Thursday, April 21, 2005

Premption, Conflict, Development and Democracy

We are all now, whether we like it or not, becoming familiar with the controversial Bush doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence. However, in a recent article in The Guardian, Naomi Klein argues that things have taken a surprising further step: that the Bush administration has now moved into the realm of “pre-emptive reconstruction”.

This curious title is how she chooses to style the setting up, in August of last year, of the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilisation, whose task it is to “draw up elaborate ‘post-conflict’ plans for up to 25 countries that are not, as yet, in conflict”. Thus, the task of the Coordinator is to monitor the situation in a number of states perceived as “high risk”, and to assemble something along the lines of a rapid response reconstruction team, ready to be parachuted in the minute conflict subsides sufficiently, and who will be armed from the outset with a detailed and, crucially, locally tailored plan of action.

To many, this may sound like responsible forward planning. The US Department of State describes the new body in the following terms:

The Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) will lead and coordinate U.S. Government planning, and institutionalize U.S. capacity, to help stabilize and reconstruct societies in transition from conflict or civil strife so they can reach a sustainable path toward peace, democracy and a market economy.

There will be many, however, who, like myself, have grave doubts about such a project. This is not, of course, to argue that international aid, and US aid in particular, is not sometimes absolutely necessary in post-conflict situations. However, questions must be asked (in the light of fairly bitter experience) about the pre-arranged role of certain private companies and the size and value of the contracts they will be awarded; about the criteria through which the US will decide which states are to be monitored; and, perhaps most importantly, if such plans are being drawn up with a particular view to states in which the US has an “interest” in intervening itself, to name but a few.

The statement alone, however, hints at a couple deeper, linked controversies that are only now beginning to come into the mainstream of international legal discourse: the first is the troubled relationship between concepts such as democracy and market economy; the second concerns the role of market economics in development projects, and the link between these and conflict.

Concerns over the relationship between democracy and market economics have been thrust to the fore due to the prominence of the debate over the “democratic entitlement” in international law. This “right to democratic governance”, most notably promoted by Thomas Franck and Anne-Marie Slaughter among many others, would mean that international law guarantees, for all states and peoples, a certain basic minimum of civil and political rights. Indeed, in most of the literature supporting the right, the proposed basic minimum involves: voting rights, property rights, market economy and the rule of law.

I do not have space here to go into this debate in any detail, although there is much that is interesting in it, from arguments based on Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” through to the issue of “intolerant democracies”. However, it is important to note that many critics of the right have suggested that focusing on such an impoverished array of basic components means, simply, that democratic politics is there to facilitate and support the growth of the free market, rather than, as liberal ideologues would have us believe, the other way around. The very “thin” conception of democracy favoured in this context, and the fact that the market is viewed as of equal importance to it, risks merely legitimating or normalising societal structures that are deeply unjust instead of genuinely empowering a people to change it: much of social and economic policy is simply removed from the scope of democratic deliberation (in a move thoroughly helpful to powerful multinational corporations). Instead, these critics argue, we need to focus on encouraging a model of democracy that, to paraphrase Susan Marks (whose book The Riddle of All Constitutions (2000) provides an excellent critical overview of this debate), ensures that democracy is about genuine self-rule, rather than simply legitimating a new set of procedures for rule-by-others. I have written more on this subject (a few years ago now) here.

The second, and obviously linked, controversy is centred on the role of the market in development and reconstruction efforts, and the ways in which these may actually serve to encourage conflict, rather than avoid it. A recurring theme in this debate is that of neo-colonialism: the idea that international development programmes, in particular those driven by international financial institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank, create a new colonial class and much economic hardship in many of the countries in which they operate, factors which can in themselves, it is argued, contribute to the development of conflict situations.

One recent(ish) book that has dealt with this matter in considerable detail is Anne Orford’s Reading Humanitarian Intervention (2003). In it, she is at pains to point out that, in places where such intervention was deemed necessary, such as Yugoslavia or Rwanda, the international community was already deeply involved in development programmes. Many of these had taken the form of the World Bank’s economic “shock therapy” and “structural adjustment” programmes, which make crucial loans dependent upon certain often difficult economic reforms, that can contribute to widespread economic hardship in the short-term – which can, of course, easily become social and political instability and unrest. Orford claims that, in the case of Yugoslavia, the World Bank even scrupulously removed all social and political factors from its predictions of what the effects of its demands would be, in order that they remain rational and “scientific”. This does not seem a responsible manner to assist with the reconstruction of fragile societies.

The colonial metaphor – if it is indeed only a metaphor – also takes on resonance when considering the world of the development professional community who must relocate to the country with which they are engaged. A new dominant class is almost instantly created – hugely wealthy and dripping with status symbols that the locals in such countries simply cannot even aspire to in most cases. Certainly, few if any of the well-paid jobs are held by members of the local population; and yet much of foreign aid money seems to go to keeping a certain professional class in the style to which they are accustomed. Orford even recounts instances where land, at a premium for agricultural use, with a significant percentage of the population lacking the basic land from which to subsist, was commandeered for building offices and villas, so that professional representatives of the international development community could come to the assistance of the local population. With such examples of crass insensitivity, it is small wonder that a degree of resentment exists.

A couple of points need to be made in conclusion. Firstly, a blog entry does not provide sufficient space to deal with complex issues such as these in anything like satisfactory detail (a book can just about manage it). As such, I am aware here that I have used a fairly (or, perhaps, unfairly) broad brush. I do not mean here to criticise the development community as a whole, and nor do I wish to remove any of the blame from those who actually committed atrocities in conflict situations such as Yugoslavia and Rwanda. However, if the international economic and development programmes that go hand in hand with the type of “democracy” that many in the mainstream of the international legal community support today in any way create or support the societal conditions of possibility that allow for such widespread atrocities to occur, as seems to me to be the case, then the time is certainly right for a radical rethink. Certainly, we must, at the very least, be wary of the moral force claimed by, for example, “development” or "reconstruction" programmes, “humanitarian intervention”, and the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilisation.

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