In 2015, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – once labelled ‘one of the most exemplary cases of state failure’ – began to experience renewed political and armed violence. One of its immediate origins lies in the failure to organize provincial and presidential elections by 2016. Under the impetus of international donors, including the UK Department for International Development, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank, the Congolese government had promised to carry out the thorny task of decentralization and the first truly democratic transition of its postcolonial history. Although disputed within scholarly circles, democratization and decentralization were hoped to disrupt systemic corruption, bring state authorities closer to the Congolese citizens, build stronger and capable municipal, provincial and national institutions, improve public service delivery and reinforce state legitimacy across the Congo. In other words, elections, decentralization and greater integration of the Congolese economy into the global market were – and still are – anticipated to solve the country’s governance ailments.
This did not happen.
Crushing popular dissent and faced with fragmented political opposition, President Joseph Kabila’s regime has deployed delaying tactics and disproportionate force. ‘Leading by crisis’, Kabila manipulated localized community tensions, anti-colonial sentiment, chaos and insecurity.
The unfolding crisis in the Congo confirms international expert accounts of fragility. The OECD defines fragility as ‘the combination of exposure to risk and insufficient coping capacities of the state, system and/or communities to manage, absorb or mitigate those risks.’ Remedies, the OECD suggests, comprise sets of targets and indicators that measure progress aimed toward restoring adequate state capacity, which entails a ‘technical’ approach to development. Although this is increasingly problematized, the conceptualization of fragility still rests primarily on the views and actions of political elites and technocrats, and emphasizes the formal dimensions of policy-making, largely implemented top-down. Agenda 2030 and SDG 16 in particular recently endorsed a programmatic focus on the rule of law, capacity-building, access to justice and human rights, which tends to reinforce institutional perspectives on governance. SDG 16 aims to reach ‘[…] effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’, reproducing therefore the conventional views on what ‘the modern state’ should be doing.
Put simply, poor governance is still construed as ‘fixable’ via top-down, high-level policy-making and ‘local ownership’ through engaging civil society organization. By and large, however, international development policies have rarely tended to the concrete, day-to-day routines, interactions and practices that shape state-society relations in states that are fragile, in crisis or conflict. In addition, worldviews that see the state as a quasi-natural, formal, unitary apparatus of social and political organization, as well as the product of westernization or globalization, fail to account for the world’s colonial history. This recreates asymmetrical ‘North-South’ power relations silencing the experiences of the marginalized, the poor, and/or ordinary citizens of the Congo.
On this basis, my work builds on critical scholarship that challenges the conceptual assumptions, empirics and ahistorical perspectives of state failure and fragility in a bid to formulate a broader critique of ‘the state’ as generally theorized in mainstream IR and political science. Specifically, the research examines how the Congolese state has at once receded as the main provider of public services and yet achieved ever-increasing embeddedness into society. Much scholarship on the African state has theorized that weak states never cease to exist entirely, mainly thanks to the principle of state sovereignty and the logics of (neo)patrimonial politics.
Drawing on the careful analysis of a large set of ethnographic data collected in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma in the DRC, my aim was to understand how state fragility, and state theory more generally, continue to represent state-society relations through western assumptions that lends little analytical space for historical insights, the ‘formalization’ and institutionalization of informal state practices and widespread instances of effective public service delivery.
While (de)constructing the state as the effect of a myriad of processes of micro-governing techniques, my work focuses on collective sense-making processes supported by the minute interactions and daily practices ongoing between ordinary urban dwellers and ‘street-level bureaucrats’ who work at the frontline of public service delivery. By way of example, imagine a woman named Séverine who acts as a ‘street chief’ in Kinshasa. Séverine holds many roles. She serves simultaneously as unemployment advisor to young people, as legal advisor in land or inheritance disputes, and as quasi ‘bureaucrat’ in other matters. She does not have an office. She carries out these roles on the street or the courtyard of her home, which has become a semipublic area. She is also unpaid. Her income comes from selling soft drinks in that same courtyard.
Now, take Benjamin. Benjamin lives in the same quarter as Séverine and runs a hair salon. He has just become a father to a son who needs a birth certificate. His first stop is Séverine’s courtyard. She tells Benjamin exactly what needs to be done and assists him.
Now imagine a researcher witnessing this encounter who asks Benjamin what he thinks of the state. Benjamin laughs – and replies, quite simply, ‘They don’t do anything properly. There’s bad governance here.’ Then, as Séverine re-enters the conversation, the researcher asks: and what about her? The reply: ‘ah no, not her, she’s our mama, she’s our chief.’
It is thus by following, literally, people, actions and stories through the various places of intimacy, social interactions and public offices, that I was able to trace the patterns and sites of state trans/formation in an environment famed for its lack of formal government procedures, corruption and patronage. The mundane practices of state-society relations and collective representations of ‘the state’ in urban Congo highlight the existence of other sophisticated modes of governance, the theoretical ramifications of which stretch beyond concepts like ‘informality’, ‘privatization’, ‘effectiveness’, ‘failure’ and the key tenets of ‘bad’ governance.
Similarly to Séverine, municipal authorities craft resolutions to personal, family or community feuds, provide linkage between citizens and higher state officials and policies and assist their residents in dealing with official documentation, authorizations and other official matters. They embody the state’s traditional technocratic procedures in their most formal guise and devise pragmatic solutions that ensure peaceful coexistence and interpersonal relations are mediated nonetheless via the actions of state agents. Navigating the ambiguities of the state, ordinary civil servants and citizens enact and negotiate the contours of the private and the public, of state and society. In short, these figures often recreate the state in its performative and ideational dimensions in ways that have largely remained unseen by scholars, experts and international intervention schemes. Against all odds, not only have frontline civil servants continued to work without adequate equipment or salaries but also lead to the constant re-production and re-invention of the state even under conditions of extreme precariousness.
Examining the complexity of real-life enactments of ‘soft’ governance does not deny the dysfunctions states like the DRC. Instead, the approach offers an opportunity to further our understanding and critiques of state power in ways that both contradict and reinforce the discourse of state fragility. Clearly, exclusion, patronage and corrupt systems of government still pervade the conduct of politics in the Congo. But repopulating ‘international’ conceptualizations and practices of governance with the experiences of ‘real people’ allows us to identify the multiple sites of stability, social cohesion and collective action and the largely ignored transformative potentials these might entail.