Accepted paper:

Taking bureaucratic practices seriously? The new administrative law of context-specific governance reform


Deval Desai (Graduate Institute)

Paper short abstract:

Are donors really "going with the grain" when taking the practices of African bureaucracies seriously? Based on two years' participant-observation in governance reforms in Sierra Leone, I show that by contextualizing reform, reformers transplant a specific administrative law into the African state.

Paper long abstract:

Development funding has its own administrative law. That law was once understood as the procedural law of the donor (e.g. the rules governing conditionality, or procurement rules for contracts), eventually encoded into the administrative law of the African state through indigenous bureaucratic reception or subversion. However, in this paper I argue that certain development reform efforts - on governance and the rule of law - increasingly reject "counter-bureaucratic" proceduralism in favor of flexible and contextually-specific funding vehicles. These vehicles are represented as efforts to avoid analytic preconceptions and take the reality of African bureaucratic practices seriously. I demonstrate that these reform efforts in fact produce a distinct administrative law. Drawing on two years' participant-observation of experimentalist governance reform in Sierra Leone, as well nine years' experience as a rule of law reformer in West Africa, I show that these reform efforts are enacted by experts for whom it is a legitimate professional position to deny the form and content of their own expertise - i.e. be "ignorant" - while attempting to produce administrative institutions that best fit the context on which they are trying to intervene. This mode of expertise is shared by domestic and international functionaries: a set of procedural sensibilities, embedded in a variety of transnational institutional settings, that favor the ad hoc, discretionary, and responsive administration of power. Furthermore, these sensibilities are encoded into the administrative institutions they produce, generating an administrative law that favors discretion and regulation, and displaces individual accountability for specific decisions.

panel P202
Taking rules seriously: Between formality and informality in African bureaucracies