Weak States, Uncivil Societies and Thousands of NGOs
Western Democracy Export as Benevolent Colonialism in the Balkans

Steven Sampson

Department of Social Anthropology, Sociologiska Institutionen, Lund University, Sweden
To appear in Sanimir Recic (ed.) Cultural Boundaries of the Balkans. Lund University Press, June 2002


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Table of Contents

Project Life in the Balkans
Projects as Flows and as Power
The Impact of Project Society: New Elites and Informal Structures
Conclusion: Benevolent Colonialism


In 1997, as part of a EU program to help build civil society in Bosnia, I was assigned to participate in the "mapping" of civil society in the country. We found nearly 400 various voluntary groups and civil society organizations. There were community groups, environmental groups, women's groups, youth, refugee/returnee groups, human rights groups, psychosocial assistance groups, associations for reconstruction, culture, legal aid etc. Even in the eastern Republika Srbska, which was considered to be home to some of the most uncivil tendencies in Bosnia, we found various local initiatives and activities which we certainly could call "civil society". This was surprising to the international aid organizations operating in Bosnia, who saw themselves as operating virtually alone, or needing to "build up the NGO sector". But it also surprised ordinary Bosnians working in civil society who also felt tremendously isolated. During a meeting, one of them even declared, "If we had had 400 NGOs in our country before the war, there would have been no war."

As part of this same study, we also commissioned a study of the history of the Bosnian voluntary sector. We found that a hundred years ago and up to the Titoist period, Bosnia was full of voluntary charities known as Vakuf, civic organizations, community groups, intellectual clubs and other organizations and activities which we would today call "civil society" or non-government organizations. It turns out that Bosnia was not so Balkan as it may seem, and that the real problematic was not the absence of civil society and the need to implant NGO organizations, but the fact that a vibrant civil society had in some ways declined or dissolved due to specific historical and political factors. Similar tendencies have prevailed in most other Balkan countries: there were community groups centered on neighborhood, occupation, or common interest which existed together with or supplemented the primary family groups; moreover, family groups often fulfilled what we today would call civic functions, providing security, welfare, etc. Kosovo's (pre-1999) parallel institutions are the most recent example. The problem of civil society is not necessarily its absence but its decline under specific conditions of economic chaos or political repression.

I point out this example because over the last few years in trying to export Western democracy to the Balkans, we continually interpret our difficulties in terms of the barriers posed by stubborn Balkan traditions. A Western democracy assistance program has stalled or not been implemented, and this is explained by the fact that local Balkan organizations or government offices lack initiative, are not serious, are just thinking about the money, are hypocritical, lazy or corrupt. NGOs are accused of being unable to cooperate, of hoarding information; staff are accused of not having enough initiative; intellectuals of being unable to write clearly; officials of promising to do something and then changing their minds or catering to their political patrons.

These explanations for inadequately executed programs come from the donors and their representatives. They are often not written down in reports but are the stuff of ethnographic interviews or café chatter when "the internationals" gather. But the critique is also complemented by the locals. In Albania, Bosnia, Romania, and Kosovo, the locals make similar complaints about donors: the donors do not listen to their suggestions; they come in and out as if they know everything; they impose bureaucratic barriers on obtaining funds; they are keeping secrets from us; they are maintaining their positions to earn high salaries, otherwise they would have to go home; they are wasting aid money meant for us; they are carrying out unnecessary appraisals, evaluations, and control visits using uninformed foreign consultants. In short, the donors are "not being transparent with us", they say. This activity, "donor bashing", is almost de rigeur at conferences on the Balkans and in recent locally produced analyses (Deacon and Stubbs 1998, Papiè 2001). Criticism of donors in Eastern Europe, particularly of American programs, comes also from Western specialists (see esp. Wedel 2001, Carothers 1999, Carothers and Ottaway 2001).

Now it would be easy, much too easy, to call all this an Orientalist discourse, yet another indication that we stupid Westerners don't know what's going on. I myself, having worked on such projects, have been accused of all these things. Analyzing the local laments, it would also be easy to see a kind of Balkan externalization in which all problems are attributed to the machinations of outside actors beginning with the Turks, later on the Communists, and now the West, represented by their agents at the local EU office or USAID mission. It would be easy to conclude that the donors are stupid, naive or corrupt, and that the local staff are unthankful or manipulative.

