Informal institutions are generally understood as destabilising forces and obstacles for international peacebuilding processes. In practice, however, formal and informal institutions complement each other through competition over statebuilding assets, resulting in the emergence of entangled institutions – or an ‘entangled’ state. These entanglements present confusing and unexpected post-war outcomes that can appear to undermine statebuilding processes. Rather than a threat to statebuilding processes, informal institutions contribute to statebuilding by creating informal economies or justice systems and holding legitimacy and coercive power in local communities. A contextual framing of entangled states can advance a broader and more thorough understanding of war-to-peace transitions by moving beyond Western value-judgements of the ‘illegal other’ and inviting informal institutions, as an inherent part of statebuilding processes, into ongoing discussions around war-to-peace transitions.
An exploration into the unruly edges between formal and informal institutions in the cases of Liberia and Northern Ireland allows us to find institutions of entanglement that do away with assumptions of formal, state institutions as ‘good’ and informal, non-state institutions as ‘bad’. In both Liberia and Northern Ireland, informal institutions emerged in several forms, creating non-state pockets where the state was unable to function. These institutions emerged in dialogue with the state, forming complementary entities through competition or conflict with their formal counterparts. In both cases, these processes of competition and complementation form dynamic entanglements of formal and informal institutions, in what might be considered a type of symbiosis (Scott, 2010).
Formal and Informal: Finding Distinctions
Whereas ‘formal’ institutions refer to organised groups operating as part of the state, informal institutions are “socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels” (Helmke and Levitsky 2004: 727). Organised crime and terrorist organisations are examples of informal, non-state groups that shape negative associations with informal institutions (de Boar & Bosetti, 2015). Informal institutions encompass not only such ‘extralegal groups,’ but other forms of ‘local’ or ‘traditional’ social organisations (Cheng 2018).
After periods of conflict, states and formal institutions are often unable to provide security and civil services that meet societies’ needs. Economies deteriorate, and many find themselves struggling to meet basic survival needs, such as sustenance, shelter, safety, or security — leading to a mistrust of the formal institutions that failed to provide these essential services. In this context, informal institutions become more salient and can mobilise, as formal institutions are either incomplete or cannot be achieved (Helmke & Levitsky, 2004).
Entangled Institutions in Northern Ireland and Liberia
The conflict in Northern Ireland known as ‘The Troubles’ was a period of unrest and violence that began in 1979 and concluded with the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998.
In the lead-up to the Troubles, inequalities between ‘native’ Republican Catholic and ‘settler’ Unionist Protestant communities sparked several marches, counter-marches, and the resulting violent clashes. Paramilitary groups emerged through divisions of identity in the form of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), representing minority Republican Catholics, and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), representing majority Unionist Protestants. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police force, largely made up of Protestants, often sided with Unionists and came to be seen by the Catholic community as an oppressive force (Byrne and Jarman, 2014). During the Troubles, both groups developed informal ‘justice’ systems within their respective communities (Rickard & Bakke, 2021).
As formal security institutions fell away in Catholic areas, the IRA rose to fill the gaps. ‘No-go’ areas formed in Catholic working-class regions like Derry, where police forces would not enter, furthering the erosion of formal state authority (Ó Dochartaigh, 2005). The IRA, along with other Republican groups, took on governance functions in these areas, such as building schools, providing welfare services, replacing public transport services, and creating informal structures of justice and security (Rickard & Bakke, 2021).
These structures survive after war in a self-reinforcing dynamic, as communities who are sceptical of state authorities turn to informal structures, while non-state actors see ongoing maintenance of arms as justified (Rickard and Bakke 2021:30). As a result, paramilitary groups today continue to take on limited governance functions, most palpably in the form of punishment attacks. These groups retain legitimacy, and operate governance functions in areas where there is a continued lack of trust between local communities and formal institutions. Northern Ireland thus can be read as an entangled state, where both informal and formal structures are complementary and competitive agents in the statebuilding process.
