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308. Framing the Gap between International and Local Perspectives on Addressing Organized Crime and Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Christopher A. Corpora is a Doctoral Fellow at the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, American University and Senior Analyst, US Department of Defense. He spoke at an EES noon discussion on December 15, 2004. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 308.

A careful look at the nature of the ongoing discussions about organized crime and corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) between internationals and locals forces the observer to ask why there appears to be such a marked difference between the ways each side describes and understands the problems. The international community (IC) talks about BiH's organized crime and corruption problems in terms of institutional weakness and failure. International approaches separate organized crime and corruption from larger society as illicit, parasitic predators on an otherwise democratic state. In response, the international community conceives aggressive institutional solutions, which appear ineffective and land on deaf ears in the local communities affected by them. Local professionals—opinion makers, legal personnel, and business persons—describe the problems in terms of their connectedness to larger structural issues. They talk about how organized crime and corruption are part of a broader set of social, political and economic circumstances, in which the international community is a part. In the course of interviewing 266 local professionals, I discovered some important charcteristics of the shape and scope of this discontinuity. The following is a short discussion about these findings.

This simple difference in viewpoint affects the attitudes on each side. No doubt, the "two sides" I present here are uncomfortable constructions imposed on the population, but the dichotomy serves to capture and describe the current way actors in this exchange refer to themselves. The differing perceptions solidify into attitudes that generally align in the two discussant pools. As the international community highlights separation and locals contingency, both parties quickly diverge in understanding and explanation of the problems, despite using the same initial terms and language to characterize the situation. Thus, the disconnect far exceeds a simple semantic difference. Rather, it highlights a point of departure that quickly sets a scene in which interlocutors talk past each other and wonder why the other lacks the ability to understand their position. A "blame game" ensues, in which each side blames uneven successes on the other. Three primary gaps grow out of and reinforce the nature of the discourse—communication, knowledge and expectation.

Communication gap
The fundamental challenge to full communication comes from two related problems. First, the international community is the loudest discussant—even in the local context—because it is better situated to attract coverage of its message and shape the conversation. Even when the international community engages local professionals, it is done in a choreographed manner with the apparent goal of limiting dissent and divergent views. Its dominance over communication channels and strong ability to shape the nature of the debate, necessarily limits the ability of the international community to understand local perceptions and attitudes.

This leads to the second major communication problem—the inability to discern the local climate and receptivity to initiatives aimed at curbing organized crime and corruption. The international community has made few attempts at fully understanding local positions on these issues on their own terms, largely by constructing an environment of exchange that places locals in a subservient role—the so-called "receive mode." This lack of sensitivity and attention to the local context and viewpoint shapes the gap in knowledge, and negatively influences how initiatives are perceived and expectations are formed.

The dominance of the international community's voice limited the possibilities for locals to voice a contravening position. The lack of identifiable, local discussions about these issues—beyond a handful of poorly distributed studies and a proliferation of polemics delivered mainly through the press—further buried the positions of local professionals on these issues. Locals with differing or dissenting views were consistently explained away as "complaining" or lacking full information. The locals in turn perceived the international community as not interested in engaging the local community seriously on these issues. This perception led to many local professionals positing that the IC either did not really care about the problems of organized crime and corruption and that they were in some way benefiting from it, or that the IC was so poorly organized and staffed that it was incapable of fully addressing the problem and refused to admit the deficiency.

Knowledge gap
The knowledge gap is a direct result of the communication gap, which made it difficult for the two sides to negotiate a mutually accepted set of definitions and ancillary postulates about organized crime and corruption. The lack of first level knowledge formation results in the international community's tendency to emphasize generalized processes instead of context-driven solutions, thus limiting the need to develop deep expertise about the local context. The development of local knowledge is further thwarted by the international community's limited regular engagement of the locals, their unfamiliarity with languages and local history. Those groups that do make an effort in terms of developing this knowledge tend to be smaller NGOs whose impact is limited due to prestige and resources. Larger organizations, such as the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), rarely leave their posts in larger cities and depend on translators. Thus, most members of the international community engage only with a select group of individuals in predominantly urban areas and conduct meetings in Western languages or through interpreters.

