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Turning the UN into a field site: Franchised States and the Bureaucracy of Peace

Niels Nagelhus Schia is Senior Research Fellow at NUPI, Oslo, Norway. He is a Fulbright scholar and a former fellow of the NSSR, New York. Dr. Schia’s research focuses on international organizations and international practices.

Niels Nagelhus Schia Chart © Niels Nagelhus Schia

Franchised States and the Bureaucracy of Peace examines a new type of state formation, franchised states, evoked by the rise of transnational rule, and the increased role of international organizations like the United Nations. Turning the UN into a field site and drawing on an anthropological fieldwork of the UN organization, the book demonstrates how peacebuilding activities turned Liberia into an object of governing, whereby the UN, in seeking to build the state, also became the state. The sovereign state of Liberia here emerges as a franchise rather than a self-contained entity. Two implications follow: First, that international peacebuilding turns post-conflict countries into clients of the international community. Second, that “sovereignty” is no longer exclusively associated with the state: it is organized in and through specific practices of governing where a state actor is only one among a range of actors. With these findings, the book moves beyond previous work on peacebuilding by focusing on the unbundling of sovereignty. It contributes to the literature on the changing forms of sovereignty by showing the specific ways in which sovereignty is organized, packaged and enacted, often by actors working under international auspices.

Conflicting motives

Turning the UN into an anthropological field site makes it possible to highlight the complexity of peacebuilding and post-conflict states. Linkages to international, national and local motives and intentions are revealed, in turn, helping to explain why peacebuilding is more than simply a matter of finding the right recipe and the right people for the right jobs. It allows us to see peacebuilding more broadly, as a global process, where officials and bureaucrats maneuver between motives that may seem conflicting and produce emergent properties and unintentional consequences.

One of the illustrations used in the book to explain these conflicting concerns and considerations is about the UN Security Council. If the Security Council can’t agree on matters, it can’t make decisions, thereby risking sidelining itself – becoming irrelevant, as was the fate of the League of Nations in its time. This gives a special dynamic to the Security Council’s decision-making processes, which frequently concern great-power interests. If the primary focus is on achieving an agreement, then needs on the ground – where the peacebuilding takes place – may sometimes become secondary. The book points at several such conflicting concerns pertaining to the state, the concept of sovereignty and global processes of peacebuilding.

Franchised states

By making use of the concept franchise states the book explores and traces conflicting concerns and considerations in peacebuilding processes. The concept can be compared with other and different types of global enterprises such as McDonald's which is a good example of how a franchise works. The business idea is distributed to branches all over the world, which use the same products, brands and work patterns, regardless of where they’re located. The concept of franchised state draws attention to how states like Liberia are built on established international views and notions as to what a state is. These views – or business ideals, to continue the comparison – are managed and distributed by international actors, such as the diplomats in the UN Security Council and bureaucrats and officers in the UN organization.

When global peacebuilding processes are compared with such franchise systems states like Liberia emerges as franchises, not self-contained entities (or an independent burger joint). This can have positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, it may contribute to stability, and help to lubricate the machinery of the state apparatus. But it can also undermine national structures and patterns, ways of doing things, and local knowledge. That also means that the state in question, at least for some time, becomes more dependent on external forces. The book draws up the model above to explain how this arrangement works and produce ownership to the peacebuilding processes.

A new kind of state

To sum up: The concept of franchised states points toward a new kind of state formation brought about by the rise of transnational rule.

Here, the traditional national state loses terrain to a new kind of state, emerging in a network of NGOs, corporations, states and international organizations. When the UN sets about building peace in a post-conflict country, that is often how it’s done. And that should be taken into consideration in designing UN exit strategies, and also in measuring success.

Franchised States is not focusing on the negative or positive aspects of international organizations and the UN. However, the UN is too often criticized for being ineffective, for not creating the desired peacebuilding effects, for failing to establish national ownership, and for peacebuilding costing too much. In my view this critique is too one-dimensional and simplified, the processes that the UN and post-conflict countries are actually involved in are larger-scale processes that require maneuvering among conflicting concerns. The criticisms often fail to recognize the complexity in these processes, or how bureaucracies and state apparatuses in well-functioning countries fortunate enough to have long-lasting peace and stability have come about as the result of long-term processes that have involved many attempts and failures. Anthropological studies of international organizations can contribute to providing a more multidimensional understanding of such processes.

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