Fixing the Political Market Place: How Can We Make Peace Without Functioning State Institutions?

Alex de Waal


How can international actors respond to the powerful trend towards intractable low-level conflicts that are part-criminal and part-political? This paper argues that it is important to understand the actual functioning of politics in complex countries (like Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan) that do not have a strong and autonomous state. Such countries must be studied as they really are, rather than as deficient examples of what they ‘ought’ to be. This involves examining the ‘political marketplace’ – political bargaining within patronage systems. Patronage systems can be inefficient and corrupt; they can also be inclusive, and a repository of trust and security. While promoting ways of avoiding unchecked corruption and criminalisation, international actors need to recognise the power of patronage to generate stability.

In fragile states, patronage systems are deeply rooted in social and political life and are seen by the public and political leaders as normal and legitimate. By failing to incorporate the role of patronage in political affairs and conflict management, the dominant international approach aims too high and sets timetables too rapidly. It seeks to build institutions before stability has been achieved, rather than first seeking to understand the political preconditions which will make statebuilding viable. Further, Western institutionalised normative standards do not sufficiently distinguish between patronage systems that maintain stability and those that generate instability.

The political marketplace is a model to facilitate understanding of how fragile states function. It is a set of practices conducted between ruler and elites, and consists of political bargaining for loyalty that results in either cash or symbolic/status rewards:

  • Tools that determine a bargaining price include electoral votes, political allegiances and public protests and targeted use of violence.
  • Insurgents use violence against the government to demand a higher price. The government uses violence against insurgents in order to weaken their asset base and drive down the price.
  • In good economic years the ruler may be able to meet the financial demands of political elites. An economic crunch reduces the ruler’s ability to pay, requiring use of non-cash methods, including the seizing of resources.
  • Foreign sources of patronage have become an increasingly large component of patronage. Loyalty can now be transacted by neighbouring countries, foreign corporations, aid donors and criminal syndicates.
  • All forms of international intervention influence bargaining for loyalty by providing more resources, which accelerates the monetisation and regionalisation of the marketplace.
  • In addition, the internationalisation of governance standards has diminished the positive effectiveness of national political cultures and systems and has contributed to the monetisation of the political marketplace.

International actors need to learn to distinguish between legitimate patronage and illegitimate corruption – a distinction that must be made in accordance with local political-cultural norms. It is also important to recognise that patronage systems have the power to generate stability. Policymakers need a methodology by which to examine the nature of the political systems in which they are intervening and likely impacts of those interventions. Further:

  • ‘Fixing’ a dysfunctional political marketplace requires the design of political systems that ensure elite buy-in without institutionalising corruption.
  • Mechanisms for addressing marketplace dysfunction must primarily be local, national and regional. Regional organisations, for example, can develop norms and identify local market regulating mechanisms.
  • While statebuilding is a laudable long-term goal, finding interim solutions within the political marketplace can promote medium-term stability.
  • Smaller, sustainable long-term international interventions, as opposed to the current trend of large, unpredictable interventions, would help to stabilise marketplace deal-making.
  • Incentives need to be found that address the grievances that trigger violence without rewarding its perpetrators with prominent negotiating positions in international interventions.
  • A party to a peace negotiation should be seen not as a formal hierarchy but as a patronage system, with authority negotiable at every level.
  • Democratisation should be aligned with local definitions and be seen principally as a mechanism to ensure that all constituencies are included in executive power arrangements.


de Waal, A., 2009, 'Fixing the Political Market Place: How Can We Make Peace Without Functioning State Institutions?', Fifteenth Christen Michelsen Lecture, Bergen, 15 October 2009, Chr. Michelsen Institute