Yet things are not so simple. In fact, most of the actors on both sides of the Western aid system are intelligent, diligent and well-intentioned. Moreover, many of the most anti-Balkan statements come not from the foreigners, who in fact have a sympathy for the trials and tribulations of these countries, but from local citizens frustrated at their own countrymen for squandering opportunities or not being able to cooperate. The most negative remarks about the Albanians, Kosovars, Bosnians and Romanians with whom I have worked have come from other Albanians, Kosovars, Bosnians and Romanians.

The discursive turn in Balkan studies (Wolff 1994, Todorova 1997), in which societies are purely constructive and therefore artificial, has blinded us to the concrete problems which cause some organizations and projects, despite good intentions and declarations, to falter. Measuring project success is always problematic. Often we tend to compare the ideal of our own society (our own myths of efficiency, transparency and cooperation) with the harsh reality of getting things accomplished in the Balkans. There are in fact some concrete factors connected with Balkan history and society which do indeed give democracy projects a particular colour in these places south and east of the Alps. In one particular sector, civil society/NGO development, activists and project coordinators conclude that of the thousands of registered NGOs, no more than 10% are truly active. The rest exist only on paper, or have been formed only to obtain funds, or are a cover for a single person's activity, or simply a cover for tax free business, or even worse. Civil society is accused of being secretive, manipulative, ineffective, nepotistic, of being an "NGO mafia" who reward each other with trips, computers, and other benefits. The conflicts can even be more dramatic. In Albania, for example, I was working with a head of a youth organization who explained to me that he was unable to work with another youth activist because of a family feud: He explained to me, "Do you know what it's like to be angry at somebody for five generations?"(Sampson 1996).

Let me try to summarize, at the risk of putting all the Balkan societies under a single category (something we do every day when we talk about "the West"). What makes the Balkans both interesting, and exasperating is the presence of alternative social arrangements for achieving one's own strategies and for preventing others from achieving theirs. Kinship, clans, family relations, social networks, social circles, intrigues, ties of loyalty, informal linkages, and a host of social obligations somehow inhibit people from fulfilling their official duties to formal institutions, or prevent organizations from operating in an efficient, transparent way. In one sense, these are the famous "parallel structures" which played such a prominent role throughout the Balkans both before and during communism, and in Kosovo during the 1990s. In another sense, these parallel structures are the true civil society, the social self organization to fulfill grass roots needs in a hostile political environment.

The paradox, of course, is that these same informal relations which inhibit institutions from functioning are those which have enabled Balkan peoples to survive subjugation by foreign powers, authoritarian politicians, and countless wars and betrayals. Moreover, if we examine the many successful civil society initiatives in the Balkans, we find that many of these activities are based on the utilization of kinship, friendship and neighborhood ties and strong social linkages of obligations. Members of NGOs are not simply independent individuals with a common interest; they have often grown up together, gone to school together, served in the military or spent time in prison together, been in exile together, or are close friends or cousins. They "know each other". Let us call this relationship one of "trust". Trust, and the moral obligations associated with these, enable people to get a meeting together at a moment's notice, or put together an application, or locate a plane ticket when everything is sold out. Trust is what the members of an Albanian grant-giving foundation with whom I worked, when reviewing applications for grants from other activist groups, could throw the project proposal aside and conclude, "I know him. He's good." And it is these same importance of social relations which also causes them to question another project proposal, no matter how well written, by saying, "I don't know her." or "Her father was a communist".

The strength of these ties is well known to Balkan ethnographers. Extended families, friendship, godparenthood, village ties, and conversely, relations of enmity and feud are the very stuff of Balkan ethnography, especially out in the villages and up in the mountains. It is these ties which enable communities to hold together while also tearing them apart in the most violent fashion. In fact, the stronger the kin and family ties, the more violent the feuds and more fragmented the society. Highland Montenegro and Northern Albania are examples (Boehm 1984).

