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Research Questions

What key issues drive the Centre for Public Authority and International Development?

Public authority is a tool to subvert and confront the idealised world of Weberian states and neo-liberal economics that have underpinned international development interventions for more than a generation.


A street hawker pushes a cart of apples with a Manchester United umbrella
Image Credit: Kara Blackmore

CPAID’s aim of making a comprehensive and inclusive assessment of public authority dynamics and their effects in conflict-ridden and impoverished areas is reflected in the following research questions. By no means an exhaustive list, these interlinked questions are meant to guide researchers in their diverse areas of expertise and ensure comparability in the final assessment of findings. 

Sustainable Economies and Societies

• How do forms of public authority serve populations in places impacted by weak, ineffective or exploitative state institutions and what are the possibilities for inclusive economic growth?

• How do forms of public authority coalesce to shape patterns of governance, fiscal redistribution and conflict over resources - and in particular over land in rural areas?

Equitable Access to Sustainable Development

• How are populations in conflict-affected and fragile places affected by the dynamics of social and economic exclusion inherent in certain forms of public authority?

Human Rights, Good Governance and Social Justice

• How do forms of public authority shape the dynamics of governance institutions, inequality, gender relations, migration, displacement and economic growth? How, in turn, do these dynamics shape public authority?

• How are forms of public authority connected with organised violence, criminal activity, exclusionary religious cults (including those drawing on local or customary notions of witchcraft and possession) and rebel movements?

• How could development programmes and the introduction of new media and other technologies better contribute to establishing stronger institutions and more inclusive economic growth given the realities of public authority in impoverished, marginal and/or conflict affected settings?

Key concepts

Public authority

For CPAID, public authority is any kind of authority beyond the immediate family which commands a degree of consent—from clans,religious institutions, aid agencies, civil social organisations, rebel militia and vigilante groups,to formal and semi-formal mechanisms of government. We include the criteria ‘which commands a degree of consent’, because some assertions of public authority may not command consent, and may be effectively ignored, while other assertions may be backed by such a degree offorce that consent is irrelevant and authority is reduced to an exercise of power without legitimacy. For us, public authority requires a quality of experienced legitimacy—although by no means necessarily formal legality.

The Political Marketplace

One key analytical tool used by CPAID researchers to explore the public authority dynamics is the concept of the political marketplace. Developed by CPAID member Alex de Waal (2015), the concept refers to transactional politics whereby political loyalties and political services are exchanged for material reward. This is an updated, internationally integrated form of patrimonial politics, which competes with, and often displaces, processes of state-building and institutional development. While monetised politics are found everywhere, in certain places the political marketplace is the dominant logic of the exercise of power, with institutions reduced to a subordinate role. While political marketplaces are often turbulent and violent, research in places like Rwanda and Ethiopia has shown that under certain circumstances they have the potential of providing social stability and fostering economic growth. Asking how and when such shifts occur and what role supra-national political marketplaces and business-state alliances play in that context is a central concern of CPAID. 

Moral Populism

Moral populism is a concept that helps us to better understand how the normative contexts are shaped in which public authority functions. The concept refers to the social and political power produced by invoking exclusivist and morally-imbued identities and values. While some forms of moral populism – for example as a way to foster community in religious organisations – may act as important forces in providing social stability, its extremist forms often lead to violence and instability. For example, militant Islamist movements and organisations can be regarded as manifestations of moral populism and be usefully analysed with this lens. 

Public Mutuality

In many African contexts, the only real protection available to the rural poor is membership of a locally-regulated moral community. However, under conditions of persistent uncertainty, conflict, and trauma, these communities often require the vigorous exclusion of outsiders and sometimes violent forms of moral populism. The concept of public mutuality helps researchers to identify whether and how people affected by such circumstances are cultivating more inclusionary forms of mutuality and seeking to make them ‘public’, including by promoting principles such as integrity and civility in public authority. In this sense, public mutuality is the discourse and exercise of public life based upon norms and rules that value respect for persons. 

Research locations


For large parts of its post-independence history, Burundi has suffered from prolonged bouts of civil conflict. More recently, a political crisis has rocked the country, leaving it internationally isolated and forcing over 400,000 to flee, mostly to Tanzania and Rwanda. Led by Ghent University and the SSRC, CPAID’s research in Burundi will focus on forms of public authority that enable social and economic life under conditions of high political volatility.

Central African Republic

The CAR has seen widespread ethnic and religious violence in recent years, with a number of armed groups continuing to destabilise the country in its north and east provinces. According to some estimates, over 50 per cent of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance. CPAID’s research agenda in this fragile context will benefit greatly from the experience and networks of Tatiana Carayannis, one of the word-leading authorities on the CAR. 


Democratic Republic of Congo

Despite a substantial wealth of natural resources, the DRC remains one of the world’s poorest countries, having suffered long decades of civil war and foreign interventions. Currently home to at least 1.6 million IDPs alongside a host of refugees from neighbouring countries, this turbulent socio-political space provides a fertile ground for investigating the always changing dynamics of the constitution and contestation of public authority.


Even though Ethiopia has long been regarded as a beacon of stability and growth in the Horn of Africa, recent popular protests and the violent response by the government have cast doubts on the sustainability of Ethiopia’s developmental state model. CPAID’s initial research programme in Ethiopia will therefore focus on forms of public authority that merge patrimonial and illiberal characteristics with long-term state-oriented developmental aspirations.


In many respects, Kenya has been one of Africa’s top economic showpieces. However, ethnic tensions are continuing to destabilise some regions of the country and have left thousands of people internally displaced. Among other things, CPAID will investigate how public authorities in Kenya are responding to and attempting to prevent violence.

Sierra Leone

Public authority and governance on all levels in Sierra Leone have been decisively shaped by a devastating civil war that lasted from 1991 to 2002 and, more recently, by the effects of the Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016. Based out of Njala University, CPAID’s work in Sierra Leone will investigate how local people and communities constitute and understand public authority in relation to this recent history.


Because of its protracted history of civil war and the limited reach of its formal state institutions, Somalia has long featured prominently in the debates on ‘failed states.’ The country is therefore a prime case for CPAID’s research agenda, which aims to move away from the assumption that only Western-style formal state institutions can provide the governance structures necessary for economic and social life.

South Sudan

After decades of civil war, South Sudan become independent in 2011 and had the opportunity to build its own state structures for the first time.  Throughout decades of war, the Sudanese state had have limited public authority in South Sudan.  However, despite this absence of the formal state, there was order and governance in the South.  In December 2013, large scale civil war erupted in South Sudan.  Armed violence has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions and violated previous codes of war.  This context makes CPAID’s work on South Sudanese public authority both vital and fraught.  Due to the current level of violence throughout the country, much of the initial research will need to be undertaken among refugees in Sudan and Uganda.  However, some research will still be conducted in South Sudan and will focus on public authority in the context of peace building and alternative epistemologies.



Even though observers have recently noted Sudan’s partial progress in resolving its long-standing internal conflicts, many Sudanese continue to suffer from the consequences of violence, displacement and corruption. Identifying paths of inclusive growth through understanding how different forms of public authority affect local populations is CPAID’s primary goal in Sudan. 


Although Uganda has been relatively peaceful for the past decade, many people still suffer from the consequences of a 20-year-long civil war in its northern regions. In recent years, the country has also struggled with an unprecedented influx of refugees from South Sudan. CPAID will make use of its researchers’ extensive experience on Uganda and partner with Gulu University to research local understandings of public authority.