The Presentation of ASA in 8 questions/answers

Launched by the African Security Sector Network (ASSN), the think tank Societal Intelligence of Africa (ASA) proposes an original reading template of today’s Africa, which aims to be innovative in three respects:

  • Firstly through highlighted topics that underline the importance of often disregarded parameters as they pertain to the informal domain;
  • Secondly through the formats of disseminated documents, developed based on an “institutional mapping” technique;
  • Finally, through the experts mobilized, whether African anthropologists or sociologists.

Why the ASA? The diagnosis

The analysis of recent crisis that occurred in many African countries – Malian crisis, Libyan crisis, bloody attacks in Cameroun, Niger and Chad – as well as the “revenge of societies” as witnessed for example through the peaceful revolution that occurred in Burkina Faso, demonstrate the need to better understand the socio-cultural context within which security and development policies are implemented.  These events, the impacts of which are often felt beyond the African continent, were most of the times built-up in the margins or boundaries of the state domain.  The ignorance of the cultural and societal context explains partly the failure of security policies undertaken in Libya as well as difficulties encountered during the negotiations conducted to resolve the conflict in northern Mali.  The fact that the phenomena occurring outside of states’ boundaries are often overlooked, for example the major role played by some Islamic charity non government organizations in a great number of African countries, also explains the amazement at the magnitude of rampant Islamism on the continent.

In fact, the efficiency of security as well as that of development policies conducted on the African continent often turns out to be limited because of a partial knowledge of the environment in which they are implemented.  These policies are focused mostly on state institutions and governmental and legally established stakeholders, legal frameworks and codified standards, while they aim at embracing the “governance” concept, which on the contrary plans to outreach a circle of stakeholders beyond the state.  The interest in the African “civil society”, a concept inspired mostly from American and European models built around associations, compensates poorly the ignorance of the immense non-state field occupied by numerous African stakeholders.

Works conducted by experts from the ASSN[1] have highlighted the need to enrich the analysis of the nexus between security and development: if understanding and controlling the state dimension proves to be important, the complexity of Africa calls inseparably for a deep understanding of societal realities, often informal, within which the security and development governance of Africa is rooted.  Just as it is necessary to take into account the political, economic and social dimension in elaborating public policies, it is also equally essential to take into account the societal dimension in order to elaborate solutions better adapted to the African contexts that are characterized by the coexistence of different systems of regulation or governance.

ExAfrican states rely formally on national armed and security forces.  Yet, to ensure security, state agents (the police, the military) are often led to install simultaneously indirect strategies in building alliances with elites at the local level, taking into account traditional standards and authorities as well as customary justice, or by striking tacit agreements with security groups, including militias installed by rural or urban communities.

The ASA think tank aims at operationalising the understanding of that societal dimensioninteracting with the legal domain.  Such an approach further aims at identifying obstacles undermining security and development policies conducted in Africa, or on the contrary, in identifying opportunities enabling the increase of their impact on the field.

What?  Analyzed data

By putting an emphasis on parameters very rarely taken into account, the ASA proposes a new approach to crisis prevention and conflict resolution, focused on trends that shape profoundly African societies.

The objective is to offer decision-makers a key input to understanding non state stakeholders, non official networks and non codified standards, whose influence compete against or on the contrary, complete the intervention perimeter of state institutions and legal frameworks.

The stakeholders, the networks and the standards are analyzed by the “ASA” through different dimensions, divided into 6 expertise poles:

  • Pole 1: Traditional authorities, community membership and social solidarities / exclusion (chieftancies ; kingdoms; oral references ; traditional justice mechanisms ; caste systems ; kinship mutual  obligations and solidarities ; sociétés initiatiques, secret societies, …);
  • Pole 2: Religions and religious networks (evangelist churches, catholic communities ; muslim brotherhoods ; animism ; buddhism ; agnosticism ; …);
  • Pole 3: Gender (homosexuality and LGBT matrilineal societies ;; women access to property ; …);
  • Pole 4: Informal security and justice (vigilantism ; self-defence groups ; private security companies ; criminal networks ; …);
  • Pole 5: Social changes and emerging stakeholders (emergencing citizens mouvemens ; student networks ; influence of communautarian radios; online medias ; influence of rap mucis leaders…);
  • Pole 6: African and international networks (influence of Indian, Chinese, Turkish, Libanese diasporas; …).