Seen from a Western democratic point of view, the problem of the Balkans is what to do about these traditional institutions. Up to now, the idea has been the replace them or go around them by establishing new institutions: NGOs, community organizations, parliaments, ombudsmand, and other kinds of formal organizations. Even in politics, the idea has been to turn the personalistic, clientilistic political parties into transparent, accountable organizations. Much of the activity of Western development projects is about implanting these new forms onto preexisting communities. It is about replacing loyalty to persons with a Western model of loyalty to an institution and its principles. Sometimes these efforts have been successful, though the presence of so many façade or nonfunctioning organizations seems to belie the success.

The ability to actually utilize these traditional networks has been limited to a very few projects: one of the most interesting are the Danish government-financed projects for conflict resolution in Albania, in which traditional leaders and peacemakers are given training in modern techniques of conflict resolution, which they then use to arbitrate family disputes, village conflicts or long-standing blood feuds. Generally, however, the effort by Western democracy and civil society programs is to transplant our models so that local cultural traditions remain unused.

Most Westerners' observations about complications in civil society development speak of the stubbornness of Balkan cultural traditions. The adaptability and flexibility of these traditions tends to be forgotten, as it tends to conflict with the dynamics of the Western foreign aid system as it operates in local communities and social interventions. It is what I call the "social life of projects", a specific set of resources, people and practices which ultimately creates embedded interests (Sampson 1996). One of these interests is to make itself irreplaceable, i.e., to construct a local Balkan reality in which local problems persist and make project personnel and project thinking a necessity. At its best, the project system begins with foreign staff and their organization, who are then gradually replaced by local staff, what in Kosovo has been called "kosovarisation" by the OSCE.

Project society has its own dynamics, and it is misleading to see Western aid projects as an insidious plot. The donors and their personnel are by and large well-intentioned, and the most suitable term for Western intervention in the Balkans would be benevolent colonialism. Here the accent should be on the benevolent aspects. Traditional European colonialism was violent, repressive and exploitative, but we also know that even the most brutal colonial regimes in Africa had civilizing missions, priests, doctors and humanitarians who truly sought to help. They built roads, sewage systems and railroads. Today's Western benevolent colonialism seeks to provide a climate of security and stability in the Balkans, and while their may be untapped consumer markets for cellular phones and household goods, the economic benefits of Western investment in the Balkans are questionable.

We need to understand the nature of this Western good will, the mechanisms behind "funding virtue" (Ottaway and Carothers 2001). Balkan critiques of the West focus on Western self interest and manipulation, hence the conspiracy aspect. They fail to understand that from an economic point of view, the Balkans is more a burden than a benefit. Hence my focus on benevolent colonialism. This kind of colonialism has its own dynamics, whereby the Balkans are a Western project. Let me therefore use the rest of this paper to detail the nature of project society in the Balkans.

Project Life in the Balkans

The Balkans may be a world of kinship, clan, and ethnicity, of peasant families trying to make a living, of folklore, migration and violence; but the Balkans are also a world of projects. By "project" I mean a special kind of activity: short term activities with a time plan and a budget, an activity conducted by donors and their contractors, an activity aimed at a target group, and which takes account of the various stakeholders involved. Projects always end, evolving into policy, or being replaced by new projects. Project society entails a set of special structures and practices: The world of projects has the project identification mission, the implementing partner, the project unit, the board, the staff, monitoring and evaluation, and of course, the magic giver, the Donor. Project life entails a special kind of language, almost like the wooden language of Stalinism. Learning something is called "training of trainers". Getting better at something is called "capacity building". Giving some control to someone else is called "empowerment". Articulating the project goal is a "mission statement". Communicating information is called "transparency". Trying to find out what's going on is called "networking". Finding the money is called "fund raising". Surviving after the money runs out is called "sustainability". Taking your money somewhere else is an "exit strategy". And when donors are unable to utilize their money, one gets what a Danish report termed "donor constipation".

