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Apr 17, 2013 | Commentary

I was at the International Studies Association Annual Convention in San Francisco this month, presenting a paper with Timothy Donais, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and an SGG Senior Associate. I was struck by one of the papers on our panel and how it challenged my thinking on the notion of “capacity” and by extension, “capacity building.”

The paper was written by another Wilfrid Laurier University professor, Yasmine Shamsie, and was a study of the management of the Caracol export processing zone, an economic development mega-project which when completed promises to generate thousands of jobs and a boost for Haiti’s economic growth. After interviewing a wide range of stakeholders in the project, her findings challenge the perception of the Haitian state as weak and ineffectual. Despite intense local resistance to the project (its location—in prime agricultural land—proved controversial), the Haitian state, and particularly local officials, were able to move the highly complex project forward with minimal disruption and without resorting to violence.

Shansie found that the local officials operating at the commune level, CASECs (Conseils d’Administration des Sections Communales) and ASECs (Administration des Sections Communales), were able to play a “buffer” role between state-level actors and members of the community, effectively managing discontent.

The paper got me thinking about the way we measure state capacity. Our field has a tendency to view capacity as something “we” have that “they” need, perhaps placing an excessive emphasis on bureaucratic professionalism. Is this approach unduly dismissive of the different forms of capacity that local actors have? In the Caracol case, the ability to control, manage, co-opt and deflect proved equally important in the success of the project as the more formal processes of management taking place at the national and international (donor) level. These are state capacities, but capacities which are difficult for donors to recognize, measure and perceive.


Geoff Burt is the Vice President of the Security Governance Group.