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Governing the “Ungovernable”? Interrogating global geographies of transformation and intervention

The Dahrendorf Workshop “Governing the Ungovernable?” was convened by Fouad Gehad Marei (Freie Universität Berlin) and Mona Atia (George Washington University) at the Hertie School of Governance in collaboration with the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Politics at Freie Universität Berlin on 20-22 January 2016.

Scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds presented research interrogating practices and transformations of governance and regimes of rule in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa. The workshop was organized within the framework of the MENA Working Group of the Dahrendorf Forum, a joint initiative by the Hertie School of Governance, the London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator. Under the theme “Europe and the World,” working groups of the Dahrendorf Forum examine Europe’s relations with various regions of the world.

The workshop aimed to investigate the various and multi-scalar techniques and practices of governing territories and people in the contemporary MENA, as well as the impact of Europe’s relations and interactions with the region on regimes of governance and rule. The workshop asked how governments, non-governmental actors, private-sector entities, ‘experts’ and citizens each shape and partake in the governing of territories and people. Moreover, the workshop sought to highlight the frictions, relations of power and inequalities that characterize increasingly globalized governance practices in the region and beyond with a focus on territories and people historically identified as ‘problematic’, or ‘ungovernable’.

Key Debates

Understanding ‘governance’ as the ‘management’ of territories and people, workshop panelists presented empirical contributions examining who and what is governed, by whom, and to what effect. Moreover, contributions sought to identify where and how the processes of governing territories and people take place. Participants interrogated the power relations latent in processes and regimes of rule, as well as the impact of globalization and the politics of transformation / intervention on these practices.

The workshop called into question established notions of ‘the State’, the inter-state system and their assumed prerogatives to ‘govern,’ drawing attention to ‘new’ and transformed sites and spaces of statecraft and rule. Contributions focused, amongst other things, on: governance of and through culture and cultural diversity; free trade zones as productions of economic spaces governed through exception; micro-level urban politics as sites of statecraft and negotiations of power; urban megaprojects as sites of class struggle and iterations of globalised neoliberalism; and the role of professionals, practitioners and experts (e.g. lawyers, medics, and conflict-resolution and development consultants) in shaping governance practices.

Contemporary practices of governing in the Middle East and North Africa are shaped by the transformations taking place under the rubric of globalization, neoliberalization and structural adjustments. Workshop participants showed that the region is, in fact, a key geographical site for the design and implementation of reconfigured forms of global governance. As a ‘laboratory’ for transformations of global politics and interventions, participants’ empirical inquiries into the practices of governance in the contemporary MENA, sketched a research agenda intent on unravelling the multi-scalar interactions between myriad actors.

Contributions at the workshop demonstrated that ‘transformation’ must be understood not as linear processes but as arenas for contestation. As such, outcomes of these transformational processes are neither prescriptive, immutable nor normative. Instead, outcomes of governance ‘reforms’ are contingent on local and historical configurations of power and vary depending on context. These reforms result in new spaces and sites within which governance takes place and new subjectivities are forged. Reconfigured social, physical, governmental and metaphorical ‘spaces’ are spaces of encounter, assemblages of power, and arenas of contestation between myriad actors whose agendas are negotiated and renegotiated. This is exacerbated by the politics of globalization and systematic European (and other) interventions in the framework of various cooperation and partnership schemes connecting Europe with countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

In summary, workshop participants illuminated the multi-scalar institutional and noninstitutional, formal and informal, state and nonstate forms and frameworks within which the management of territories and people takes place in the Middle East and North Africa. Based on rescaled empirical enquiries, contributions presented at the workshop examined how new forms and sites of governance shape the logics of action between actors and highlighted some of the fissures and ruptures characterizing these reconfigured forms of governance.

Implications for researchers and policymakers about EU-MENA relations

Through their contributions, workshop participants sketched a broad and innovative research mandate intent on disclosing and calling into question the actors, structures and assemblages which characterize global regimes of governance. In so doing, they called for nuanced, empirically-based inquiries into the categorical imperatives within which mechanisms and techniques of managing territories and people take place, as well as the discursive and persuasive techniques of governance. Moreover, the workshop questioned the role of ‘the State’ and the inter-state system in contemporary forms of multi-scalar interactions governing territories and people in the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, scholarship emanating from research in the region can and should make important contributions to governance studies.

The middle east serves as an important vantage point from which to theorize since norms are often created based on experiments and experiences of governing which are ‘transferable’ — that is to say, exportable and reproducible elsewhere. It is a critical site where Post-Cold War politics are enacted, where wars and post-war reconstruction become productive moments for creating governance regimes, and these regimes are often implemented under the guise of care and development. The workshop concluded that ‘ungovernability’ is not a given but rather that it becomes a means of governing in its own right: governing through ungovernability. The state and its others are often implicated in such forms of governance, thus calling into question the notion of ‘weak’ states and instead asks how states produces citizens and territories through various actors. Finally, the workshop highlighted the importance of historicizing and spatializing statecraft and in particular, doing so from the spatial location of the global south.

In addition, the research presented at the workshop has numerous implications for practitioners and policymakers designing and implementing interventions in the region. First, ‘experts’ (and ‘expertise’) must be looked at as subjective actors with agendas and agency that often elides critical examination. These ‘experts’ exercise power through their discursive and programmatic vernaculars. Second, there is a politics to intervention that is masked through the deployment of the term as if it were a neutral / natural transformation. Rather than deploy participation and the ‘local’ as symbolic ghosts, there is a possibility of truly engaging in democratic praxis, but it requires time, buy-in and legitimacy. Third, understanding governance in the contemporary era requires a recognition of the innate disorderliness of ‘governing’ territories and people and, thus, that it is instructive to map the myriad actors and scales at which it happens in a nuanced and non-linear fashion. Embracing the proliferation of actors and decentralized power-structures can enable policymakers to move beyond state and non-state designations and instead to develop new ways of understanding the emerging arrangements in their own light.

Authors:Fouad Gehad Marei (Freie Universität Berlin) and Mona Atia (George Washington University)