This week, our group discussed patrimonial politics. There is probably no better place to do that than Chicago! We looked more closely at the reality of the state-building project for Afghanistan, but tried to step away from the dominant Western discourse on human rights and democracy to understand how Afghan politics really work. We considered different cases and models of governance, and looked at various political actors, strategies and sources of power.

We focused most of our attention on two articles. In Warlords as Bureaucrats, Dipali Mukhopadhyay investigates two cases of “warlord-governors” and discusses their hybrid models of governance. It is fascinating to see how these two political actors have managed to combine formal and informal power to actually deliver services to the population, the central government, and the international community.

In Centre-periphery relations in Afghanistan: Badakhshan between patrimonialism and institution-building, Giustozzi and Orsini show that, since 2002, the state-building process in Badakhshan consists of a centralization of the patronage system. They argue that electoral politics are not necessarily compatible with patrimonial systems, because they create uncertainties and short-term calculations that have a negative impact on the stability of the region.

Interestingly, both articles show that institution-building and patrimonialism are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In Giustozzi and Orsini’s words: “they are ideal types that can engage in a dialectic relationship.” What is probably not compatible with patrimonialism is the overambitious state-building project that is promoted by Western institutions in Afghanistan. It is now time for Western policy-makers to adapt to the Afghan political reality.


About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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8 Responses to Patrimonialism

  1. Wow, I’m glad you assigned Dipali’s and Antonio’s writings…excellent sources to be sure. One thing that strikes me in a lot of discussion is that I hear people talk about patrimonialism and patronage networks, which certainly do clash with modern values. However what people don’t focus on is how traditional or traditionalistic structures can bridge the social transition to modernity and modern values. To this effect Gilles Dorronsoro has written about how warlords have often leant on patronage politics in order to build up a base for a modern politic movement (or tried to anyway). Also, one of my main criticisms of IWA’s ideology is the moralisation of corruption. Bribery and patronage are more often correctives to public goods market failures and methods of statebuilding than they are outright criminality.

    • Afghanopoly says:

      Scott, I totally agree with you regarding the moralization of corruption (for those who are not familiar with IWA, it stands for Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a civil society organization focusing on anti-corruption). First, some forms of corruption are more culturally acceptable than others. Second, corruption can be “successful” in allowing the central authority to integrate informal networks (see William Reno’s work for more details on that). Finally, an anti-corruption campaign can actually encourage corruption and thus become an “exercise in corruption itself” (I strongly advise Alex de Waal’s brilliant article on the “political marketplace” for those who are interested in these issues).

  2. Valkyrie says:

    Having come from a family that moved OUT of the City of Chicago when I wrapped up my high school freshman year at The University of Chicago (to get away from Chicago politics and live in the suburbs), it’s hard to comprehend how corruption and patronage could ever be useful, so these readings were very interesting, to say the least. Of course, now the entire state is practically bankrupt, no matter where you live (go figure).

    That said, the parts about formal and informal networks did make some sense, although it seems like only a short-term workable situation. Long-term, I cannot see it working, because those who dole out services just to stay in power don’t really care about people in the most humanistic way (it’s very Machiavellian and calculated to keep them in power). They could fail the people at some later point, even if they did manage to deliver services for some time.

    A population that puts up with a least worst scenario (just because their immediate needs are met), for an indefinite period of time, runs the risk of future instability, just as with legitimate governments being weak and incompetent. The entire idea of checks on power and corruption is precisely that it works.

    Western values may seem “overambitious,” but that’s only because Afghanistan has not absorbed the values of the Enlightenment (actually, even within the United States, there are people who have not accepted the values of the Enlightenment, either, namely a whole bunch of academics in lit departments, who actively seek to “deconstruct” them!). Back to Afghanistan, though, they’re not prepared to accept such values, because Western policy-makers are trying to prematurely impose them, via a top-down method (which clearly doesn’t work). It was discussed in class that it has to be an organic process, and not an imposed process.

    So, does anyone think Afghanistan will ever join the Enlightenment in the near term future? I’m thinking not any time soon, based on what I’ve learned so far.

    • Valkyrie says:

      Side note: Deconstruction came from France, no?


      There goes my grade.

      : )

      • Valkyrie says:

        Quick clarification on question about them joining the Enlightenment.

        That was phrased rather vaguely, but I did not mean to ask if such a mindset should be imposed, but rather meant to question if they would become enlightened on their own (organic philosophical growth) any time soon.

        The “Age of Reason” came about during the Enlightenment period as a result of better education and advancements in scientific understanding. I do not think you can impose this, but when it comes about, people view the world differently and a tad more rationally and objectively (even though humans can never be entirely objective or well-reasoned, no matter how much we all think we can be).

        Side note: I was being a bit of a clown above, but Enlightenment thinkers also came from France, by the way (not just the deconstructionists!).

        Good luck with finals, everyone.

  3. CPT Caveman says:

    I thought yall might appreciate this link and might not have seen it. One of the Wikileaked cables out of Kyrgyzstan mentions the renewal of the Great Game.

    REF: BISHKEK 1059
    BISHKEK 00001095 001.4 OF 004
    Classified By: Amb. Tatiana Gfoeller, Reason 1.4 (b) and (d).

  4. Kredox says:

    “So, does anyone think Afghanistan will ever join the Enlightenment in the near term future? ” Valkyrie asked earlier.
    I’m not sure I understand the term Enlightenment in terms of Afghanistan or any other countries for that matter. I don’t really think that we should impose any kind of modernization and democratization on other countries. It should naturally happen for them (agree with Valkyrie). That means we need to not interfere at all with their political order. United States wants everyone to become democratic and modern, which first not gonna happen and second there is no reason for that. Of course from Western point of view many third-world countries live in the horrific situation, but for many of them its their own choice. United States plays a role of “God” imposing our ways to the countries that historically had very different type of political and governmental structures. Why we are assuming that tribal and warlord structures are bad? Of course they seem bad from our point of view, but maybe for the many who live under those conditions its not bad at all. I talked to my uncle who was in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, and he can say for sure that many even majority of people hate America and its way of living, they view our society as money-hungry, corrupt and impersonal, which is a threat to their old ways of living in a small religious community. So what we might call Enlightenment for them might seem as Dark Age. In order to know exactly what people in Afghanistan need, you need to actually go there and talk to people and live there for a while and not judge from the distance.
    It is a little off topic but its a good example. Many people think that Soviet Era in Russia is the worse regime Russia have ever had, but for many people I know it was the best time of their life, where they actually enjoyed work and living with all the socialists benefits they were getting.
    So my opinion on state-building in Afghanistan is firm. Let them do it their way, beginning with empowering warlords that already have power. Maybe it will turn to legitimate democratic government in the long run, or maybe it will be more autonomic structure of governing, either way it will work as long as common people do not think United States imposing rules and regulations on them.

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