What I'm reading on governance & conflict, 19 October

Corruption, civic hackers, measuring peace, criminal governance, geopolitics, my favourite scene from 'Little Women' and much more...

This has been a busy week, with another one looming ahead, and so my ‘what I’m reading…’ this week will have more ‘Shorts’ than last week, including things that are actually in my own field (e.g., corruption, aid policy, development politics, organised crime) but that I haven’t yet written up for myself. Links shared are better than links hoarded, though!

An article by Christiana Parreira in the Journal of Peace Research looks at the negative effects of service provision by non-state actors (NSAs) on popular perceptions of state legitimacy. Her research focuses on neighborhood-level changes in access to electricity in Baghdad between 2003 and 2006, using annual nighttime lights imagery and other data to show that Sadrist-affiliated neighborhoods saw a significant increase in electricity access compared to other areas (controlling for things like local-level population and population density changes, the impact of forced displacement and violence etc.). In low-capacity contexts such as Iraq, she concludes, ‘…the capture of extant infrastructure and its effective rebranding by NSAs in Iraq and elsewhere constitutes a form of predatory co-production that contributes to a cycle of state weakness and delegitimation’.

I’m not going to do Benjamin Lessing’s new article in Perspectives on Politics on ‘Conceptualising criminal governance’ justice, and I’m going to have to give it a much deeper re-read when I’m able to. He’s developed a novel conceptual framework looking at the who, what and how of criminal governance which he defines as ‘the imposition of rules or restriction on behavior by a criminal organization. This includes governance over members, non-member criminal actors and non-criminal civilians’. This, he argues, is different to both state and rebel governance because of the ways in which it is ‘simultaneously born of, shaped by, in opposition to—but in subtle ways complementing—state power’. There’s so much here that’s interesting, including how he introduces charismatic versus rational-bureaucratic forms of criminal authority, as well as how his framework helps differentiate between his ‘criminal governance’ and other forms of organised crime.

Carl Miller’s been doing some really interesting (and important) research on disinformation and COVID-19 (with ISD), but his research on Taiwan’s ‘civic hackers’ is really fascinating. After Taiwan’s ‘Sunflower movement’, the new digital minister, Audrey Tang, worked with colleagues in a leaderless collective known as ‘g0v’ (‘gov zero’) to bring in a new platform called vTaiwan. This is a new, open and transparent platform to help the government engage directly with citizens in order to make political decisions by doing pretty much the opposite of what social media does: ‘rather than serving up the comments that were the most divisive, it gave the most visibility to those finding consensus – consensus across not just their own little huddle of ideological fellow-travellers, but the other huddles, too. Divisive statements, trolling, provocation – you simply couldn’t see these.’ vTaiwan has helped shift seemingly intractable problems and is being used in more and more areas, creating consensus and finding solutions that the government can actually act on. It’s been used now in Kentucky, Singapore and in Newham in the UK (see the Democracy and Civic Participation Commission). It may be the civic tech solution we all need post-COVID-19 and the last few years; as Carl says, ‘The system’s potential to heal divisions, to reconnect people to politics, is a solution made for the problems of our age. What started with a protest on the floor of Taiwan’s parliament may lead towards a world governed by systems that look very different from any parliament at all.’

Phil Vernon suggests three ways to measure peace that he says lend themselves to a combination of qualitative and quantitative measurement approaches, and can be applied in participatory monitoring and measurement approaches, in adaptive peacebuilding and in impact assessment, and at any scope and scale. The blog has much more detail, but the three ways are: 1) prevalence of violence; 2) functional and trusting vertical and horizontal relations; and 3) fair access to opportunities to gain a decent livelihood, and to the means of security, justice, education, health and other dimensions of welfare. (via Tom Rodwell)

I’m struggling to remember how this article on ‘A clash with Turkey is becoming inevitable’ came onto my radar (I wasn’t a huge neocon fan back in the day, and it’s not grown on me in subsequent decades…), but it’s an interesting summary of various geostrategic moves by Turkey’s President Erdoğan in the Eastern Mediterranean that are contributing to growing regional instability and what this may mean for US geostrategic interests in the region. Given geostrategic analysis generally focuses on threats and possible justifications for aggressive strategy decisions, it’s worth reading this alongside Kaya Genç’s article on ‘Watching the watchmen’ which looks at the ways in which the return of Turkey’s ‘brutal auxiliary police force’ is operating as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. As with some other ‘strongman’ leaders, demography increasingly doesn’t seem to be on Erdoğan’s side, with support for government among under 20s at around 30 per cent compared to 70 per cent who favour the opposition, not helped by recent increased levels of state violence. How COVID-19 success and failure, and the nature of the response itself, plays out internally and also geopolitically is going to be interesting to see, in Turkey and elsewhere, but it’s worth looking for potential opportunities alongside threats.