The reliance on translation makes rapport building and substantive exchange difficult and awkward. Often, these exchanges devolve into simply passing along a specific message, which reinforces the subservient role of the local discussant. The international community's incomplete and often simplistic understanding of BiH history and the 1991-95 regional wars further challenges their ability for real engagement because there is no foundation upon which to base contextual understanding.

Furthermore, the institutional nature of this division makes it difficult for well-intentioned foreigners to engage in a meaningful dialogue because many local professionals have grown to expect the worst from outsiders. Many of my interviews with locals highlighted this resistance. As I spoke with people, sometimes there was an initial struggle to build trust in order to gain a deeper level of access to an interviewee's views and attitudes toward the international community. Locals perceived the international community as having a limited understanding of organized crime and corruption because their knowledge was not based on an understanding of the local context.

Expectation gap
The expectation gap is created by the communication and knowledge gaps, directly effecting the formation of attitudes on both sides of the discussion. Initially, the international community expected to build democratic institutions and the rule of law in such a way as to create the necessary circumstances for the formation of a vibrant, functioning civil society. The belief was that the approaches used in other former communist countries could be adapted such that this process could be streamlined through the OHR's mandate to facilitate a lasting peace. Local professionals expected to be directly involved with the transformation of BiH, including an equal seat in deliberating on various issues, including organized crime and corruption. As communication developed in an uneven manner and knowledge was deficient, expectations also diverged, leading to the institutionalization of a "blame game."

The negative expectations on both sides influences daily interactions on the issue of crime and corruption. The locals resist new legal and institutional initiatives imposed by the IC because they see them as "neo-colonial." Their resistance is in turn perceived by the IC as an expression of the local culture of criminality. The institutionalization of these attitudes forces action in a negative direction, providing a forum where perceptions and attitudes—rather than facts—play a direct role in policy outcomes.

As the EU assumes responsibility for continuing BiH's mentorship, there is an opportunity to change this paradigm. However, it will be difficult to overcome the bad habits created and reinforced by the communication, knowledge and expectation gaps. Organized crime and corruption is only one of the issues that are affected by the divide, but the depth and scope of the gap is well established in this particular issue. By bringing the local position to a level commensurate with the IC, one can begin to address the issues that underpin the stagnation of democratic consolidation and economic development in the country. By treating the local perceptions and attitudes as serious and relevant, the complex nature of these structural discontinuities in the relations between the two sides can be overcome. This provides a different prism through which an analyst can begin to re-address the problems of organized crime and corruption in BiH by considering them in the context of these gaps—the true lay of the land as formed through differing perceptions and attitudes.

With this in mind, one can suggest several important steps toward addressing these issues. First, the international community must re-think the way it engages with local professionals on these issues. Locals must be part of the solution from the very beginning. Primarily they must be part of the definition of terminology and fully engaged in building strategies for transformation. This must happen at multiple levels—not dominated by small numbers of elites or influential persons. Second, the IC should strive to find a diversified group of interlocutors. It is important to continually check the development of a policy and its implementation by regularly engaging with the affected community. In the case of organized crime and corruption, the IC should interact in the field as well as through centrally located conferences to generate effective dialogue. Finally, the international community should do its best to bring more trained experts with local language skills into the discussion. These IC experts should be placed at all levels of government and society to develop better, trust-based relationships and have the opportunity to provide a vehicle for raising very local issues or concerns to the national level. These will provide opportunities to develop a strategy for capturing lessons learned and refit parts of a policy when needed. In the end, these three steps could go a long way in institutionalizing locals' investment in the solutions, which would transform the current attitudinal divide and re-route the path of change on a course better suited for long term success.

About the Author

Christopher A. Corpora

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The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting Europe’s relations with the rest of the world through scholars-in-residence, seminars, international conferences and publications. These programmatic activities cover wide-ranging topics include: European energy security, the role of the European Union and NATO, democratic transitions, and counter-terrorism, among others. The program also investigates comparatively European approaches to policy issues of importance to the United States, including migration, global governance, and relations with Russia, China and the Middle East.  Read more