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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Waiting for Tipping Points


Why is it so difficult for donors to change the way that Africa’s notoriously predatory police behave? This question takes us to the heart of Western explanations of political change and causality in non-Western societies. Using police reform as its departure point, this paper asks three questions that, taken together, provide insight into the logic of coercive institutions and the nature of political order in fragile societies: Are dramatic political discontinuities inherently transformative? Is the application of notions such as emergence and tipping points anything more than a Western attempt to identify phenomena capable of facilitating democratic development and progress? How is the reproduction of neo-patrimonial forms of coercive order best analysed? Judging from the record of police development over the last 50 years, change is best understood in terms of resilience, accommodation and re-emergence, rather than transformation, innovation or linear timelines. In Africa at least, police development displays a dialectical logic which suggests that Western explanations of causality represent little more than the pursuit of an imagined future.

Insights Paper