I like this blog by Kiely Barnard-Webster on ‘The value of a stereotype: women resisting corruption’. She makes a strong case for the need for gender analysis in anti-corruption programming; if corruption is about abuse of power, surely we have to know what power is available, who wields it and how feasible it is to resist it, right? In their work in the DRC, they found that women are expected to be ‘guardian of values’, and while some women felt empowered by this, others felt it to be a burden. It reminded me of one of my favourite film scenes (based on one of my favourite novels): the 1994 version of Little Women with Winona Ryder. The scene takes place in New York City in the 1860s, and Jo March (my absolute childhood hero) is sitting quietly while a group of intellectual, liberal men are discussing why women should get the vote. I won’t spoil the scene, which is only one minute long, but I love this. In fact, I play it to my masters students when I teach on corruption, and they all get to see me tear up a little bit, year after year…

Am I feeling nervous about the upcoming US election? Hold on… 🤮 (aka just a bit…). The outcome of the vote on November 3rd will have a big impact on the UK as well. Patrick Wintour, the Guardian’s diplomatic editor, sets out some of the potential implications in this piece on the ‘US election: what a Biden or Trump victory could mean for Britain’. Anti-corruption is one area that will definitely be impacted by the outcome, with Biden wanting to put a focus on the fight against corruption at the heart of a proposed new ‘D10’ (an expanded group of G7 democracies), while Trump may be somewhat disinclined to prioritise it.

Finally, still no time to write anything about my Roam Research workflow, but for those of you who are curious, this is what it (partially) looks like in practice. I save links to articles or papers to Roam as I come across them using the hashtag #substack, and this pulls everything in to a single ‘substack’ page as linked references. As I go through I decide what to include. Some links seemed good at the time but aren’t worth sharing, so I just delete these. Some links are important for me personally, and I create a separate page for these with my ‘research notes’ template. Others I just read and write directly into the draft for this week which is open in the sidebar so I can read and write as I go. When I’m done with a link, I change the hashtag to #substack_done which automatically moves them so they’re all in one place if I want to see them again at some point. It’s pretty cool…

Still more great webinars…

C20 event on ‘The need for cross-sectoral accountability now more than ever’ with Gavin Hayman (from Open Contracting…do check them out!), Vivek Ramkumar, Rhoda Weeks-Brown, Tracy Staines and Jean-Luc Lemahieu

Brookings event with Bruce Riedel and Chris Whipple on ‘Anticipating COVID-19: A view from the intelligence community’


The OECD’s States of Fragility 2020 report is out, alongside a huge range of resources. A collection of short blogs from ODI on ‘Fragility: time for a rethink’ offers some critical reflections.

Graham Teskey and colleagues are publishing PEA updates every fortnight or so with a range of case studies grouped by level of analysis: global, regional, country and sector, along with and problem driven PEA within a sector. Update 3 is out now.

RUSI paper on ‘Improving governance and tackling crime in Free-Trade Zones’ by Anton Moiseienko, Alexandria Reid and Isabella Chase. About to become very relevant in the UK if we end up going down the FTZ route.

The first TWP case study paper of the FCDO era? Gareth Williams and Olly Owen on ‘FCDO governance programming in Nigeria: what difference has thinking and working politically made in practice?’

Peter Geoghegan, investigations editor for Open Democracy, writes about ‘Funding hate’, focusing on the US-based World Congress of Families and its widespread funding across Europe helping to ‘support authoritarian societies led by ‘strongmen”’

Oliver Bullough on ‘Why plugging tax loopholes through global consensus isn’t working’ and much more in his weekly Oligarchy newsletter

Ian Tennant from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime on ‘The promise of Palermo: a political history of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime’

Guillermo Vasquez (also from Global Initiative) on ‘Saying no to extortion in Central America: Lessons learnt from Italy’

Catherine O’Rourke from the FCDO-funded Political Settlements Research Programme on ‘COVID-19 and gender-based violence in conflict: new challenges and persistent problems

Losing one internal auditor looking at government expenditure on COVID-19 would be unfortunate, but for the Liberia Revenue Authority to lose four auditors in eight days in mysterious circumstances is raising serious concerns.

Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz from Freedom House on ‘Democracy under lockdown: the impact of COVID-19 on the global struggle for freedom’

Jonathan Hillman in the WSJ on ‘The imperial overreach of China’s Belt and Road Initiative’ (via Tom Wheeler)

Vik Sohonie on ‘What Africa and Asia can teach each other’ through deeper networks, cross-continent learning and solidarity (and where the West is seen to offer very little in comparison)

Catriona Mackenzie, Christopher McDowell and Eileen Pittaway in the Journal of Refugee Research on ‘Beyond ‘Do No Harm’: the challenge of constructing ethical relationships in refugee research’

Felix Haass in Comparative Political Studies on ‘Insurgency and ivory: the territorial origins of illicit resource extraction in civil conflicts’ (via Christine Cheng)

Guillaume Nicaise on ‘What can we learn from endemic corruption in Burundi?’

