Claim this State!

Local ownership is one of the most prominent themes we continually encounter in our research on the impact of international aid to municipalities in the western Balkans. This is an extremely complicated and controversial issue that cuts to the heart of how international organizations (IOs) should aim to design their good governance aid programs.

The underlying idea is that an IO with expertise in running a local government can come in and help run the show, thereby imparting some of their knowledge. This might be best accomplished by instituting in-depth programs that work for long periods with relatively high impact. Yet, this decreases citizen ownership by delegating some of the stake in the government to the international community. In a region with so much international involvement (Kosovo and Bosnia being the most glaring examples), why should we recommend devolving power to IOs on a level that has been relatively de-politicized and self-sufficient?

On the other hand, allowing complete ownership defeats the purpose of technical aid. Especially in rural post-conflict regions, stemming discontentment with efficient, strong institutions is highly important. Even if some local ownership is lost by increasing the role of IOs in municipal government, at least the end effect would be a more efficient decentralized local government. And thus, the dilemma.

Much of the most prominent literature on the issue recommends some “middle way” of strong partnerships between locals and the IOs. Some ways this could occur would be a strong and influential civil society, a greater focus on hiring local staff for the IOs, or streamlining a complain mechanism for citizens. Each of these has its own severe limitations and dilemmas, but at least it’s a start for the most prominent organizations to consider.

Our research has indicated that, in general, local government stakeholders and citizens have had few, if any, negative feelings for the current work of the IOs. In fact, it seems that many want them to amend their processes. Additionally, many stakeholders actually call for more international ownership, to the extent that I personally have doubts about the feasibility of their requests. It’s an interesting perspective that I actually didn’t really expect to see figuring so prominently in our data.

Which makes me consider the question: is it possible that the international community is inventing the dilemmas of local ownership itself? It’s a really frustrating notion and one that I’ve continually struggling with while helping to conceptualize the design of this project. As we begin to incorporate our findings into writing, this will certainly be something we address in greater detail.