A major debate is brewing on what to do about ‘failed states’, lawlessness and endemic violence. Is the solution to ‘build states’? Or should we be looking at alternatives? New analysts have begun to unsettle the conventional wisdom. But establishment organisations such as the World Bank are failing to take the changing evidence into account.
The establishment view: States should be built
On the one side we have what might be called the establishment position. Most official aid agencies, including DFID (pdf, 1mb), hold this view, as do official international organisations like the OECD (pdf).
These organisations’ view is that states should be built. Where there are problems of lawlessness, ‘ungoverned spaces’, ‘failed states’ or endemic conflict, the solution is to put states back together again. This perspective might suggest, for example:
- All of Somalia should be governed by a single, national, recognised government based in Mogadishu.
- Mexico's drug trafficking problems should be solved by the victory of the official armed forces in their conflicts with the ‘narcos’.
- The state apparatus based in Kathmandu should be strengthened so that it can exercise control over the whole of Nepal.
Thousands of articles and books telling us how to ‘fix fragile states’ have been published in recent years.
An alternative view: Political authority is different in different places, and involves more than just states
On the other side, we have an increasing number of scholars and researchers telling us that, in some cases, building or rebuilding states is more or less impossible, and certainly against the current of history. The era when states were universally viewed as the dominant source of legitimate public authority is coming to an end.
Instead, we are beginning to understand that the patterns of political authority are much more complex and differentiated. We recognise that, in the future, states will share power with a much wider range of actors: large commercial corporations, official international organisations, international civil society organisations, transnational criminal networks, transnational judicial authorities, warlords, drug smugglers, insurgents and many others.
This doesn’t mean that states will disappear from the face of the earth. But, where local conditions have led to the collapse of state authority, we might think twice before we rush off to rebuild the state.
In particular, it may make little sense for the international community to try to reconstruct a state from above. It may be better to allow local people to find their own ways of constructing the collective authority that they need to provide security for themselves and their livelihoods. David Leonard made this case in relation to Somalia in a blog post a few months ago.
To people who want to read the broader argument, I recommend Anne Clunan and Harold Trinkunas’s edited book Ungoverned Spaces: Alternatives to State Authority in an Eraof Softened Sovereignty. Stanford, Stanford Security Studies, 2010. I do not agree with everything in the book, but it is refreshing to find a consistent series of papers that start from a deep scepticism about our capacity to rebuild states wherever we want. The book presents a coherent argument about the historical decline of state power.
It was the experience of reading this book that made me realise the roots of my disappointment with the 2011 World Development Report, Conflict, Security, And Development (and perhaps I am not alone in my disappointment).
Is it time to ask whether strengthening state authority is the most effective solution to some of the worst problems of conflict and insecurity? Unfortunately, like most of the establishment organisations, the World Bank is unable to publicly deal with this possibility.
It is far from clear what the alternatives to ‘building states’ are. Perhaps we should be thinking about ‘coping mechanisms’ rather than ‘solutions’. We need a debate about these alternatives, and I am sure we will have one. Reading Ungoverned Spaces will give you a head start with the arguments.