Highlighted themes may not seem to have any linkages, direct or indirect, with the security and development issues. Yet, the ASSN’s experience demonstrates that taking into account the underpinning dynamics is valuable for a better appreciation of the environment and implementation of effective policies in Africa.

Ex. 1:  Measures aimed at encouraging the inclusion of a gender dimension in security sector reform processes should take more into account, the influence of secret societies such as the Poro or the Sande in Liberia and Sierra leone, solely controlled by women, but that could contribute, based on the principles they promote, to undermine the foundation of the principle of men-women equality.

Ex.2: Some of the development policies implemented in Mali to put an end to the marginalization of communities in the North or in the Centre, such as the Touaregs or the Fulani, have insufficiently measured the importance of social hierarchy existing between different statutory groups within each community:  conflicts between those claiming to belong to Touareg or Fulani aristocracy (Ifoghas, Rimbe) and those belonging to groups considered to be less nobley (Imrads,Bellas, Rimaïbe) explain the very low impact of certain development programs.

Ex. 3: The Malian parliament’s rejection of the family code, aiming to introduce more balance in the access to property or to inheritance, was one of the warning signals of the Malian crisis in 2011.  That episode has clearly brought to light the important role played by the High Council on Islam dominated by hanbalite Islam (close to wahabism) to the detriment of moderate malekite Islam.

For who? The public

ASA’s analysis addresses primarily decision-makers involved in conceiving, implementing, and monitoring security and development policies implemented on the African continent.

Furthermore, the analyses of the ASA could be of interest for the media worried of deciphering more in detail the mechanisms which underlie the African current events.

Finally, explanation brought by the ASA could also offer new insights to the business community that needs to understand and master the complexity of the African environment in order to invest and work in the long term within that environment.

How?  The methodology (neo-institutionalism, anthropology, institutional mapping)

Inspired by neo-institutionalism, the ASA approach considers that decision-making processes are not based solely on rational choice or registered within the framework of formal institutions: a much larger variety of institutions, often informal, are operating in parallel with or inside formal political institutions and are at stake within the decision-making processes and public policies.  The influence of historical trajectories (“path dependencies”) is also highlighted. The ASA approach is thereby based on the analysis of actors (legally established and without legal existence) and networks (structured and non structured) that interact, in a competitive or additional manner, within the framework of formal or informal institutions[3].

In order to highlight informal institutions as well as non state stakeholders and non structured networks, not only in their historic trajectory but also in their contemporary realities, the ASA method consists of using anthropological analysis methods, assuming that this subject, despite being often considered esoteric, could nevertheless prove to be a useful guide for action. Analysis done by ASA aims in particular at making more accessible and operational (policy-oriented) knowledge accumulated by anthropology, notably by adding value to existing literature which is very often confined within academic environments, but mostly at conducting investigation on the field.

ASA relies on an “institutional mapping” technique presented through text and visual aids (computer graphics):

  • The institutional mapping technique’s goal is to portray cohabitation of various authority and legitimacy entities as well as the division of power[4] and social regulation mechanisms.
  • This technique makes it possible to highlight, in a simple and schematic manner, the interactions of non state and state stakeholders as well as non official and structured networks or legal and non codified standards within the framework of formal but also non formal institutions;
  • It offers the possibility of grasping quickly, in an eye blink, the configurations that prevail in a given country;
  • Every map is further completed by a textual and operational analysis (policy oriented) of the interactions and power relation prevailing among the various stakeholders, the various networks or the various standards highlighted by the visual representation[5]. The ASA develops an analytical approach, not descriptive, aiming at decrypting the contemporary developments and suggesting proper orientations for the future.

Exemple 1 : The Dozos hunters in Côte d’Ivoire

In order to consult the lively presentation with a focus on each slide, please click on the following link and then click on the 3autoplay Button at the right bottom of the page:


Which format?  ASA products

The ASA disseminates its mapping and textual analysis via different delivery media:

  • Brief analytical notes, transmitted in French and English at a weekly rate by email and social networks, as well as posted on the ASA website;
  • Tailored expertise (case studies) on the societal and cultural dynamics of Today’s Africa;
  • Training via distance learning (e-learning resources, video medium, Tele-briefings via Visio-conference or via Skype; Webinars) or in situ training course

Who? The experts

The ASA, emanating from the ASSN recognized for the quality of its African experts organized in a network, builds on the expertise of African anthropologists and sociologists who are continuously on the field. Mastering not only the institutional architecture, but also habits and customs and local languages of their respective countries, these experts come from:

  • Universities;
  • Research Centers.
  • The administration;

ASA’s professionalism and credibility stems from the in-depth and detailed knowledge its experts have of Africa. Those experts reside in the country examined or are located close to it.

