CPAID Report 2021

Research and engagement at the Centre for Public Authority and International Development

Hosted by the LSE Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa

Applying the Centre’s substantial research findings from Africa to pressing debates outside the continent will be an important aspect of future research trajectories.

Professor Tim Allen, Director of the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa

The Centre for Public Authority and International Development (CPAID) has published a comprehensive report of its long-term research and engagement in Africa. Charting the Centre's growth since 2017 to the present, the report presents complete and ongoing research projects, fieldwork findings, policy impact, publications, long-term partnerships, knowledge exchange initiatives and a vision of the Centre's future.

Read the CPAID Report 2021.

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How did CPAID start?

The Centre for Public Authority and International Development began with a relatively narrow focus on locations of armed conflict, population displacement, and social reintegration in Central, East, Northeast and West Africa. That has remained a core concern – to know and better comprehend what is happening in these places. However, others have joined the team and over the last four years new considerations have come to the fore, notably linked to the epidemics of Ebola and COVID-19. The Centre’s regional orientation also increasingly engages with comparative work outside of Africa, including in Europe. 

Colleagues working at CPAID have never taken the view that a public authority lens is only applicable in Africa. Indeed, the concept itself has long been used elsewhere, notably with reference to the legal obligations of those providing services, exercising statutory powers, or acting on behalf of governments. 

Applying the Centre’s substantial research findings and insights from Africa to pressing problems and debates outside the continent will be an important aspect of future research trajectories. It will not only enable on-going recognition of the multiple ways in which socio-political dynamics influence livelihoods, disease outbreaks, health, and well-being, but also contribute to re-thinking core concepts underpinning contemporary policies and practice – health security, resilience, sustainability, the Anthropocene, to name but a few.

To learn more about the Centre for Public Authority and International Development, read the CPAID Report 2021.

What is public authority?

For CPAID, public authority is any kind of authority beyond the immediate family that commands a degree of consent – from clans, religious institutions, aid agencies, civil society organisations, rebel militia, and vigilante groups, to formal and semi-formal mechanisms of governance. The Centre recognises too that families may be large, and that the boundaries of public and private authorities may occasionally blur.

A ‘public authority’ lens seeks to understand the full range of actors claiming or being allocated power through appeals to popular social norms, the provision of public goods, and, sometimes, coercion and violence. This includes those considered part of the state, such as village or street-level bureaucrats, and those seemingly far removed from or even standing in opposition to it – like customary leaders, civil society organisations, religious leaders, and armed groups.

Thinking in terms of public authority

A public authority lens focusses research on who benefits and who is excluded from different actors’ claims to authority, and how they are received by their rivals and those they seek to govern. While not excluding state institutions from analysis or overlooking the fact that those seeking power may co-opt or subvert those institutions, a public authority lens tends to challenge state-centric normative frameworks and biases at various scales – not just the local and the national, but also the regional and global, as nonstate actors increasingly shape global governance.

Thinking in terms of public authority also enhances our understanding of what is actually happening on the ground, and why some policy interventions persistently fail. That is especially so in challenging places affected by acute social upheavals, such as those associated with armed conflict, displacement, and epidemics, or where the legitimacy and reach of formal governance is challenged or weak. It also usefully reveals the potential of existing arrangements to contribute to or obstruct provision of services, promotion of wellbeing, and economic development. 

Learn more about public authority.

Conceptual framework and logics

The term ‘public authority’ has long been used to refer to instruments of formal government, and to institutions of the state, such as the police, army, and various sanctioned forms of local administration. More generally, public authority is a term used to refer to matters associated with public rather than private law. However, even in places where the idea of public authority has a long legal history, there is, in practice, a large arena of social life that occurs between the private spaces of the family and the public domain of formal governance.

In a flexible way, CPAID researchers have developed ‘logics’ to explain how public authority is claimed, accrued, and employed. These logics have been useful in drawing out comparisons between places, specific public authorities, and delineating patterns. Examples of these logics include moral populism, political marketplace, social harmony, public mutuality, and intimate governance. They have been used to refer to ways in which actors and organisations appeal to social norms and provide public goods, thereby gaining a modicum of legitimacy to govern others.

Over the course of the programme, the strengths and weaknesses of the logics’ interpretive value has become clearer, and directions for how they could be analytically used and improved upon in future research have emerged. An important aspect of the latter is the way in which researchers have drawn on fieldwork in Africa to explore how logics of public authority are discerned elsewhere, including in the Global North.

The logics encourage investigations of public authority’s fluidity and, potentially, its fragility, as actors seize opportunities to advance or resist one another's claims. This was illustrated by a recent collaborative working paper for which CPAID’s researchers contributed vignettes from across five countries. Each provided insights into how actors were responding to the COVID-19 crisis, with some viewing it as an opportunity to solidify their power, others as a moment to challenge the status quo, and some as a threat to their livelihood networks.