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University of Oxford

Bucerius Ph.D. Fellow

Statebuilding from the Bottom Up: Foreign Interveners, Local Councils, and Conflict


This theory-building thesis interrogates an increasingly prevalent narrative regarding statebuilding interventions. A growing policy consensus, as well as an incipient body of academic literature, contends that “bottom-up statebuilding” presents a viable alternative approach to the international community’s traditional modes of statebuilding in places afflicted by conflict, extremism, or insurgency. In particular, policymakers and practitioners increasingly advocate the creation of local community councils that, they hope, will serve as the building blocks for administrative structures and help build governance from the “bottom up.”

The approach’s underlying assumption is that it will improve social cohesion, local administrative connections to the central government, government legitimacy, and responsiveness, thus offering potential exogenous statebuilding interventions a higher chance of success. The notion of sponsoring local administrative councils in conflict-affected countries is increasingly widely embraced - yet the concept remains strikingly under-theorised and unexamined. The thesis begins an overdue critical examination of this practice and the broader concept of bottom-up statebuilding. Its central question asks what conditions explain when donor support for local community councils will successfully advance a bottom-up statebuilding project in the face of conflict, extremism, or insurgency. For reasons of comparability and maturity, the thesis’s three primary cases are all programmes based in Afghanistan between 2009-2014. It further explores the applicability of the explanatory factors identified in the primary cases by examining shadow cases elsewhere.

Frances Z. Brown, a doctoral student in international relations at Oxford, researches donor stabilization and statebuilding approaches in conflict. She arrived at Oxford after over a decade as an analyst and practitioner at the intersection of conflict and development, including over five years on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Mali.  She holds a B.A. from Yale and a M.A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Her previous work includes roles with the US Agency for International Development, the Council on Foreign Relations, and US Institute of Peace, the US 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, and two years in Beirut, Lebanon. Frances Brown´s commentaries have appeared in the Washington Post, the LA Times, the International Herald Tribune, Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, the American Interest, and elsewhere.

Foreign Policy (2014): Stabilizing Provincial Afghanistan: How to Get It Right

U.S. Institute of Peace Special Report (2014): Rethinking Afghan Local Governance Aid After Transition

Washington Post Monkey Cage (2014): Warlord Politics Aren’t Always Bad for Democracy” (with D. Mukhopadhyay)

Foreign Policy (2014): What Obama Missed in Afghanistan (with D. Mukhopadhyay)

The American Interest (2012): Bureaucracy Does Its Thing, Again

Foreign Policy (2012): Afghanistan’s Need for Reform: We Have Seen the Enemy, and It Is Our Anecdotes

U.S. Institute of Peace Special Report (2012): The U.S. Surge and Afghan Local Governance

Foreign Policy (2012): Taking Stock of the Surge - From the Bottom Up

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