CDD on ‘Nigeria’s problem is leadership, not multiethnicity’

Helen Clark from EITI on ‘The right tools to fight corruption in the extractives sector’

Nate Wilson from USIP on ‘Oil blockades, protests and resignations: the latest on Libya’s conflict’

Egdio Chaimite and Lucio Posse from IDS on ‘Why are women still excluded from public decision-making in Mozambique?’

Sophie Brown from Open Contracting on ‘Citizens empowered: An open secret to building local infrastructure on time and budget’

Erwin Veen, Nancy Ezzedine and Rena Netjes from Clingendael on ‘COVID-19 and conflict in the Middle East’

Michael Jarvis from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative on ‘Why governance matters in the time of COVID-19’

Open access digital book on Situating Open Data: Global Trends in Local Contexts, featuring cases from various regions and on different governance topics

Analysis from the Economist on strongmen and how there’s ‘No vaccine for cruelty: the pandemic has eroded democracy and respect for human rights’

CGD paper on ‘Developing Country Trade Access after Brexit: The UK’s Plans for the Generalized System of Preferences’ which with a shorter ODI blog version as well

The always amazing Naila Kabeer in Feminist Economics on ‘Women’s empowerment and economic development: a feminist critique of storytelling practices in “Randomista” economics’

My UoB colleague Nic Cheeseman on ‘The remarkable power of African elections’

Another UoB colleague Claire Mcloughlin on ‘What the pandemic looks like in the world’s “ungoverned spaces”’

Rachel Donadio on ‘Can Italy defeat its most powerful crime syndicate?’

Mariana Mazzucato, Josh Entsminger and Rainer Kattel on ‘Public value and platform governance’

Maudo Jallow on how ‘Ghana leads on industrial growth by dropping the dogma’ (around its free market policy)

Duncan Green for FP2P on ‘Covid-19 as a watershed in how we run the world’

Thurka Sangaramoorthy and Karen Kroeger on ‘In the current climate, Rapid Ethnographic Assessments are the research method we need’

Juhi Shareef and Teina Boasa-Dean reimagine ‘An Indigenous Māori View of Doughnut Economics’ for the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL)

A refreshing take on ‘In defence of wokeness’ by Sam Leith for the Spectator

Just for fun…

Devon Price’s short piece on ‘Do you have ‘Zoom Fatigue’’ or is it existentially crushing to pretend life is normal as the world burns?’ gave me a brief moment of solidarity. Not long after reading it, I decided to take action in order to stop receiving those ‘have some mindfulness, because we totally care’ emails. I feel more zen-like already…

Every time Ian Rankin has a new book out I’m a happy camper, but Westwind is a different sort of book from him. First published in 1990, Rankin was still trying out different genres, and this is a fictional version of the UK at that time that blends spies, satellites and 1990s high tech. (There’s a line where one of the spies uses a ‘small infrared device to disconnect her car alarm’, and it took me a a few seconds to realise this is just the remote control thingy we all have now.) Apparently, Rankin hated the book at the time, but a fan recently convinced him to go back to reread it, and he discovered that it’s a very good book and perfect for our time. Set in 1990, the US is pulling its troops of out Europe, and the UK is torn between loyalty to the US and its friends and neighbours on the continent. The UK loses contact with its only satellite as a space shuttle crashes killing all its US crew but leaving the only Brit on board alive. There’s MI6 (with their futuristic remote car alarm capability), the US military, an investigative journalist/ex-girlfriend and a lot of excitement.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’m only just getting around to watching ‘Fleabag’, and I have no idea what’s taken me so long. It’s definitely NSFW and not something to have on the tv when your 12-year old walks into the room and the remote/pause button has obviously gone walkabout at just the wrong moment, but it really is pretty extraordinary. I’ve just finished Season 1 (literally, as I’m typing), so I still have Season 2 to look forward to.

We started watching ‘The Bureau’ after Peter Geoghegan recommended it on Twitter. It’s a French political thriller about a DGSE agent who has to return to Paris at short notice following six years undercover work in Damascus. His first mission on return is to help recover another agent who has gone missing in Algeria and to oversee the training of a new agent for her first ever undercover operation in Iran. The only problem is he left part of his heart in Syria, and that’s not exactly a sensible thing for an undercover intelligence agent to do. It’s an almost perfectly crafted show in every way: plot, characters, setting, pacing. Hugely relevant and a total pleasure.

Leave a comment