Project society and project jargon reflect project ideology. This is a linear set of ideas about social engineering, often beginning with a "problem tree". From the problem tree, project consultants construct a set of goals, activities and inputs using techniques such as the Logical Framework Approach. Project life requires understanding the key words or concepts, and specifically, which words and concepts can generate money: from "empowerment", one year, then "good governance", followed by "income generation", "institution building", presently "advocacy", "anti-corruption", and of course, the ubiquitous "partnership". As part of the transition, social practices and ideas become grant categories. The notion of "civil society", for example, once conceived as the social organization of people to solve problems, is just such a funding category. Project life is a world with a premium on abstract knowledge, by which power accrues to those best able to manipulate the key symbols and concepts. Since these symbols and concepts come from outside, those attached to the foreign project organizations, let us call them "Euro-elites", occupy a key role in this scheme, competing with the local political class in terms of political influence with key foreign actors and in terms of living standards.

This world of projects, now exported to the Balkans, provides benefits for some and provokes the enmity of others. Like all such worlds, it is based on representations or even myths about our own societies. There is the idea, for example, that we can export sectors of our own society--here democratic institutions and civil society organization--as if these sectors were somehow independent of other aspects (effective government, a stable middle class). There is the assumption that the models that we export actually reflect the realities of democracy in our own societies. There is the idea of the "international community", which is neither international nor communal. There is the idea that Western NGOs and international organizations cooperate effortlessly with each other and with the state; that professional Western NGOs operate on the basis of voluntarism and altruism; that our activities are the result of the kind of strategic thinking characterized by the Logical Framework Approach, rather than by the improvisation that occurs when new grant categories suddenly appear. There is the idea that the only capacities that need building are those in the target countries, and not our own. And there is the idea that a large number of foreign funded NGO organizations is some kind of index of democracy. Given such representations, it is hardly surprising that we find disillusionment in the Balkans about Western hypocrisy, or that many citizens view NGOs as an alternative enrichment channel for intellectuals who will not do other kinds of work. It is just such attitudes that lead to a disillusionment among donors, who tend to blame the victim or suddenly contract "donor fatigue" and leave the scene.

Projects as Flows and as Power

One may envision the structure of project life in two ways: first, as a flow of resources, people and knowledge, and second, as a set of concentric circles of power. As a flow of traffic, the relationship between donors and recipients in the world of projects is revealed through the movement of resources: some resources move from west to east/south, while others go in the opposite direction. From the West comes money, transmitted in complicated "tranches" and often by circuitous routes in countries where banking systems remain primitive. Along with money comes traffic in people: expatriate consultants, foreign project managers, and the short-term evaluators and trainers sent out from the home office abroad. These individuals often go from country to country, and much of their job is spent talking with other donors, an activity called 'donor coordination', or negotiating with government officials to start up project units. Government officials, not being donors, are needed to smooth the administration of the program, or as co-partners in applying for EU, World Bank or UNDP funds. Promising officials may then be co-opted as project counterparts, or as paid local staff of the organization/firm implementing the project.

The west-east traffic in money and experts is partially balanced by a traffic in the reverse direction: promising local project managers travel to conferences, meetings, internships and training in the West. From Eastern Europe, thousands of NGO activists, journalists, and officials have been on shorter or longer trips abroad for training and to see with their own eyes how democracy works. In Denmark, to take a single example, the Government funded Democracy Foundation has spent about 100 million dollars over 10 years to bring 70,000 foreign NGO activists, local government officials, parliamentarians, teachers, social and health workers to Denmark on brief study tours. Other programs run by Western governments have concentrated on NGO leaders, journalists, and government officials. The socialization of local NGO activists into the world of projects proceeds with their acquisition of the jargon of global civil society which takes place as they go about attending training courses, meeting donor representatives, applying for money and managing projects. The most socialized of these activists become project managers and trainers, appropriating the donors' understandings while they learn to decipher the signs of the latest grant-giving category.

Viewing project life as a flow of resources, however, hides the power dimension in the system. Hence, project life can also be viewed as a system of hierarchical concentric circles. At the center of the circle are the donor organizations in the West and their funding policies (these policies being proposed by centrally located knowledge producers who help define strategy). This inner circle generates the most abstract type of knowledge. At the other end, there is concrete, local knowledge of real people with everyday problems; this is where we send out appraisal missions to assess "needs" and locate "target groups", including that most peripheral of target groups, "the vulnerable groups", such as refugee women, unemployed families in closed coal-mining areas, the handicapped persons or unschooled Roma children.

