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Beyond Hybridity to the Politics of Scale

by Shahar Hameiri on June 30, 2017

Over the past decade, the evident failures of many international peacebuilding interventions to attain their governance and development objectives, or sometimes even to reduce violence, has led to considerable soul-searching among scholars and some practitioners. The result has been a so-called ‘local turn’ in peacebuilding. Whereas previously both policy-oriented and critical scholarship had focused on interveners’ ideas and modalities – especially Western governments, international organisations and aid agencies – attention has increasingly shifted to understanding how international interventions interact with recipient societies and states.

The key concept advanced by peacebuilding scholars towards this end is ‘hybridity’. Hybridity in the peacebuilding literature is seen as ‘a state of affairs in which liberal and illiberal norms, institutions and actors coexist’. It emerges because of a ‘gap’ or ‘agonism’ between the agendas of ‘liberal’ international interveners and those of ‘non-liberal’ target societies. In my jointly authored article with Lee Jones, ‘Beyond Hybridity to the Politics of Scale’, published in Development and Change, we argue that hybridity has an inherent tendency to dichotomise the local and the international and see hybrid intervention outcomes as resulting from interactions across this divide. This approach fails, however, to both accurately describe the politics of international intervention in target societies and satisfactorily explain which institutions actually emerge through intervention and why.

Hybridity peacebuilding scholars invariably deny that the concept dichotomises the local and international. They claim it instead emphasises their interaction. Mindful of longstanding critiques of hybridity in other fields, they insist that both interveners and locals are already hybridised through earlier interactions, such as colonial rule and migration. But the notion of hybridity is meaningless without the existence of heuristic poles that are then hybridised – in this case, liberal-international and non-liberal-local. This is why whenever hybridity scholars disclaim the existence of binaries, they always end up creating new ones, or find their core concept unworkable. For example, Roger MacGinty – one of the leading scholars in this literature – claims that ‘hybridity move[s] us away from the binary combinations… [like] modern versus traditional, Western versus non-Western, legal-rational versus ritualistic-irrational’. Yet in the same article, he defines hybrid peace as ‘the result of the interplay of…the compliance [and] incentivising powers of liberal peace agents, networks and structures; [and] the ability of local actors to resist, ignore or adapt liberal peace interventions.’

To be clear, our problem with the hybridity scholarship is not merely that it contains binaries. Rather, we argue that looking at the dynamics and outcomes of international intervention through the lens of a local-international binary is highly problematic, both descriptively and analytically. Contrary to the expectations of hybridity scholars, the outcomes of intervention do not necessarily reflect conflict and accommodation along the intervener-recipient fault-line. Our case study of Timor Leste clearly shows that Timorese society is not devoid of liberal or democratic practices or characterised by uniform adherence to mysticism and tribal authorities. It is highly variegated and conflict-ridden, with some social groups supporting and others resisting the restoration of local and traditional values and structures. At the village level, women and youths in particular have often allied with interveners to wrest resources and authority from local patriarchs. Likewise, Timorese leaders of the Conselho Nacional da Resistancia Timorense (CNRT) willingly joined a cabinet-style ‘co-governance model’ with the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, using it to launch a highly centralised national state, against the wishes of many subnational leaders. None of these dynamics are captured by hybridity’s binaries. In fact, the use of hybridity only serves to obfuscate the significant social and political fissures within target societies and the uneven and selective ways in which different groups align with interveners to promote their preferred agendas and marginalise rivals.

Furthermore, the use of hybridity also leads scholars to focus on analysing where the outcomes of particular intervention programs are located on the spectrum between international-liberal and local-non-liberal. The result is a proliferation of categorisations and taxonomies of hybridisation but few explanatory frameworks. Whether particular outcomes are more or less ‘liberal’ tells us little about more important questions, such as why particular institutions were established, how they function, and to whose benefit.

