history.2 It contains elements stemming from British and Northern rule, as well as aspects that emerged under the SPLM/A as was shown earlier on. Interestingly, the system became increasingly differentiated and complex over time, as it seems that once a new level of government was introduced, it was impossible to later dissolve. This demonstrates South Sudan’s present decentralised structure is not arbitrary, but the product of context and history. It is a system birthed by South Sudanese context and history, forged by various actors out of the Western concept of decentralisation.

28Whereas decentralisation in form of local government became a topic in Sudan at the time of independence, with the publishing of the Marshall Report (chapter 2.3), it entered the official discussion much later in South Sudan, namely, the 1980s. Awareness of decentralisation in the South occurred as Nimeiri raised the topic in the North, with the aim of forming governments of the masses. Similarly, this corresponds to the increasingly popularity of the term within the international community. It should be stressed, however, that certain actors consciously introduced decentralisation into the South Sudanese debate. They believed that if they framed their efforts to curtail Dinka domination within the rubric of an internationally-accepted concept, such as decentralisation, their claims would be more likely to be heard and accepted. It was therefore clearly in the interest of certain actors to propose decentralisation as a model for South Sudan. Whereas, in the early 1980s, decentralisation advocates hoped to resolve tribal conflicts by dividing the tribes, the Nimeiri regime implemented decentralisation with the aim of reducing the influence of ethnic leaders and sects by organizing the country along bureaucratic lines. Decentralisation was also part of his broader programme to increase popular participation through socialist reform. The second Local Government Act (1981) under Nimeiri seems to be the experience that most strongly informs the local government officers’ understanding of decentralisation. For them, this was the moment when real power was transferred to lower levels of government, but the official power of traditional authorities was diminished.

29The non-integration of traditional authorities also corresponds with the position of the SPLM/A and its former leader, Garang, who, like Nimeiri, had a communist background. At the time, however, Garang was not speaking of decentralisation in the context of the South. Garang’s primary aim was the establishment of a federal system capable of addressing the differences in development between the centre Khartoum and the periphery. He also clearly legitimized his demands with reference to international discourses of that time such as dependency theory or communism. Despite this original focus, however, Garang’s idea of “taking the towns to the people” became synonymous in the South with decentralisation and equal development opportunities for all tribes. Thus, in accordance with popular demand, over the course of a decade, the SPLM/A’s policy regarding traditional authorities changed from one of unofficial, localized collaboration to their official incorporation in the current Local Government Act.

30In sum, decentralisation was consciously introduced by specific actors who hoped to further their own agendas and greater goals. These different past aspirations form now the current understanding of decentralisation: democracy goes back to Marshall; participation to Nimeiri; development to Garang and Lagu; and peace between tribes goes back to Lagu and his campaign against Dinka domination. Good governance, transparency, and other associated principles also have historical roots, but many of the more specific terms, such as effectiveness, seem to represent a newer vocabulary introduced in 2005 with the arrival of the international state-building community. The integration of traditional authorities, conversely, stems from the constant demand for their acceptance from the side of the people who wanted to have their life reality recognized.

31The Local Government Act reflects this hybridized understanding of decentralisation as developed across history and is therefore not the sole result of the powerful current international discourse. The interests and goals of different actors have led to the integration of different aspects of the concept. The local government officers and, to a lesser degree, the international community in South Sudan, defined service delivery as the main function of local government, with the international community also achieving general acceptance of the principles of good governance. The people, similarly, managed to gain institutional recognition of the principle of self-governance, and the significance of traditional authorities, via judicial reform and the creation of governmental administrative units in accordance with tribal organization. South Sudan’s history of decentralisation therefore reminds us not to underestimate the power of the people to influence discourses and the practices connected.

