Supporting legitimate authority is complex work, warns Mathijs van Leeuwen, Professor of Peace & Conflict Studies and one of the publication’s authors. “To ensure that a country or region remains stable after a period of conflict, it is important that the new leaders are accepted and respected. If you fail to build this legitimate authority, you risk new, sometimes violent conflicts.”
For their research study, van Leeuwen and his colleagues Doreen Nancy Kobusingye and Joshua Maiyo conducted fieldwork in northern Uganda, a region where there was much unrest in the 1990s and 2000s due to conflict between the central government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a local rebel group. In the process, tens of thousands of people were displaced from their homes and home regions. The researchers shadowed international development agencies such as ZOA and GIZ that support peacebuilding in the area. Within northern Uganda, these organisations are setting up programmes around land registration, among other things, so that people who were displaced from their land during the conflict can regain a sense of security around their ownership of the land, and potential conflicts over land are resolved.
Van Leeuwen: “These kinds of organisations are taking many steps to strengthen land security. The idea is that they contribute to fast, efficient and affordable land administration at the local level, in the process giving the population an example of reliable local authorities that do what they promise. Basically, a well-functioning bureaucracy is created, one that works with predictable rules, taking into account the rights of both men and women, and manned by young people who cannot be bribed. This all looks highly sensible on paper, but in practice we see that it is quite difficult for these bodies to build legitimacy.”
“The reason is that people in these regions are often suspicious of administrators, even if they seem to be doing their work flawlessly. In fact, the earlier conflict arose precisely because government agencies were so much at fault. So why should the people trust the state now?”
Collaborating with existing institutions
According to the researchers, a major challenge for development agencies is how to collaborate with existing local institutions. “Traditional authorities, such as chiefs, sometimes have norms and values that Westerners do not quite agree with, but these are often the norms and values that resonate with the local people. By linking up with existing institutions, you immediately create legitimacy,” van Leeuwen said. “You also have to accept that you cannot change everything at once. Development organisations are already doing a lot of good work, but by better identifying which partners they can work with at the start of interventions, they can strengthen local authority.”
In addition, the researchers developed concrete recommendations and training programmes with and for aid organisations. “Our training programmes allow NGOs and local organisations to reflect together on land governance and how to strengthen it. For example, we recorded a number of videos in which local theatre groups improvise around some common scenarios and attendant dilemmas. How do you avoid competition between old and new authority? How do you work with existing, local mechanisms for conflict resolution? By more fully embracing existing initiatives, aid agencies can hopefully build local capacity even faster.