What Ebola tells us about how to do state-building

Last Wednesday, we were lucky enough to be invited along to the launch of the Institute of Development Studies’ Ebola: Lessons for Development papers [^]. The event got us thinking about what the Ebola crisis tells us about our conventional ways of doing state-building and what it exposes as the limits of the existing orthodoxy…

The series is both wide-ranging and thought provoking, and does a great job of placing the outbreak in its wider context. If you haven’t read them, do (there’ll be something there for you, whatever your field of interest).

Mountains of Ebola commentary have emerged over the past six months, so it is with some reluctance that we join the bandwagon. But we left the event feeling compelled to put some quick reflections down. In particular, it really got us thinking about what the Ebola crisis tells us about our conventional ways of doing state-building – that is, the process through which states enhance their ability to function – and, more specifically, what it exposes as the limits of the existing orthodoxy.

The capacity fetish

State-building is, by and large, operationalised as a grand enterprise in capacity building. States emerging from conflict or plagued by fragility are seen as incomplete; they don’t have enough of the things needed to make them stable and resilient, whether that’s a monopoly over the use of violence, the capability to deliver effective public services, or whatever else. So, we identify where the gaps are and then invest money to fill them in, presuming that this will ‘fix’ the states in question.

There’s no one model of capacity building, but the focus is quite often on material, tangible outputs and targets. In Sierra Leone, for example, external capacity support to the nutrition sector (one part of the wider health system) has been dominated largely by investments in equipment and technical skills training [^]. How has the aid industry come to be obsessed with the idea of tangible or ‘hard’ capacity?

The Ebola outbreak has revealed why (state) capacity must be seen as more than this. Being able to get stuff done doesn’t just depend on having the right pieces of infrastructure or technical skills, although those things of course still matter. It is also, fundamentally, a product of relationships. Notably, when Sierra Leone’s government attempted its Ebola sensitisation campaign in Kailahun district – one of the country’s first hotspots – it was reported that ‘few villagers took any notice’ [^].

Even when states stop doing nasty things to their citizens, it is possible for the so-called ‘social contract’ to continue to crumble. People’s trust in authority must be slowly built through experiences, engagements, interactions. But how is that possible when the state has long been absent from most people’s everyday lives? While the introduction of Sierra Leone’s Free Health Care Initiative in 2010 was undoubtedly a step in the right direction, the Ebola crisis – and the responses to it – threaten to unravel the fragile gains made so far.

The point is, ideas of ‘capacity’ and ‘legitimacy’ cannot be neatly separated, and should not be treated as such. A state’s capacity to deal with needs and crises is partly a function of how socially embedded it is in the first place (and how it goes about accumulating the trust of the people, if it even attempts to at all). We often forget that, and it’s a major blind-spot of the mainstream state-building model.

Trust is a two-way thing

A central theme of Wednesday’s discussion was how trust in authority matters for effective responses to crisis. We saw this manifest when citizens failed to report cases of Ebola to health clinics or authorities out of fear of the consequences, in part fuelled by rumours about what the Ebola treatment facilities were in fact doing to patients. But what happens when we flip that on its head, when we ask how the state’s trust in citizens affects crisis response? Are responses also shaped by how a state sees society?

It seems to be becoming increasingly clear that development and governance outcomes are as much a product of how something is done as what is done in the first place. New survey evidence from the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium [^] (SLRC), for example, suggests that people’s views of the state seem to be linked more to the accountability of service providers than whether they have access to (self-perceived) good or bad services. The views held by a state towards the public then become particularly important, as they are likely to shape the way in which policies are implemented. Indeed, while they might have actually worked to some extent, draconian measures to the Ebola crisis, such as curfews and containments, reflect a particular kind of state power and a particular way of applying it to citizens.

All too often, elites within societies have negative and pejorative attitudes towards the poor, both in developed countries – think ‘chavs [^]’ – as well as developing ones. This inhibits responses to crises that might engage more with local knowledge and local institutions; where the authorities trust people more and lecture them less. (On this point, it’s worth reading the IDS paper by Pauline Oosterhoff and Annie Wilkinson, which talks about ‘layers of mistrust’ between states, citizens and response partners [^]). Putting it to music, you’d have to ask: do governments need to find the love they lost somewhere along a lonely highway?

Many questions have been raised by this outbreak of Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – questions not just about the effectiveness and efficiency (or otherwise) of the international response, but about state-building, domestic governance, and the complex, non-linear connections between capacity, trust and legitimacy. We’ll be exploring some of these questions through the next, and final, phase of Sierra Leone research for the SLRC [^], so please do get in touch if you also think these things matter. We would be interested in hearing your thoughts. And we look forward to observing the evolution of IDS’ own work in this important area.

This blog was first posted on the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) website: http://www.ids.ac.uk/opinion/what-ebola-tells-us-about-how-to-do-state-building [^]