Over the past five years, the term 'hybrid governance' has become an increasingly trendy concept in research on state-building and local order in fragile regions of the world.
It has been embraced by aid agencies and promoted by funders, but many academics remain sceptical. Some have observed that the core contribution of the hybrid governance perspective - that there are forms of order beyond the state - is nothing new.
Hybrid arrangements incorporating non-state institutions into formal governance arrangements have been well documented in Africa since the colonial era of indirect rule.
What is new is the interest of academics and policy makers in looking beyond state-centred notions of post-colonial governance to new strategies of working with local non-state forms of order.
But what does hybrid governance actually mean, and why has it risen to prominence so quickly? Does it represent a novel approach to state building or just another development buzzword?
The 'buzz' around this term is undeniable. A swarm of related concepts have coalesced around the notion of hybrid governance, including 'hybrid political orders', 'real governance', 'twilight institutions' and 'negotiated statehood,' drawing attention to the failures of conventional debates about weak and fragile states, and stimulating new kinds of discussions about governance in Africa.
Pinpointing what exactly hybrid governance refers to is complicated by the fact that it is less a thing than a process. Rather than looking at state-building as something that focuses on the state one is seeking to build, hybrid governance focuses on the process through which state and non-state institutions coalesce around stable forms of order and authority.
Instead of focusing on fixing failed states from above, development practitioners and academics are asking new questions about whether more appropriate forms of order are being constructed by 'working with the grain' of local institutions operating on the ground in weak state contexts.
While conventional approaches to state building have been a spectacular failure in places like Somalia and the DR Congo, neither country has descended into complete anarchy.
Despite more than two decades without a functioning state, Somalia has maintained some basic services, an impressively efficient remittance system and a comparatively stable currency.
Similarly, the implosion of the Congolese state has not prevented a continued provision of public services, involving a range of non-state actors to fill gaps in provisioning structures. Even the war-ravaged eastern DRC has pockets of stability and even incipient processes of local service provision and taxation.
Could it be that local non-state institutions provide a more appropriate mechanism for building effective governance systems from below than costly and increasingly problematic 'good governance' reforms?
Does hybrid governance provide a useful conceptual tool for understanding and even facilitating these more grounded and potentially sustainable governance processes? What are its implications for state capacity, political legitimacy and public accountability?
Are hybrid governance arrangements always stabilizing, or do they have different effects in different institutional and political contexts?
Many of these questions are currently being glossed over in contemporary discussions of what hybrid governance is and how it works. These issues are discussed in our research brief arising from a recent workshop on this issue held at the London School of Economics (details below).
One concern relates to whether hybrid governance means the same thing to practitioners and academics. The use of the term involves a shift from normative to more pragmatic approaches to state building, focusing attention on 'what works' rather than on what is consistent with good governance norms.
On the one hand, hybrid governance analyses adopt an explicitly non-normative perspective on issues of public authority and governance by suspending negative judgments on less ideal forms of order that may involve collaboration of public authorities or aid agencies with informal or illiberal institutions, such as vigilante groups, informal enterprise associations or religious authorities.
On the other hand, hybrid arrangements are repackaged as 'practical', 'legitimate' and 'arrangements that work', giving them a normative value.
Tensions have emerged regarding the role of academics in promoting rather than interrogating this perspective. Is the job of academics to help to drive this apparent paradigm shift, or to insist on asking the question: what works for whom?
Additional questions centre on whether hybrid governance arrangements are always positive. There is growing evidence that hybrid governance does not always represent synergistic arrangements between weak states and local institutions filling gaps in state provision.
A diversity of outcomes is possible, from the cohesive arrangements in Senegal to more chaotic hybrid orders in the DR Congo.
Outcomes depend not only on whether governance arrangements reflect genuine hybrids or institutional pluralism, but also on the nature of the non-state and state institutions involved.
This links to the question of who decides which non-state institutions are suitable partners for hybrid governance arrangements.
The assumption that all informal institutions are locally legitimate by definition is a misreading of local realities, and has been challenged in a recent article on the limitations of hybrid governance. Questions must be asked about the priorities and power dynamics that guide the creation of hybrid governance partnerships.
Attention should also be directed to how hybrid governance affects the nature of the state and its relations to society. Do hybrid arrangements necessarily shore up state performance and legitimacy, or can they erode it?
How do hybrid governance processes affect public accountability and citizenship rights? Do differences in performance of hybrid arrangements represent points on a continuum, or different governance trajectories? As these questions demonstrate, hybrid governance is generating discussion that goes beyond mere 'buzz'.
But it is not clear that the processes being explored live up to some of the claims of more inclusive approaches to development, or to suggestions that they constitute a paradigm shift that moves beyond the tarnished neo-liberal recipes for state-building. What is clear is that these are questions worth asking, and processes worth investigating.
Increasingly, discussions about hybridity and state building operate at the intersection of policy-making and theory-building, evident in many of the recent academic research centres and projects financed by donor organisations and other policy institutions.
This means that debates about hybrid governance are as much about the role of academics in interrogating or promoting the term as about what it means.
Indeed, what is at issue may have less to do with academic concerns about conceptual clarity, than with the impact of hybrid governance perspectives on policy thinking and practice in weak state contexts. Academics who have been longing to get their hands dirty may get more than they bargained for.
Kate Meagher (Department of International Development, London School of Economics and Political Science); Tom De Herdt (Institute of Development Policy and Management, University of Antwerp); Kristof Titeca (Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp; Conflict Research Group, Ghent University; Visiting Fellow London School of Economics and Political Science).