Constructing the capable state: Contested discourses and practices in EU capacity building

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Cooperation and Conflict
2020, Vol. 55(1) 3 –21
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0010836719860885
Constructing the capable
state: Contested discourses
and practices in EU capacity
Timothy Edmunds and Ana E Juncos
Capacity building has risen to prominence in the vocabulary of the international community as
a way to promote security and development in fragile and post-conflict environments. Capacity
building seeks to promote a bottom-up approach drawing on and strengthening existing local
capacities. This article argues that capacity building can be understood as part of a broader
governmentality that seeks to determine from the outside what constitutes a ‘capable’ subject.
However, the effects of these governance practices are not straightforward as they are
constantly shaped by the way local actors on the ground engage with these. Drawing on both
policy documents and interviews conducted in Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia, the article examines
European Union capacity building initiatives in these post-conflict environments. By examining the
rationality and problematisations behind this discourse, the article unveils how such assumptions
(in particular, regarding the lack of institutions, power and knowledge) result in interactions and
contestation between the local and the international in practice, which lead to new outcomes
that neither straightforwardly reflect the existing status quo nor represent a linear imposition of
power by external capacity builders.
Capacity building, European Union, governmentality, problematisations, Somalia, Western
Capacity building has become a key form of interventionary practice in post-conflict
zones and transition countries (European Commission, 2011; OECD, 2006). On the face
of it, capacity building moves away from previous top-down engagements of the ‘liberal
Corresponding author:
Ana E Juncos, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol, 11 Priory Road,
Bristol BS8 1TU, UK.
860885CAC0010.1177/0010836719860885Cooperation and ConflictEdmunds and Juncos
4 Cooperation and Conflict 55(1)
peace’ towards more bottom-up methods focused on existing local capacities in line with
resilience building approaches (Chandler, 2015). The reality, however, often defies the
rhetoric (Mac Ginty and Richmond, 2013). Particularly problematic is the fact that inter-
national capacity builders continue to promote Western-inspired models of the ‘capable
state’ premised on questionable assumptions concerning a lack of institutions, power and
knowledge at the local level. In consequence, capacity building programmes in peace-
building have faced persistent and well-documented problems of effectiveness, sustain-
ability, local ownership and legitimacy (Edmunds et al., 2018).
In this article we ask why it has been so difficult for international capacity builders to
move beyond idealised notions of the capable state and examine what happens when
such notions encounter the often-complex realities of governance in the local environ-
ments in which they take place. We draw on the experience of recent European Union
(EU) capacity building initiatives to show such activities are deeply rooted in, and aspire
to replicate, particular forms of state subjectivity. Capacity building discourses and truth
configurations shape ideas about what a ‘capable state’ is, in the form of an institutional-
ised, liberal state entity, while foreclosing unacceptable forms of state capacity that may
be more localised, informal or traditional in nature, constraining the imaginary of what
is possible in capacity building. We employ the existing governmentality literature on
peacebuilding and statebuilding (Chandler, 2010; Joseph, 2013; Merlingen and
Ostraukaite, 2006) to argue that these processes are productive of new forms of govern-
ance in the EU periphery, and between that periphery and the EU itself. We also draw on
insights from the literature on hybridity in peacebuilding and our own interview data to
suggest that the interactions produced through capacity building do not have linear or
straightforwardly hierarchical effects and do not represent an uncontested exercise of
power by the EU over uncontentious subaltern actors. Instead, they comprise dynamic
interactions between EU subjectivities and practices and those of local actors on the
Empirically, the article focusses on EU capacity building programmes in the Western
Balkans and the Horn of Africa. These two regions vary in terms of developmental levels
and security threats, but also in relation to the nature of EU engagement, with the former
benefiting from the prospect of EU integration. Yet, the evidence exposes similar assump-
tions and practices regarding EU capacity building activities in these two regions. The
research is based on our analysis of secondary and primary sources, including official
documents and qualitative interviews. Research fieldwork conducted in Bosnia, Kosovo
and Somalia between May and November 2016 comprises 98 interviews with EU and
international officials, civil society actors and local governmental representatives. For
reasons of anonymity, all interviews are coded.
Our discussion proceeds as follows. First, we examine the ways in which capacity
building has been understood to date and offer our own conceptualisation based around
Foucauldian notions of governmentality. We then move on to analysing EU capacity
building discourses, focusing on their articulation in key policy documentation. The
empirical sections explore the rationalities and problematisations that underpin these
initiatives in more depth, arguing that they are intimately bound up with highly specific
and normative assumptions about what kind of state entities are ‘capable’. More specifi-
cally, we explore the ways in which these assumptions are challenged through interaction

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