By contrast, we argue in the article that the outcomes of international intervention are determined by struggles for power and resources between coalitions of socio-political forces that crucially include a politics of scale. From this perspective, claims about ‘local’ customs and practices do not simply reflect deeply entrenched traditional values that conflict with liberal-international ones. Rather, they express the mobilisation of ideological discourses of locality and tradition to promote scalar arrangements and modes of governance favourable to particular societal groups.

Nor do these claims necessarily involve local actors confronting international ones. Just as international interveners seek local allies, actors based in villages all the way up to the national capital can also pursue principled or tactical alliances with international actors to advance or resist governance projects, in line with their interests and values. What emerges then is not to be described as a local-international hybrid, but is explained as a product of conflict and accommodation between social groups struggling to establish order in target states, including by constructing scales and modes of governance where their interests will prevail.

‘Scale’ refers to vertically differentiated, hierarchised social, political and economic spaces, each denoting ‘the arena and moment, both discursively and materially, where socio-spatial power relations are contested and compromises are negotiated and regulated’. Scales may reflect existing political tiers within a state, such as a village or the nation, or cut across them, e.g. bio-regions, transgovernmental networks, local communities, or ‘the global’. In all cases, however, they are not natural, but produced through strategic political action and socio-political contestation. Whether local, subnational, or indeed national and global scales are part of a single social whole, they ‘do not exist in mutual isolation but are always interconnected in a broader, often-changing inter-scalar ensemble’. In turn, the ‘politics of scale’ – a concept first coined by Neil Smith – denotes contestation over the construction of scales, as well as over differentiation and ordering among various scales.

Our starting point for analysing the outcomes of intervention is that international interventions are contested because they seek to reallocate power and resources through the (re)construction of institutions, and that these attempts and the socio-political struggles that ensue have an important scalar dimension. For example, interventions aiming to regulate budgetary processes to prevent corruption by political and bureaucratic elites often seek to ‘rescale’ particular parts of the bureaucracy, either through the direct insertion of international technocrats into key roles, or via the networking of these agencies with peers across borders to monitor and regulate their activities. But since this may undermine the capacity of the elites dominating the national scale to use budgetary resources to support their power, they are likely to resist. Meanwhile, these elites’ subnational rivals, or even weaker groups seeking to establish control over the national scale, could well support these interventions.

The politics of scale approach does not simply substitute a local/international dichotomy for a struggle between scales, because scales – and the actors, institutions, norms and identities often depicted as entrenched in them – are not fixed. Rather, intervention outcomes are shaped by a struggle about scale: they involve conflict over how power, resources and authority should be allocated to (prospective) institutions at different territorial tiers.

Our approach thus involves three analytical steps. First, we identify the main social forces contesting state power within a given state, including the interveners. Our emphasis is on the groups and actors and on their relations – which forces are dominant and why. We need to understand the dominant axes of conflict between these groups, and the interests, resources, agendas and strategies they have at the time of the intervention. It is these groups – human actors, situated in particular political economy and social power relations – that contest peacebuilding interventions by trying to produce particular scales and scalar modes of governance. Scales are structures of political space, not actors; thus scales in themselves cannot contest anything – only actors can contest, construct or undermine scales and associated modes of governance. Second, we focus on a particular intervention project or program and identify how this relates to the interests and agendas of the main social forces. This narrow focus is important because, as already indicated, a given group can simultaneously support some intervention programs and resist others, depending on how they affect their interests, agendas, allies and rivals. The third step is to analyse the contestation that emerges over particular intervention programs and its outcomes based on the earlier analysis. Putting these steps together produces a fine-grained analysis of the outcomes of international intervention.

Shahar Hameiri
Shahar Hameiri is Associate Professor of International Politics and Associate Director of the Graduate Centre in Governance and International Affairs at the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland. His recent books are International Intervention and Local Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2017), co-authored with Caroline Hughes and Fabio Scarpello, and Governing Borderless Threats (Cambridge University Press, 2015), co-authored with Lee Jones. He is co-editor of Navigating the New International Disorder: Australia in World Affairs, 2011-15 (Oxford University Press, 2017). He tweets @ShaharHameiri.

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