Visits and field operatives are needed at the periphery to gather key information, locate new projects, or monitor and evaluate ongoing projects. Kosovo, an international protectorate where hundreds of international organizations have operated, has been rife with donors coordinating projects and sounding each other out. In practice, this means an enormous number of meetings and follow-up memoranda, as well as interaction with local political leaders, promising local project staff and "security briefings" regarding bandits and organized crime. Since projects are invariably time-delimited, the donors also exit… to Serbia, to Afghanistan, or to other trouble spots. This exit leaves power vacuums as well as feelings of betrayal on the part of locals who experience donor exit as an abandonment.

Viewing projects as a hierarchy of power circles helps to highlight the power dimension of global project life. Resources, people and ideas do not simply "flow": they are sent, directed, channeled, manipulated, managed, rejected, monitored and transformed on their journey eastward by the myriad of middlemen at the source, on the way, and in the local context. Local elites compete for control over resources such as money, knowledge and ideas.

Control over money involves who is allowed to apply, who is allowed to spend, and who must do the accounting. Most Western programs require that the Western organization be accountable. While Western aid organizations may be spenders in the field, they are crucially dependent on providing knowledge to their donors back in the home office. This is why there may be close monitoring of funds given to local recipients, while the thousands of dollars spent on telephone, DHL couriers, and flights to and from the home office is regarded as self-evident.

Control over project personnel is carried out by the Western consultants and project directors, some of whom fly in, while others are resident. Such control requires the recruitment and management of additional foreign specialists, international project coordinators, hiring and training local staff managers and engagement of a support staff of drivers, secretaries, translators and security guards.

Control over knowledge involves deciding whom to tell about what; in the world of projects, knowledge involves deadlines, budget lines, key words on applications, the major conferences being held, and coordinating time schedules with others. At the local level, knowledge control involves knowing which donor is about to give out funds. Since most Western donor representatives and mission appraisers are pressed for time, there is a continual monitoring of the next bid, project, or upcoming trip. A donor representative sitting in, say Bucharest, may be spending hours writing up an upcoming project proposal for Albania, with the usual set of frantic last minute attachments, budget estimates, and signatures from prospective project team members. The hierarchical relations of knowledge in the project system are best expressed in the way in which foreign consultants use their time, and the invariable waiting time for those who want to speak with them. Meetings must be scheduled and rescheduled, with donors and foreign organizations taking precedence over meetings with locals or supplicant NGOs. With more information, the number of meetings increases, which mean more rescheduling and more waiting. Logistical problems - local traffic, bad weather, phones that don't work, messages gone lost, power blackouts, delayed flights, unexpected application deadlines necessitating couriers - create a pressure-cooker atmosphere in which the foreign consultants are constantly moving and the hapless target group is endlessly waiting.

The final type of control in the project system is control over concepts. Ideas are sent, received and manipulated, and resources are always attached to them. Projects are all about attaching ideas to activity, and activity requires money. It involves an understanding of donors and the identification of a target group and an implementing partner. One of the most essential concepts is that of "partnership". Partnership with a local organization is essential to obtain "ownership", i.e., the feeling that it is the target group's project and not the donors. Establishing such partnerships between a donor and implementing partner organization involves choosing a suitable local partner, who could be one among many possible candidates. The selected local partner might be an established network, an NGO, or a government office. The idea might be about, say, establishing crisis centers for battered women, a legal aid office, or an anti-corruption bureau. The problem for the donor comes when these potential implementing partners bitterly compete, or when no suitable partner exists. If they do not exist, then they must be created.

Creating suitable partners, or making them capable of implementing projects, is called "institutional development" or "capacity building". Capacity building may be applied to a government department or a local NGO. At times the donor may even "clone" a local NGO to carry out functions of implementing the donor's project. In some cases, the international donor or NGO simply uses its local secretariat to create a local NGO, such as Oxfam in Bosnia creating Bosfam. Cloning of NGOs is a typical exit strategy in many former East European countries. It ensures a role for the parent organization, facilitates continuity of funding for the newly created local NGO, and solves some of the post-partum sustainability problems after donors go elsewhere.

