Forms of Informal Governance in North and North-East Afghanistan

This project investigates variations in the forms and frequency of corruption and how these differences affect governance output. Available quantitative research suggests significant regional variability in corruption levels within a country, but so far has failed to deliver satisfactory explanations of this phenomenon. Research to date has also failed to consider the local social and political context as a key determinant. We intend to describe, measure and understand fluctuations in forms and extent of corruption in the Afghan district by using a mixed qualitative/quantitative research approach.

We suggest that these differences in the form and extent of corruption result from varying constellations of informal local institutions, or more specifically, from the underlying forms of patronage and the quality of the system of grassroots representative development councils (CDC shuras). The project thus contributes to the ongoing academic debate questioning the uncritical imposition of OECD-based models to fight corruption and provide governance to populations in weak states. Instead, it searches for alternative institutional solutions to deliver governance and provide stability at the local level. The project also contributes to the wider debate on how to tackle corruption during interventions in conflict states without further destabilising already fragile peace accords.


2014 – 2016

Conflict Setting

Recent studies increasingly point out that the focus of “good governance”-inspired anti-corruption literature on technical solutions, procedures and ethical trainings is not only unrealistic and unattainable in weak and fragile states, it can even be harmful. Rather than such sweeping reform recommendations aiming to recreate a modern western state, the emerging consensus in the governance and corruption literature on weak and conflict states is increasingly that of strengthening civil society and governmental institutions and increasing their capacities with indirect and incremental improvements. Reductions to the degree and harmfulness of corruption would thus set in gradually, but would be more sustainable than the large-scale anti-corruption reforms that are not firmly rooted in a stable institutional setting.

These observations seem to hold true for Afghanistan as well. Critical evaluations of the stalling state-building efforts in Afghanistan have identified corruption as a main cause for lacking progress. This prompted the then newly installed Obama administration to launch a vigorous anti-corruption campaign in 2009, which soon, however, reverted to mere rhetoric as the necessary measures to effectively combat corruption proved politically impossible to execute. While the implementation of a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy was for all practical purposes abandoned, widespread corruption continues to pose a serious challenge to the stabilisation of the country. By reducing the quality both of urgently needed development and of the delivery of public services to the population, it ultimately challenges the legitimacy of the Afghan state, thus playing into the hands of the insurgents.  


We will follow a mixed qualitative/quantitative research design to investigate the central question of the suggested research: What are the regional and local factors that make corruption less predatory, more benign and ultimately more acceptable (or less illegitimate) to people?

We consider two independent variables (patronage and the system of grassroots representative shuras), a mediator variable (forms of corruption), a dependent variable (governance output) and a number of intervening variables. Our two independent variables (patronage and the shura complex) have a direct and an indirect impact on the dependent variable, the quality of governance output.

Aims & Outcomes

This research project intends to contribute to the debate on how to tackle corruption in conflict states. Contrary to common approaches, however, our focus is neither on the actions of international actors nor on the central state. Instead, we plan to look at local formal and informal arrangements that either exacerbate or reduce corruption and its impact on society. Informal networks play an important role in weakly structured societies transitioning from war to peace. From our research, we expect new insights into the functional influence such networks have on conflict transformation processes. Our starting point is to examine regional variations in the degree and frequency of corruption. What makes these regional differences so interesting is that they are most likely linked to the local cultures and social contexts.

Our main expected outcome is to gain a better understanding of the local and regional factors that mitigate the negative, disruptive impact of corruption in a fragile or conflict state. Ultimately, this should help design policies that make better use of local capacities to control the disruptive effects of corruption and that are more likely to succeed in a given fragile state context.


The research focuses on local areas in North-East Afghanistan.


Our main research partners are:

  • Michael Daxner and Jan Koehler from the special research area 700 of the Free University, Berlin (SFB 700’s C9 project Impact of Interventions in Afghanistan),
  • Beatriz Magaloni from Stanford University (Department of Political Science and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies).

Our partner in Afghanistan is the is the Mazar-e Sharif-based NGO and think tank Afghan Human Rights Research and Advocacy Organisation (AHRRAO).


The project is funded by the German Research Foundation.

  • Véronique Dudouet, Hans J. Giessmann & Katrin Planta (Eds.): Post-War Security Transitions: Participatory Peacebuilding after Asymmetric Conflicts. 2012. London: Routledge. Book >
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  • Hans J. Giessmann: Responsibility to Protect in Territories under Disputed Rule. In: Margriet Drent, Arjan van den Assem & Jaap de Wilde (Eds.). NATO's Retirement? 2011. Greenwood Papers 26. Groningen: Centre for European Security Studies, 129-136. Link >
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  • Kristóf Gosztonyi & Jan Koehler: Sub-district Governance. Social Engineering and Local Governance in North-east Afghanistan. In: Marcus Schaper (Hg.). Good Enough Governance. Wie kommt der Südsudan zu tragfähiger Staatlichkeit und funktionierender Verwaltung? 2011. Loccum: EAL, 39-64.