The United States and the international community have yet to discover a successful model of post-conflict reconstruction and governance. Over half of negotiated settlements revert to war and 70% of internationally-mediated peace processes fail. The conventional wisdom is a top-down model of rapid-fire elections and propping up the national government with massive aid outlays and imported Western-style institutions. This rarely promotes stability, democracy, or governance in late- and post-conflict countries; rather it creates a rentier state rife with corruption that is not answerable to its population.
Bureaucracies and an elected leader do not create democracy or a successful state. The international community instills fledgling post-conflict governments with greater worth than they deserve and then prepares for withdrawal. Judging a country’s stability and success only on national-level indicators is akin to declaring someone healthy because they don’t have AIDS–overlooking their HIV. National elections, institutions, and leaders will not be legitimate or sustainable without earning the support of the people. Without effective governance that support will not exist.
Unfortunately, few questioned the doctrine that national institutions and centralized government are the pathway to success. Dumping money on an infantile national government and slowly trying to expand governance to localities creates a garrison capital that holds money and power with little incentive to provide security and services elsewhere. This further alienates people from “their” government. Countries were not formed with ready-made strong, central governments. Nations evolved from local tradition and governance mechanisms until a group of people, towns, or states decided to band together for their mutual benefit. Why do we think we can cheat organic processes of state-building?
Despite good intentions of respecting others’ culture and not exporting Western values, reconstruction attempts to plant Occidental practices and governments in non-Western countries. Law and government in Muslim and Christian countries are not antithetical. But Islamic countries must form their own laws and governments—which can be legitimate, transparent, and representative—in order for them to be respected and lasting.
Somaliland (a former British protectorate)—a secessionist state of Somalia whose 1991 declaration of independence no country has recognized—features undefined borders, competition between clans, and an absence of foreign aid. Despite these problems, Somaliland created a government, held three fair elections (in 2003, 2005, and 2010), built an airport and three universities, and formed a functioning economy. International aid and capacity-builders were not available, so created their own, showcasing 20 years of slow but solid success.
Proverbially unstable places like Bosnia and West Africa suggest that foreign involvement creates as many problems as it ameliorates. The abundance of aid and interest in the first year is followed by steadily declining funds and rising frustration. The bulk of aid monies is dumped on a country before it has the capacity to absorb it, causing corruption and entrenching problems. The time pressure on reconstruction causes many to work around the government to complete projects, creating an indigenous government and population with little experience or training that is dependent on external actors. International involvement is not a substitute for local support for government and development; unfortunately, it is used as one.
Localized programming focusing on representation, community involvement, and participation is the foundation of citizenship and local ownership. For example, a Ugandan monitoring project provided information to 50 villages on health services they were entitled to and how their village fared in child mortality compared to other villages. Within a year child deaths declined across the board by 33%. People shifted from passive victims to empowered citizens that held their government accountable.
Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Programme established village-level Community Development Councils to decide on development projects, apply for funding, and oversee the project. These have promoted local capacity, confidence in government, equity, inclusiveness, efficiency, and good governance while adapting to the needs and norms of each village. This program should be expanded to give the CDCs a mandate including local taxation, laws, administration, and other matters of public policy. With these local successes, why do we continue to subsidize entrenched corruption in Kabul?
Local governance is more open to citizens’ needs, conducive to the social compact, and confidence-building than national governments. Co-opting existing local, religious, and/or tribal authorities and institutions can build governance mechanisms that connect state to society. With more indigenous responsibility comes broader political participation, transforming state subjects into citizens.
There is no one solution to governance in postwar states; they are highly complex and individualistic. Regardless, it is time for reconstruction to get back to the basics, give up on governments-in-a-box, and focus on empowering indigenous actors to build their own systems of local governance and accountability. Indeed, this approach is commensurate with the way America’s founders created the United States’ unlikely experiment in democratic governance.
 Steven Autesserre, “Hobbes and the Congo: Frames, Local Violence, and International Intervention,” International Organization 63, Spring 2009, pp. 249–80, 250.
 Brian Levy, “The Case for Principled Agnosticism,” Journal of Democracy 21, No. 4, October 2010, pp. 27-34, 32.