The Impact of Project Society: New Elites and Informal Structures

With the fly-in, fly-out missions, the strange vocabulary and the hunt for funds, one might conclude that project life is simply some kind of façade or a vehicle for achieving private strategies. In cases where projects fail or where there is corruption, this is certainly true: private goals undermine any kind of common activity, organisations cease or fracture, and donors become disillusioned. The presence of thousands of such façade NGOs is certainly evidence of this phenomenon. However, we have innumerable cases where projects do make a difference and significant results are achieved. The Balkans is filled with successful projects where local NGOs deliver key services which ameliorate the damaging effects of uncontrolled markets or which supplement the government social programs. Throughout the Balkans, even in smaller outlying towns, civic education NGOs help to publicize new laws so that people know their rights, while human rights NGOs conduct training of judges, police and prison officials in international human rights provisions. Environmental and health NGOs may carry out surveys or hold hearings on specific problems. Educational NGOs help procure textbooks or lobby for school improvements, while youth and women's NGOs sponsor counseling or provide shelter. Concepts such as "human rights", "advocacy" and "accountability" are now part of public discourse even among the most vulnerable and marginal groups. Villagers in Kosovo now hold town meetings about how to obtain a new road from their local government, where they previously might have either done nothing or tried to pay off a kinsmen in the transport office. The rights of prisoners, or battered women, or gays, are now being promoted and ensured in ways unthinkable just a few years ago.

Insofar as local NGOs are supported by foreign donors and their projects, there is a linkage between project society and the creation of new elites. Project society is thus a field in which there is a contestation over scarce resources. People within and outside organisations compete for money, influence, access and knowledge; they distribute these resources among their own networks and try to prevent others from obtaining access. The successful actors in this competition become the project elites. These elites are intimately tied to Western ideas and funding, not to mention knowledge of English and the set of skills associated with "project management". This Euro-elite is not only paid well, but occupies a special position with close access to the donor community. Most of its members are younger, all are anglophone. As trusted project staff earning high wages (in local terms), they tend to earn more money than their parents ever did, and more than even high government officials. In this sense, they form part of a new comprador bourgeoisie. They tend to move from one project to another, to find their friends and spouses within project society, often have multiethnic backgrounds which have made them victims of "uncivil" society, and they tend to have similar aspirations to study in the West and to send their children there. By many criteria, we could define this group as a class. However, this class has no resources of its own: they are wage earners working for foreign projects. Their entire world is externally focused, and for many, the ultimate strategy is emigration or at least intense participation in global civil society networks. The overall developments in the individual Balkan states results in a mixture of individual career paths: some project elites will simply emigrate or become part of the international aid community, working for the OSCE or UN. Others may pursue private strategies and move abroad, having already procured the proper passport. Still others may become more optimistic and return from abroad, deciding that the future is here, in their home country, a development which is particularly observable in Kosovo (where institution building is proceeding and where the departure of the entrenched Serb elite leaves room for considerable career mobility).

Donor behavior is a key aspect of project life. Donors are givers. To be a donor is to give. Marcel Mauss, author of one of the most famous books in Anthropology, The Gift (1925), understood that in any gift relationship, it is always the giver who has the power. No gift is ever "free". The receiver is invariably obligated to give back something, sooner or later, in some form or other. The exchange may be one-for-one object, or it may be abstract, in the form of prestige or respect. Most of us are both givers and receivers of something, and social life is about how these relationships of exchange are established and maintained. Mauss' book could also be applied to modern day NGO project world in which donors and recipients are always talking about "partnership" or "coordination". It is worth considering these ideas when we think about the so-called "donor community" or the problems of "coordination" and "sharing information".

Project life is an intervention into Balkan societies. This intervention operates to produce a particular kind of civil society in an environment where Balkan societies have already had such civil societies. In this latter understanding, Balkan societies used a host of informal structures to achieve solutions. It was civil society, even though there was not the juridically founded NGO structures which are often equated with civil society today. Such definitional questions are not purely academic. Definitions produce grant categories, and grant categories control flows of resources to local actors. Defining what is "grass-roots" or what does not count as "civil society", is a political-economic activity. Whether to see informal structures in the Balkans as solely a residue or a resource is also political, insofar as there are unequal power relations between those who promulgate competing understandings. Churches, mosques and informal groups may have grass-roots support, but they normally cannot apply for, much less receive, funds for civil society development because they do not fulfill the category of NGO.

