Global Experts in Local Contexts: Why Legitimation Strategies Matter?

Sapna Reheem Shaila
Research Associate, Department of Law, University of Edinburgh

Synopsis: International experts must rely on diverse strategies to legitimise their expert knowledge and its application in particular settings. I make a case as to why we need to pay more attention to such legitimation strategies undertaken by experts in local contexts and how and whether these strategies enable the pursuits of global governance and democratic governance.

Keywords: expertise, rule of law, legitimacy, expert authority

Who is an expert, what expertise does the expert provide, how does the expert apply their expertise? – these aspects can vary depending on the policy area and settings under study. In the context of global governance initiatives on the rule of law and human rights, scholars identify experts as the “technocrats” who frequent the boardrooms and the council rooms of powerful multilateral/bilateral organisations negotiating and perfecting provisions and clauses of international declarations, identifying legal issue areas, meticulously planning how the identified issues can be tackled globally through certain standard legal solutions, and monitoring how societies are complying with the set standards. Here, by drawing on the scholarship on rule-of-law experts and their expertise in local contexts, I would like to put forward some tentative observations and arguments. At the outset, my arguments resonate with Johan Christensen’s observations on why need more contextual studies on experts and why it is necessary to pay attention to the mechanisms through which experts forge their influence.

At the international level, certain groups of actors emerge as the “experts”– through multiple instances of contestations, conflicts and recursive engagements. They chart out a field of expertise and shape perceptions about expected normative standards and behaviours associated with the area globally. Simion and Taylor’s study on rule-of-law professionals perhaps provides us with a tangible example to contextualise this phenomenon. The authors show how a group of individuals with similar educational and professional histories have resorted to a cluster of conceptual ideas and solutions under the umbrella of rule of law, which has been exported to different countries as part of rule-of-law reforms.

“…we must pay close attention to the varying strategies experts take for legitimising their roles in different local settings.”

Although the commonly perceived problems and solutions are debated, deliberated and devised at the international level, the subjects and objects of these global governance solutions are situated far from the sites where the decisions are formulated. Away from the international sites, in the field, the experts are often the program managers, technical advisers, and monitoring and evaluation consultants, who act as channels for transferring expert knowledge and solutions formulated at the international level to local settings. But to bring changes or to ensure that targeted communities adopt technical solutions established internationally, experts must work towards finding ways to legitimise the applicability of such solutions to fit local realities and the needs of the targeted population. Experts may have the legal and technical solutions to address social issues, but citizens and the political elite often have the upper hand in deciding and determining the trajectories of change for a particular society. Thus, as Johan Christensen points out in his piece, experts are just “one type of actor that provides input in the political system and competes with other actors for influence.” Acknowledging this reality in which experts operate underscores why we must pay close attention to the varying strategies experts take for legitimising their roles in different local settings.

Experts and their expertise in local contexts

Within the scholarship, in the area of human rights and the rule of law, we can tease out some of the strategies employed by international experts to establish their position and relevance of their expertise in the local context. Simion’s (2021) monograph on the rule-of-law intermediaries in Myanmar reveals one of the many ways through which international rule-of-law professionals attempt to gain trust among the targeted population. Simion’s research shows how international actors rely on “ intermediaries” to gain local knowledge and build trust among the local community. Alliances with local activists, student groups, and media assist in creating perceptions of the experts as constructive partners in the field. Sometimes partnerships are forged between elite groups like lawyers, charismatic figures, political or business actors who can lobby, authorise, and enable norms and standards promoted by experts. Such networks and relations are built to gain entry into the local setting. However, such partnerships and alliances can lead to experts brokering compromises depending on the interests of the groups that they choose to align (or need to align) to gain access to a local community. For example, research on justice sector reforms in Vietnam demonstrates how rule-of-law reformers side-stepped initiatives that targeted the Party and instead focused on strengthening commercial and financial laws in the country. On the ground, making compromises and forming alliances with certain groups or individuals to gain access or even gain legitimacy as constructive interveners may be unavoidable. But we need more case studies on how (if at all) such linkages, which on the one hand allow for engagement with the local community but on the other hand could potentially reshape the agendas set at the international level.

Experts also rely on different techniques to tackle criticisms of internationally led reform initiatives as “imposing” and “copy-pasting” generalised solutions in local settings. At the international level, experts rely on generalised categories and narratives to gain legitimacy through vocabularies that attribute a sense of independence and impartiality to the process and actions they carry out. These generalised vocabularies and narratives provide a cloak of authority to their expertise by universalising the relevance and application of their expert knowledge. They also aid in building consensus across a wide range of interest groups and issue networks, which assists experts in establishing authority and dominance over an issue field globally. In local contexts, however, such general templates are criticised for overlooking particular realities and prescribing one-size-fits-all answers to problems. Berger gives examples of how rule-of-law promoters relied on Islamic principles to translate the European Union’s rule-of-law objectives in villages in Bangladesh. As a different form of strategy, in recent years, the United Nations, for instance, has started relying on what may look like “esoteric” tools like algorithms and big data, to collect information directly from targeted communities of their needs and challenges before designing and prescribing policy solutions.

“… as experts and their expertise reach different contexts, we must closely examine whether the experts’ means justify the ends…”

By incorporating such technological or non-technological innovations for translating global technical expertise in local settings, experts within international institutions seem to emphasise that contexts matter to their decision-making and that they pay attention to the nuances of local realities – be it in the form of forging alliances with groups that have social, economic, cultural capital locally or gaining knowledge of local issues and needs. Through such new modes of “reflexive” engagements, experts underscoring their expertise is neither “top-down” nor ignorant of local realities; rather, they are well-thought-out solutions based on public needs and realities. These responsive strategies also seem to address increasing criticisms against international institutions and experts as being distant from the realities of local communities.

Strategies used by experts to legitimise their expertise at the local levels are distinct – in form and their intentions – from those used by the experts at the international level. Therefore, as experts and their expertise reach different contexts, we must closely examine whether the experts’ means justify the ends they aim to pursue or whether the means divert them from the lofty idealistic ends attached to global governance initiatives altogether? We need more empirical research on global experts in local settings to fully unpack these questions and the diverse strategies deployed by experts and how (as well as in what ways) global experts gain influence in local contexts. We also need such studies to understand why these strategies are necessary, to what extent they further the objectives of democratic governance, and how they impact the pursuit of global governance initiatives in local settings.

Sapna Reheem Shaila is a research associate at the University of Edinburgh, where she is working on reversing the gaze project. For her doctoral research, Sapna studied how rule-of-law promoters bring legal and social changes in different societies through state-building initiatives. She conducted her fieldwork in East Timor. In her thesis, she argues why it is necessary to monitor and evaluate the process and kinds of engagements between the international and local stakeholders as factors that impact the trajectory of change in particular settings. Sapna’s chapter on Portuguese judges in Timorese domestic courts is forthcoming in an edited collection titled Foreign Judges in Domestic Courts (CUP). From January 2022, Sapna will be also convening War to Peace Transitions, and Violence, Conflict, and Development modules at SOAS, University of London.

This article is part of a commentary series on technocracy and democracy in global governance, organised by the Graduate Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and Global Governance Centre. To discover more, and to see all contributions in the series, click here.

Photo by Gary Yost on Unsplash

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