Naima Lynch was a researcher for MSNBC and worked in media and communications in Yemen and Afghanistan. She is currently an intern in the Lowy Institute's West Asia Program.


My previous post on The Interpreter unpacked some of the vocabulary used to discuss reconstruction. In that piece I looked at 'governance capacity' and 'contingency contracting'. Continuing along this vein, let's have a closer look at 'absorption capacity' and 'rule of law'.

Absorption capacity

What is it?

It has many meanings across disciplines (including, ahem, in the diaper industry) but we are concerned here with absorption capacity in development assistance: the ability of a country to receive aid. Does it have the banking institutions to absorb financial assistance and the mechanisms to distribute it? Does it have the oversight to minimise corruption? Simply: can the recipient spend the money?

What is it really?

So politically charged that it is hard to pin down. With regards Iraq and Afghanistan, 'absorption capacity' appears in scenarios such as: we, America, want to build you, Iraq, a hospital. But you don't have enough doctors, nurses, and other staff to run the hospital, therefore your capacity to absorb our offer is deficient. Programs to train and ready doctors and nurses are seen as raising the absorption capacity for these funds.

What should we be asking?

We should be trying to connect some dots. 'Absorption capacity' is the centre of the Venn diagram of 'reconstruction challenges' — all roads lead to it. What are some of the main causes of absorption capacity issues in the developing or 're-constructed' world?

For one, there's 'brain drain.' Often, this refers not only to the educated class of doctors and engineers, but also to skilled labour. How do you convince Iraqis who have fled to return? And if they return, how do you connect them with employment opportunities? While brain drain is par for the course in warzones like Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also a serious issue in developing countries like Yemen, and is directly related to issues of 'governance capacity' discussed in the previous post.

And then there's the big C: corruption. At its heart, corruption is about absorbing into the 'private' what is intended for the 'public'. Ultimately, 'absorption capacity' is about administration. It's about cutting cheques and transferring funds from one hand to another, and this is where corruption can creep in. When we hear about fraud and waste in reconstruction projects, this is partially the result of deficiencies in 'absorption capacity.'

Why does this matter? Because, when a country has a reputation of not being able to spend donor funds, it is unlikely to get more of them. It is also unlikely to attract private, foreign investment. All of this makes improving the everyday lives of people on the ground very difficult.

'Absorption capacity' is a term we should be suspicious of. When we encounter it, we should pause and ask: what is it hiding? Because, really, it could be anything: security issues, transportation and roads or IT infrastructure. But most often, corruption is lurking somewhere.

Rule of law

What is it?

'Rule of law' is best summed up as a system of governance that achieves the following: accountability within government, fair laws that seek to protect basic human rights, just law enforcement and a judicial system that is objective and balanced.

What is it really?

Ultimately, 'rule of law' is about legitimacy and trust; or rather, legitimacy gained through trust. In order for a population to seek out government agencies to manage, say, a land dispute or a divorce, they must be certain that the government's ability to address the issue is better than the other options available. In many Islamic countries this can be tricky, since God's law — Shari'a — can be meted out more efficiently by local religious authorities than the central government. A fatwa (religious opinion) issued by a respected mufti (religious scholar) may carry more legitimacy in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Yemen than their transitional, hamstrung central governments.

Most importantly, when it comes to reconstruction funds intended to promote, create, and encourage it, 'rule of law' is actually about 'liberal-democratic rule of law.'

The US is interested in creating institutions it can relate to, work with, and influence. This is no secret. But when it comes to reconstruction and judging whether or not a 'rule of law' project is successful, we must return to the question of legitimacy and trust. It's all well and good to restructure ministries, streamline court systems, engage in 'capacity building', retrain police forces, or even write a new constitution, but ultimately, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the government must prove to its own people that it is the best available option.  

What should we be asking?

For starters, we should seek to understand the role of non-governmental systems at play. In Afghanistan, there has been some success in empowering local 'shura' councils with judicial powers sanctioned by the central government; an 'if you can't beat 'em, include 'em' strategy.

Why does this matter? In conflict-ridden countries or countries rife with corruption, someone will be charged with managing day-to-day issues, everything from water rights to crime. Often, filling the vacuum left by a weak government is a recruitment and propaganda tool used by extremist organisations. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah and more have all used the provision of goods and services as a way to say 'hey, we're the ones taking care of you.' In many of these countries, water speaks louder than laws.

Photo by Flickr user isafmedia.