32It will be future developments, however, that reveal who is most able to influence the popular understanding of decentralisation in today’s South Sudan und who will be mentioned in which way in future historical summaries about Decentralisation in South Sudan. The struggle over the imposition of certain understandings of decentralisation in the current “state-building” context has just begun, and the outcome is uncertain. The GoSS, through the authority of law, has the power to create facts and thus impose a particular understanding, while the international community can influence the definition of decentralisation through its project selection. Together, moreover, the GoSS and the international community decide on implementation priorities, and shape the various bureaucratic staffs’ perception of decentralisation through policy training. The people however, have their own weapons. Based on the aforementioned loophole in the Local Government Act, they call for the creation of new counties in accordance with tribal preferences. Similarly, the people also frequently deploy the principle of tribe-based self-rule in political debates, such as that regarding the relocation of the capital.

4.3.3 Experts vs. people or blueprints vs. political disputes

33The hybridization of the concept of decentralisation in the case of South Sudan also indicates that we should question whether all states are converging upon a single, dominant state model, as do Hagmann and Hoehne (2009) with reference to Somalia. The global norm of single, unitary, sovereign states has only been achieved by the twin processes of colonialism and decolonization (Duffield 2007, 234; Clapham 2002, 777). Blueprints and ideal state types will always be adapted, appropriated, and hybridized in local contexts as they enter a specific and contextual “trajectoire historique” with existing power structures and actors. Activities unintended or planned within a certain project always arise and, as Scott (1998, 347, 353) observes, “any high-modernist plan will be utterly remade by popular practice”. State-building interventions generally attempt “to keep politics out of it”. The state-building practitioners believe that through the use of “tools [that] are neutral, desirable, and universally applicable”, a perfect technical solution for every problem may be found, making “dirty” politics superfluous (Escobar 1995, 26).

34Chandler (2006 and 2010) correctly observes that it is actually highly anti-liberal to think of state-building as a merely technical enterprise wherein experts develop plans and solutions for the people, socially engineering the “right” state model. Before the end of the Cold War, it was commonly believed that political processes play a pivotal role in creating viable states. Today, however, the opposite is the case – politics is seen as an obstacle to successful state-building, which is the proper purview of international experts. It is unimaginable for international state-builders that local actors may actually be better suited to develop the state than themselves (Chandler 2006, 478 and 480). It is thought that “states and citizens can be socially-engineered by correct practices of external regulation” and “that international experts and bureaucrats can better govern a country than politicians accountable to the people who have to live with the consequences of their policymaking” (2006, 482 and 491). However, the international actors who design these technical solutions cannot be hold accountable by the local population (Chandler 2006, 488). It is assumed that democracy is the “right” model for the (developed and civilized) West, but that paternalism, in form of international expertise, is better for fragile or conflict-affected states (Chandler 2006, 482). The classical liberal understanding of politics is based on the assumption of the autonomy of each individual person as rational being capable of expressing his or her will. This autonomy then provides the basis for government. The state-building paradigm, however, inverts the relationship between autonomy and institutions, as autonomy becomes the source of the problem which is to be managed by the “right” institutions (Chandler 2010, 2-3). This understanding elides the political processes and contests necessary to building the relationships between different parts of society that are the foundation of a functioning state (Chandler 2006, 481).

35In a nutshell, the state-building enterprise is highly depoliticized as politics has been replaced by technical expertise, and politicians by experts. If the goal of state-building is to create liberal states, the people should have the opportunity to participate in the process of state construction. This implies politics. Interestingly, the reality of South Sudan demonstrates that technical expertise aside, political struggles are inevitable. There is no way to circumvent them. The people have the power to make themselves heard, albeit through unconventional mechanisms.

36Coming back to Foucault’s statement preceding this section, the case of South Sudan proves that a powerful international discourse – here state-building – can form the base for local resistance and reinterpretation which envisiones another way of life than originally intended. Decentralisation has been used by the people of South Sudan in a way not intended by the international community and the government.


1  Approximate translation by the author: “One has to admit to a complex and instable game where the discourse can be an instrument and an effect of power, but also an obstacle, attack, point of resistance and start for an opposed strategy at the same time. The discourse conveys and produces power; it reinforces power but also erodes and exposes it, it makes it fragile and allows for blocking it.”

2  For a detailed description of this process, please refer to Section 2.3.


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