The Chr. Michelsen Lecture 2009:

Dr. Alex de Waal:

Fixing the Political Market Place: How can we make peace without functioning state institutions?

Three interlocking paradoxes form the crux of the problem that I seek to address in this lecture. One is that, despite the significant decline in armed conflict around the world, certain civil conflicts seem remarkably persistent. Secondly, the violence that occurs is neither purely political nor strictly criminal, but a hybrid of the two. Closely related is the third paradox that despite immense international resources devoted to these crises, they are not becoming any easier to resolve—in fact they even be getting harder to fix. As a consequence, in several important and difficult countries, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, there is no endgame in sight to international involvement, including the military interventions of NATO and MONUC and the two peace support operations in Sudan.

At the centre of my attempted explanation of these puzzles is an exploration of the challenge of running a difficult and complex country, like the three mentioned, without the benefit of a strong and autonomous state to manage the political disputes that inevitably arise in any society. Many scholars—especially historians and social anthropologists—have investigated how political power is exercised in countries such as these and their historical antecedents. Many politicians have an astute understanding of the challenges facing the ruler of these countries. But international policy tends to be guided by models that are framed by certain norms of what a state ought to look like, and how it ought to be run. These frameworks are deaf to the vernacular of politics and tend to regard the insights of ethnographers and historians as providing only contingent and local knowledge, useful solely for the practicalities of implementing policies that are designed on the basis of grander, simpler models, derived from economics and a grand tradition of political science.


The basic argument developed in this lecture is that we should study countries like Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan as they actually are, rather than as deficient examples of what we think they ought to be. We neglect the vernacular of politics to our intellectual loss and at the peril of our policies and objectives—not to mention our troops, and most importantly, the political future of these nations and their citizens. Quite possibly, one reason why we neglect the actual functioning of politics is because it is obvious, ordinary and boring. National politics in these countries function much like village politics or even family politics: on the basis of personal affinity and loyalty, including status and reward. Politics are fractal in the sense that the same principles and practices are found at all levels. The astute village chief has the skills he needs to be a functional head of state, and the journalist for a provincial newspaper can rival the professor of politics in insight.

Download de Waa's paper:


Alex de Waal Program Director of the Social Science Research Council, a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and a Director of Justice Africa in London. He has served as adviser to the African Union mediation team for the Darfur peace talks (2005-06) and the African Union High-Level Panel on Darfur (2009). He was awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honors List of 2009.