The art of making and managing weak states

One of communism’s major fault lines can be summarized in one sentence: “The state cheats us that they pay us, and we cheat the state that we work”. Communism, as applied in old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, produced very high levels of employment, yet productivity was low. In fact, state employment was nothing but a gigantic go-somewhere-during-the-day (job) creation program. There was much sitting around, people doing very little or nothing all day.

At the same time, shops were scarce of goods. Salaries were low and paid out in largely worthless local currencies. People had little money in their pockets to buy anything anyway. To survive within this dis-functional economic system, the individual worker was on constant lookout for opportunities to make a material gain. Workers at the brick factory would smuggle out 1-2 bricks per day, while the hospital nurse would fill her purse with painkillers. Goods and services were then exchanged through an informal barter system.

As a result of this broken relationship between the state and its citizens work was not associated with any real expectations of real work being produced. Laziness became a norm. Rather, the workplace became an opportunity and a situation to take advantage of materially. As a result, opportunism, as a survival and wealth accumulation strategy, became the norm. Stealing resources from the state became a socially acceptable habit.

Now, we all know that old habits die hard. Unfortunately, this includes also bad habits. In the Balkans today, the state administration (most state owned factories have been privatized or gone bankrupt, or both) is still viewed as a job creation program by and for the government. Positions in ministries, agencies and public administration are served out to family, relatives and political followers, no matter their qualifications. It’s the ancient patron-client relationship that is still alive and kicking in modern Europe.

However, it gets worse. The occasional petty theft by a communist factory worker has nowadays been transformed into a well-oiled machinery of white-collar crime. We are talking about systemized fraudulent behavior and corruption. Or as a civil servant somewhere Western Balkans bravely explained to me, “sure, our salaries are low, but our profits are high!” What on Earth did he mean by that?

Within the context of the patron-client relationship, the role of the client is to serve his/her patron. The political and economic elites (the patrons) infiltrate state institutions by placing their ‘clients’ in key roles and functions. The loyalty of the ‘client’ is officially with the state, in line with democratic principles, but unofficially his/her loyalty is still firmly with the patron. This way, the patron-client relationship, as a cultural phenomenon, is a direct threat to democracy and the functioning of the state.

The patron-client relationship works as a giant leech on the state, economy and society, sucking it dry of resources, professionalism and ethics. In their mission to serve the patrons, the ‘clients’ go to work manipulating public procurement processes, sidestepping rules and regulations, handing out permits despite non-compliance and in general steering public policy away from the collective to the few and powerful. Public officials are falling over each other for the opportunity to travel abroad on-the-job, to participate in meetings, conferences and best practice study tours, in order to collect per diems. Some civil servants and elected officials enjoy top-ups of their salaries paid by sources outside of the state budget, while others are placed as paid managers of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs).

Everything goes is the motto. Conflicts of interest are again the norm, not the exception and far away from something socially unacceptable. The patron-client relationship makes a parody out of democracy. Key democratic principles, such as the division of powers and checks and balances are eroded. “The oft-mentioned mission of NGOs is to foster appropriate and effective policy to benefit of the poor and least powerful. They seek to support or influence governments to uphold a social contract.” (Edward and Burns, quoted in “Managing Development” by Robison, Hewitt and Harris, Open University, 2000) With the NGOs firmly in the hands of the political elite (the patrons), there can be no viable, constructive political dialogue. The same is true for the media. When media ownership gets politicized, there can be no investigative journalism. Freedom of speech vanishes, and any fruitful political discourse with it. With the judiciary equally firmly controlled by the executive power structures and/or the highest bidder, there can be no real justice. Allowing some people to get away with systematically breaking the law creates a societal norm that crime pays. This will inevitably influence the career choices of the next generation, away from professions that benefit the majority of the population.

In such a scenario, the state remains under-funded, under-qualified, mismanaged by staff with distorted loyalty and vulnerable to abuse. The state is weak and failing in its most basic obligations. The social contract with the citizens is broken. Also democracy suffers as a result of the patron-client relationship’s dominance in society. In such a situation, the patron, as a person, is more important than policy. It’s the individual person who decides if you will get that job or not. It’s not a deliberated collective decision based on competence and experience. It’s a decision made by a person whose main objective is the accumulation of more money, not the construction of viable state structures capable of creating wellbeing for the population.

The clients’ job performance is measured by his/her ability to deliver favors and opportunities to the patron, and not, as it should be, linked to performance indicators in the job description. As a ‘client’ there is no need for critical thinking, no room for innovation, only compliance to the will of the patron. Good governance and public policy are effectively replaced by greed, as the main driver of societal change. No wonder positive change has come to so few people in the Balkans since 1989.

Within the democratic process, this discovery of how the system really works means that people vote for persons than policy issues. People vote for the person/party whom they believe will offer the most space for opportunism. Ideology and policies do not really matter when the driving force in politics is greed and the accumulation of personal wealth on the account of the public good.

Moving away from the patron-client relationship, towards a more responsible and transparent implementation of political power by governments and public administrations, would obviously constitute a step in the right direction. As such, we may conclude that eliminating the patron-client relationship, as a behavioral norm, would be systemically desirable. Society as a whole would benefit. However, if the last 25 years of socio-economic development in the Balkans is anything to go by, it appears that completely erasing the patron-client relationship is not culturally feasible.

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About Jakob Modéer

22 years of corporate and international investor experience as well as private sector development project management, consultancy in private sector policy and business advisory services, and direct consultancy to companies in South East Europe (and now a blogger on socio-economic issues)
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