Further reflections on epistemic communities

First of all, I think this will be my new user icon for posts relating to international politics. (Though I should probably get hold of a more cuddly one for more purely EU stuff.)

I just need to vent a bit in a locked entry about the two types of people I mentioned in my previous entry. I can’t be very specific about this for obvious reasons, but there is one of the countries I work on where we have consistently felt that one particular international organisation is deliberately understating the risks of a deterioration in the security situation. And we’ve said so in public, discreetly, and in private, less discreetly.

This culminated a few months back in my being pulled into their international headquarters, along with a representative from their field mission, to give a “friendly” lunchtime briefing to their senior headquarters policy staff. And if I say so myself, I think I aced it; their guy coming in from the field gave a tremendously complacent presentation, included a few digs at me which went down rather badly (since I was effectively their guest, the headquarters staff felt bad for me being insulted by one of their own), and anyway he had a virus of some kind and was not at his best. I put forward a reasoned and (I hope) fluent presentation, and it seemed to go down OK: more important, I soon started hearing from policy-makers all around the place that the international organisation’s mission in the field was not to be trusted in its assessment of the security situation.

There have been some negative spin-offs from this – in particular, I’m always myself keenly aware that tensions between field and headquarters in this sort of situation can be very destructive, and am always reluctant to do anything that would increase those tensions even for organisations with which I have problems; and also one particular country, who supplied most of the key officials in the field mission in question, is now very pissed off with me personally. But you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and the net result has been that our assessment of the security situation there is now treated with greater seriousness than that of the international officials who are paid to do it; and if we’re right and they’re wrong I think that’s a good thing.

The other case on my mind is that of Jan Øberg, the bitter and twisted peacenik of Lund, who published a critique of my employers a few months back which kindly named me. (On the specific point about me, I have to report that the Macedonian politician mentioned took a diametrically opposite position from me in the course of last year’s referendum campaign.)

Øberg has many gripes, but the two biggest are a) that we don’t follow the academic path that he believes is essential for anyone involved in conflict resolution and b) that we are too close to governments. This amounts to a) an admission that his attempts at gate-keeping based on the courses he teaches have empirically failed, in that anyone with sufficient energy and given the right opportunities can get involved in international peace-making; and b) an admission that we are actually successful in shaping international policy, unlike him – a distinction I can probably live with.

The epistemic community is quite a helpful concept for explaining the difference betwen our two approaches. Øberg is determined to tell the truth as he sees it and makes a point of not honing his recommendations to suit the policy requirements of governments; he will therefore never be part of the epistemic community influencing policy on the areas that interest him. We are also determined to tell the truth as we see it, but always through the filter of coming to policy recommendations which governments can (and sometimes do) then adopt. We co-opt various current and former government officials to that end, in order to bolster our leading status within the epistemic community. Which way works better? Well, Øberg knows the answer; that’s why he’s so pissed off.

[Edited to add: Erk! Locked now.]

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