... by donors & funders

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Swiss Development Cooperation

The full brief is available here.

Uncomfortable truths for development practitioners

Development researchers and practitioners alike have argued that it is more productive to seek out what works, rather than what is broken. To do this, they have increasingly looked outside the formal boundaries of the state. There have been local turns, both in peacebuilding and in development practice (Mac Ginty and Richmond 2013; Luckham 2017). These have attracted programme support for a range of grass-roots initiatives, such as decentralisation programmes, local level courts and policing, women’s peacebuilding activities, and many others.

A key problem for all of these initiatives, however, is that they easily become hostage to wider national predicaments, such as escalating armed conflict; interacting state and non-state violence; the breakdown of social protections; inertia or corruption in government; and ill-thought-out interventions by regional and international actors.

Hence donor agencies must still find better ways of working in, around, and on fragile and authoritarian states. They cannot begin to do so unless they have a more realistic grasp of (a) how these states work; (b) for whom they work; and (c) whom they fail. This may mean facing up to some uncomfortable truths. Not all autocracies are fragile; and some may even be better at ensuring order and delivering public goods than defective democracies. Democracies as well as autocracies may protect vast inequalities in power and wealth, and can sometimes be venal, corrupt, and fragile. Democratisation itself may tip countries into cycles of violence and long-term disorder, and we do not know enough about why this happens or how to reverse these cycles. Even well-consolidated democracies sometimes govern their marginalised peripheries in comparably violent and exclusionary ways to autocracies.

In development-land as well as in peace-land, there is little room for political innocence (Autesserre 2014). Practitioners should be politically informed and capable of critical self-reflection. They should consider and be prepared for:

  • How to cope with intransigent or self-interested policymakers when negotiating access or supporting development programmes;

  • How to identify reliable interlocutors within national governments, without rendering them vulnerable to intimidation and other forms of regime pressure;

  • How to re-channel assistance and programming from problematic governments to NGOs and civic organisations;

  • What to do when intelligence or national security agencies try to co-opt or subvert the latter;

  • and If cooperation is required with dissidents or even armed insurgents, as well as with the regime, how to navigate a way between them. The dilemmas are many, and there are few general answers.

Working on authoritarian structures and fragile situations to change them is especially challenging. Governance initiatives supported by development agencies cannot but be politically loaded. They all too easily result in external actors taking on tasks that national governments and others should be performing. National elites may be more interested in the resources that programmes bring in, than in the outcomes they are supposed to achieve. International engagement, especially in governance and security matters, disturbs existing power balances, and is supported or opposed accordingly. Added to this is donor hubris, including the tendency to overestimate what such forms of support can actually achieve in extremely volatile situations.


In sum, there needs to be less emphasis on good practice norms and policy templates, and more on well-informed realism about what can be achieved within the political constraints and dynamics of each local, national, and regional situation.

Swiss Development Cooperation

The full brief is available here.

Key points

  • Authoritarian developmental states work well only under strict historical and institutional conditions. They are not a panacea for economic catch-up.

  • Learning from democratic systems (institutional mimicking) is vital in understanding resilient authoritarian regimes.

  • Effective control of capital, labour, and local governments is a complex task that will fail in most state-led developmental ambitions.

  • Authoritarian states often face huge challenges when they reach mid-income status, as societies become diversified.

  • The resilience of authoritarian regimes depends on how they resolve development challenges, not on adopting specific development models.

  • Information technology is likely to further polarise authoritarian regimes between those who can or cannot access data for economic and political control.

“This primer presents an overview of disinformation culture to give readers a sense of key concepts, terminology, select case studies, and programmatic design options. Disinformation is by no means new. Although social media platforms have emerged as the most efficient spreaders of false information, disinformation is also spread through analog media such as radio, television, and newspapers. It is, however, the combination of traditional analog media, in concert with new digital technologies, that allows information to spread faster and more broadly (even across borders) in unprecedented ways. Experts have described this phenomenon as “information disorder,” a condition in which truth and facts coexist in a milieu of misinformation and disinformation—conspiracy theories, lies, propaganda, and half-truths. They have labeled its ability to undermine democracy and individual autonomy “a wicked problem,” i.e., a problem that is difficult and complex, such as poverty or climate change. Despite the immensity of the challenge, there are promising ways that journalists, civil society organizations, technology specialists, and governments are finding to prevent and counter misinformation and disinformation. This primer presents several programmatic ideas to consider for standalone or integrative approaches as part of democracy and governance-related programming.”

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