Which objectives (outcomes)?

Based on indicators very often overlooked, but that are brought to light, the ASA’s pursued objectives are threefold:

  • Improve with new parameters the monitoring measures, early warning systems, crisis prevention and conflict resolution;
  • Support in formulating and implementing security and development policies based on more advanced knowledge of local African realities;
  • Put decision-makers in touch with a new community of African experts;

Under which conditions?  Ethic considerations

The ASA think tank’s vision is, the one already promoted by the ASSN, a democratically governed Africa, to the benefit of its people, transparently and responsibly managed, with a view to ensuring the promotion of human security.

The values upheld by the ASA as by the ASSN are that of integrity, diversity, inclusivity and objectivity.

It is important to underline that:

  • The ASA think tank does refer and shows respect to the ethical principles formalized by the American Association of Anthropologists :
  • The ASA’s approach excludes any idealization of the informal domain.[6] While systematically presenting all the stakeholders, standards, and network influencing the formal and informal institutions of a given State, the ASA’s analysis assesses not only their operational readiness but also their relevance in terms of human rights and the satisfaction of the security and development needs  of the African people;
  • The ASA’s approach does not consist of presenting institutions, African societies and cultures stuck in their ethnographic specificities, but instead, emphasizes not only current developments but also traditions in which they are rooted;
  • The distinction between formal and informal could be difficult to establish in practice, since in Africa, stakeholders, standards, and networks in each domain may be interlinked. The ASA’s approach aims at presenting a schematic vision – but not simplistic, of the configuration of the formal and informal domains. Long format documents (5 to 6 page-summary reports) aim precisely at getting into the details of the complexity of African sociological environments..

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[1] Niagale Bagayoko, Eboe Hutchful & Robin Luckham (2016) Hybrid security governance in Africa: rethinking the foundations of security, justice and legitimate public authority, Conflict, Security & Development, 16:1, 1-32, DOI: 10.1080/14678802.2016.1136137.

[2] Particularly works conducted within the framework of research programs “Multi-level Governance and Security” and “Hybrid Security Governance / Gouvernance hybride de la sécurité”, funded respectively by the ESRC of United Kingdom and by the IDRC of Canada.

[3]  Formal and informal institutions could be seen as follows:

  • Formal institutions are structured by rules and regulations within the frame of legal organizations officially and publicly established (constitutions, laws, property rights, etc …); formal actors are stakeholders whose legal existence is formally recognized.
  • Informal institutions are structured around practices, behavioral standards, and interaction networks socially sanctioned and legitimated (customs, traditions, practices, habits, …) without being codified or legalized. The informal actors are those whose practices, or existence are not legally recognized.

[4] Institutional mapping is concerned with understanding the existing distribution of power.

[5] This analysis is based on the distinction established by Helmke and Levitsky who define formal and informal institutions as follows “formal institutions are openly codified, in the sense that they are established and communicated through channels that are widely accepted as official (…). Informal institutions are socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels” (Helmke, G. and S. Levitsky, 2004. ‘Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics: A Research Agenda’.Perspectives on Politics 2(4), 725–740..). anddifferentiate 4 types of interactions between the formal and informal domains: (a) as complementary, with informal institutions reinforcing formal institutions to achieve shared goals; (b) as mutually accommodating with informal institutions diverging from formal institutions without necessarily undermining them – not violating the letter  of the law even if violating the spirit; (c) as competing when informal institutions not only diverge from formal ones, but also undermine them; (d) as substituting, when informal institutions fill in for absence of ineffective formal institutions, by doing what the latter should have been doing – for instance when non-state actors provide public goods, including health, education, justice and security in the place of an absent or under-achieving state.

[6] We do not assume a priori that traditional, customary or informal institutions work better for the citizens of African States than the state delivered security. For as Meagher has cogently argued, the rush to embrace the “traditional” obscures the potentially regressive and violent features of governance beyond the margins of the state” (See Meagher, K., 2012. ‘The Strength of Weak States? Non-State Security Forces and Hybrid Governance in Africa’. Development and Change 43(5), 1073–1101).

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