Innocents Abroad: Reflections from a Public Administration Consultant in Bosnia

Article excerpt

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a veritable army of Western consultants--economists, lawyers, management specialists, and others--has marched east, across the plains of Poland, through the valleys of Hungary, and on to the farthest fragments of the former Soviet empire. Funded by the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union (EU), and scores of other governmental and non-governmental entities based in the West, the mission of these consultants has been enormously challenging: to help the post-communist governments of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) develop legal, political, administrative, and economic institutions appropriate to democratic, market-based societies. American specialists in public administration--practitioners and academics--have been prominent among them, offering advice on everything from management development in Armenia to civil service reform in Kazakstan.

This influx of Western consultants is interesting for at least two reasons. First and most obviously, their work may well have a bearing on the ability of these nations to integrate fully and successfully into a competitive, democratic, and peaceful global political economy. Second, the nature of their mission--building institutions in the image of the West--represents in many respects a return to a foreign assistance tradition that had been largely abandoned in the 1960s, superseded by the more culturally sensitive insights of "development administration."(1)

These two points of interest set the purposes of this article, which reports on my experience as a public administration consultant in postwar Bosnia. The first purpose is to distill some hard-won lessons that other short-term consultants might put to good use. The second is to reflect on the apparent disconnect between what public administration consultants are now being sent abroad to do and what we as a profession ostensibly learned decades ago.

The two purposes intersect in several key respects. It is in the nature of the above-mentioned disconnect that much of what I learned in Bosnia had been ably noted by an earlier generation of scholars; indeed, the value of my lessons may inhere less in their originality than in their timeliness and accessibility. What may be of more interest is a set of abashed reflections on why I had to learn these lessons at all. I had, after all, taught comparative administration for many years before going to Bosnia, and had even written a bit in the field. How could I have been so naive? The extended answer to this question contains lessons, too, both for other would-be consultants and for those concerned with the problems of trying to transplant homegrown administrative ideas into foreign soil. Given the number of Western experts now afield, the scope and variety of projects underway, and the stakes involved, these are lessons worth weighing.

Background

The multi-sided war that tore apart the former-Yugoslavia from 1991-1995--a war that first escaped and then absorbed the attention of the rest of the world--was far too complex even to summarize here.(2) Suffice it to say that Bosnia-Herzegovina was a reluctant participant in what was to become Europe's bloodiest and most destructive conflict in fifty years.(3) As the most multi-ethnic and centrally located of Yugoslavia's six former republics,(4) Bosnia's leaders correctly surmised, long before the war broke out, that any cracks in Yugoslavia's facade, fueled by nationalist apparatchiks in Serbia and Croatia, would run deepest through Bosnia.(5) But caught tragically between the ambitions of Belgrade and Zagreb and subjected to the horrific depredations of "ethnic cleansing," the people of Bosnia were forced to fight, to preserve both a semblance of territorial integrity and their lives. All attempts to mediate the conflict started from the premise that whatever might be the external borders of a postwar Bosnia, new internal boundaries would need to be drawn to accommodate the warring "ethnic" groups. …