When government agencies struggle to provide efficient and reliable services, an important group often steps in to provide some form of relief to affected citizens.
These are the middle-men, variously known as “brokers”, “fixers”, “touts” and “dobadobas”. For a fee, they help facilitate various tasks—application for a driver’s licence, authorisation for building construction, settlement of tax dues—and use their contacts with public servants to deliver a timely service or solution.
By skirting or speeding-up official routines and procedures and bribing and cajoling officials, brokers are able to fast-track service delivery. While citizens may find them indispensable, brokers are symptomatic of weak institutional development in many parts of the world, where the State is either invisible or considered weak, illegitimate or rent-seeking in the eyes of its population. In such areas, there is a widespread feeling that government services can only be accessed by paying an additional fee to a non-official working in tandem with legitimate office bearers.
By utilising such services, citizens help legitimise the activities of these middle-men, and thereby further perpetuate the feeling that the State is weak and incapable of performing even its basic functions. There are, however, numerous other types of development brokers who do not engage in shady dealings but may actually impart useful advice. For example, my colleague Hanneke Pot has studied development brokers involved in global health programmes in Malawi.
In her doctoral dissertation, based on lengthy fieldwork in Mangochi, she examines how a group of intermediary and semi-professionalised actors function as “knowledge brokers” or “norm entrepreneurs”, translating global health norms (e.g. reduced teenage pregnancies) to local realities.
These brokers emerged as a result of influential neo-liberal policies in the late 1980s, as national governments increasingly began outsourcing health and education services to non-state actors.
Malawi, like many other countries in the region, has numerous professionals working for various organisations involved in training and dissemination of knowledge related to global best practices (interventions believed to work everywhere) and so-called “sensitisation” of local communities.
Such brokers are typically engaged in the challenging task of linking local interests and cultural practices to policies that have largely originated in the Global North.
A key question is whether “failures” are reported along with “successes” and whether such knowledge transfer is a one-way process—from donors to the grassroots that reproduces “expert language” that blames local cultures for lack of progress.
Another issue relates to who such brokers are most loyal to—donors or local communities— and the extent to which trainings and sensitisation programmes actually have the desired results rather than simply serving as a means to securing long-term employment (for brokers) and continued access to allowances and benefits (brokers and the communities where they work).