CSRC Working Paper 14

Understanding State-building and Local Government in Afghanistan
Working Paper No : 14 (series 2)
Author(s) : Sarah Lister
Date : May 2007

Abstract : This paper joins the discussion of state-building by looking at how a certain understanding of states is affecting the types of activities emphasised in state-building agendas. It examines this by looking at an area that has been surprisingly neglected in the state-building literature, that of local government. It is, after all, through local government that most citizens in developing countries experience the state. It is usually at the sub-national level that people interact with public officials – in receiving or requesting services, or dealing with local disputes, or registering land. It is with local police that they deal. In some places, it is where they pay taxes. While there is plenty of analysis of these state functions at the sub-national level, and how best to organise them, there is a surprising dearth of analysis in the literature on the relationship between local government and state-building. This paper therefore attempts to rectify this by looking at initiatives in the re-establishing of local government linked to the central government in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. It looks at how a neglect of certain types of interventions contributed to the failure of both local government reform and the wider state-building agenda in Afghanistan. The paper first briefly proposes an approach to understanding states and their roles, drawing on ideas of institutions and their rules as a means of mediating power. After a discussion of power structures at the sub-national level in Afghanistan, the paper then moves on to use this approach to explore two state-building initiatives at the sub-national level in Afghanistan, showing how attempts to impose bureaucratic rules are being resisted. The final section looks at the implications of the international community’s failure to understand the role of states in mediating power, concluding that a certain understanding of states and state-building has deflected attention away from the very interventions that would have contributed to building a system more dependent on depersonalised and rationalised rules.