Liberia shares a similar history of inequalities across identity cleavages, with ‘native’ Liberians on one side, and ‘settler’ Ameri-Congolese Liberians on the other. Tensions as a result of inequalities across identity divisions came to a head in the Rice Riots in 1979, when peaceful demonstrations received a violent response from the government, solidifying an already deep mistrust of the government from indigenous Liberians. Later, President Tolbert’s assassination and a change in leadership garnered celebrations from indigenous Liberians. However, the expected era of emancipation did not follow, and the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of Liberians disintegrated — along with the state itself. Various rebel groups such as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, and the many rebel groups formed out of the Armed Forces of Liberia, emerged to take charge (Cheng, 2018). Early in the conflict, orders to protect civilians and encourage market activity allowed Taylor to expand his legitimacy as a leader (Lidow, 2010, p16). The increasingly repressive and violent nature of Doe’s government, particularly against the Gio and Manos people, resulted in increasing ethnic tensions (Cheng 2018; Lidow 2010). Charles Taylor built upon these tensions and anger and undermined the state’s monopoly over violence by arming civilians. Two civil wars between 1989 and 2003 culminated in the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Following this agreement, increasing conflict between unemployed low-skilled youth led to an emergence of ‘extralegal’ non-state groups as a credible third-party for dispute resolution (Cheng, 2018).
As well as this, the NPFL had set up trade structures — establishing the framework for the post-war extralegal structures of trade (Cheng, 2018). Even after the conflict ended in Liberia, practices linked to these trades — such as rubber tapping and mining extraction — continued. To keep these economies in operation, informal justice structures were formed by extralegal groups to clarify local disputes.
These extralegal groups emerged in parallel to other informal institutions long predating the civil wars, such as the powerful customary authorities known as ‘secret societies’, or ‘Poro’ and ‘Sande’ societies (Blair et al, 2018). During the conflict, many people sought recourse from secret societies, leading to their ‘distinct revival’ after waning influence in the 20th century (Ellis, 2006: 270). These authorities survived relatively unchanged throughout the conflict, retaining their legitimacy in the post-war period, mainly due to widespread distrust of formal justice institutions (Isser et al., 2009: 39). Typical punishments chosen by chiefs tend to take on a goal of social reconciliation. One of the ways this is done is through compensation, or repair of the harm, to the entire community. There is also evidence that in some cases, town chiefs will cooperate with formal justice institutions, particularly if one or more parties are dissatisfied with chief rulings (Isser et al., 2009: 26).
Comparing the cases of Northern Ireland and Liberia, it is evident that post-conflict statebuilding processes invoke a number of transgressions against state/non-state, formal/informal and complementary/competitive dichotomies. Northern Irish paramilitary groups and Liberian secret societies and extralegal groups have each competed with the state over governance processes. Although it is generally agreed that the state socialises people into being governed (see Lake, 2010), in post-war statebuilding projects, the reality is that civil society is never a blank slate. In these cases, the ability for informal institutions to socialise their own communities and normalise informal structures of governance grants civil society with viable alternatives to state processes. By historicising informal institutions, we better understand how secret societies and extralegal groups in Liberia and Northern Irish paramilitary groups act as one of the many statebuilding processes linking the ‘state of the past’ with the ‘state of the future’ (Cheng, 2018). For both, diminished local trust in the state due to ongoing discrimination by state forces presented distinct opportunities for informal groups to consolidate their influence upon local communities.
The influence of these informal groups persists, in part due to the normalisation of such institutions (Rickard & Bakke, 2021; Cheng, 2018). In Northern Ireland, paramilitary authorities coerce through ‘punishment’ attacks, earn capital through protection money and drug profits, and win legitimacy through service provisions. In Liberia, coercion is achieved by extralegal groups by force, and by customary authorities through social pressures. In the competition between these informal institutions and their formal counterparts, a coexistence emerges between them. Extralegal groups facilitate commerce to gain capital, and customary authorities facilitate community development capital. Legitimacy is won in part because of the service provisions that these informal institutions provide. In this way, informal institutions can constitute a legitimate and viable alternative to formal institutions — but they are not necessarily severed from them. Informal groups also negotiate, bribe, and communicate with local officials and representatives of the state to achieve their goals (Cheng, 2018; Rickard & Bakke, 2021; Isser et al., 2009). Thus, in the aftermath of war, an exploration into these entanglements presents an opportunity for peacebuilding institutions to move toward a view of informal institutions as an inherent part of the state- and peacebuilding process, rather than one which is intrinsically counterproductive to statebuilding.
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Scott, J. C. (2009) The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press.
Jasmine Kato-Naughton is a current MA student in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies at King’s College London and completed her undergraduate degree in Anthropology at UCL. Her current research interests revolve around how settler-native identities are used (and abused) in Northern Ireland. Jasmine is originally from Harlesden, London, and has lived in Kyoto, Japan, and Cambridge. She currently volunteers with the Organization for Identity and Cultural Development (OICD); is on a community organising placement with Croydon Citizens; and works part-time at the Cambridge University Press Bookshop.