The role of informal social structures should not be glorified, of course. While informal social mechanisms in the Balkans are the mechanisms which help society survive, these same structures also perpetuate conflict and even starts wars. It is strong family and social networks which are the roots of social loyalties, but also the roots of the kind of bitter conflicts we have seen in the Balkans. Bonds of kinship are laudable… until they become blood feuds. The same networks of loyalty which make families so internally supportive may also prevent the emergence of a larger sphere of public involvement which could combat phenomena such as banditry, mafia, smuggling and police intimidation. We have a kind of paradox: social structures which make people secure in an insecure social and political environment, which endow meaning to social life and which construct a social world composed of "us" and "others" (other clans, other factions, other ethnic groups, other religions), these same structures of ontological security create the climate for insecurity and perpetuation of tensions. To put it more concretely, the areas which gave us family loyalty, colorful rituals of hospitality, blood brotherhood, beautiful wedding ceremonies, intense friendship networks, and ethnic solidarity also give us blood feud, banditry, baksheesh, corruption, revenge, and ethnic cleansing. The same informal loyalties which help groups survive oppression are also those which carry out smuggling operations, corrupt police, and keep silent. To celebrate the one is to accept the existence of the other. And at the personal and social level, we might see this as the fundamental paradox of individual and social security. Western civil society development endeavours to replace primordial ties with ties of interest and citizenship. But interest groups and citizenship are impossible to maintain without stable institutions and effective states. Effective states need market economies and a stable middle class. They need to displace informal trust in persons with legal contracts and credit arrangements; they need to elevate personal allegiances into respect for higher principles such as human rights, transparency, ethic of public service, and rule of law. Such changes do not come without costs. And they occur in an environment where other interests bitterly, even violently, defend their interests against such interventions.

Conclusion: Benevolent Colonialism

In a conference discussing the cultural boundaries of the Balkans, two tasks require our attention. One task is to explicate the boundaries between Western societies with their long histories of organized public sphere, developed economies and relative ethnic and civil peace, versus the Balkan societies, with their informal mechanisms, distorted political and economic institutions, and persistent social and ethnic conflicts. This is a "cultural boundary" between us and them. "Us" and "them" are categories, to be sure, but categories attached to social processes. The boundary between the West and the Balkans is not simply a social construction, if we understand such constructions as artificial or externally imposed. Project society acts upon and even perpetuates this cultural boundary.

But there is a second contradiction of a more subtle nature: and that is the political asymmetry between a West which exports project life and a Balkans which must receive, utilize, exploit or reject it. Despite all the talk of partnership and cooperation, the relationship is inherently unequal. And this means that the Balkans creates different kinds of elites who tend to accommodate to this relationship, exploit it, or in some ways oppose it. There are different types of elites operating here: the comprador bourgeois and Euro-elites linked to project society, and the corrupt warlords and bandits/nationalists who either oppose or exploit it, the ones padding the account books, awarding contracts to their friends, or ripping off the white jeeps (Sampson 2002a, 2002b).

The emergence of these elite groups goes hand in hand with the new relations which the Balkans has with the West. It is a relationship which can best be described as a benevolent colonialism, in which the colonial power truly has a civilizing mission. We are trying to export and implant our own system because we believe it is best. And then, presumably, we will "exit". Benevolent colonialism is different because it is not simply our own self-interest which is operative. The problem, then, is that Balkan ideologies have little to counter this benevolent colonizing mission except with the crudest kind of nationalism, resistance or conspiracy theory. At best, they can retreat into the kinds of "traditional social practices" which James Scott (1985, 1990) has called "weapons of the weak", and "hidden transcripts": the retreat into corruption, passivity, and the Romanian style of "form without foundation."

More than any kind of ethnographic practices, it is the persistence of this second boundary, our own inability to understand benevolent colonialism, which must be the subject of research. Without this understanding, we may end up reproducing the kind of uncivil societies and weak states which we all know lead to instability and tensions. A cultural understanding of the Balkans now requires us to begin with the good intentions of the benevolent colonialist.


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