Sinking, swimming or simply paddling – Part 1 in a series on failed states

Failed States Index 2006
Failed States Index 2006 (Wikimedia Commons)

The term “failed state” first emerged in the 1990’s. Today it is being used more and more frequently by diplomats, policymakers, charities and the media when they refer to countries such as Somalia, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the US National Security Council, “America is threatened less by conquering states than by failing ones”. In the first of a four-part series on failed states:  what exactly are failed states, what causes state failure and what can be done to restore countries that have failed?

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: December 6, 2006


Radio Netherlands Worldwide presents “Sinking, Swimming or Simply Paddling”. It’s the first programme in “The Abyss” a four-part series on failed states produced in collaboration with the Ford Foundation. It’s presented by Eric Beauchemin.

A failed state is what somebody has in mind that a failed state might be or look like.
It’s a mechanical metaphor: as if a state was like a car and it stops working.
It’s not very polite to go to a president and say, ‘hello, President of a failed state. We’ve come to help you.’

The term “failed state” first emerged in the 1990’s. Today it is being used more and more frequently by diplomats, policymakers, charities and the media when they refer to countries such as Somalia, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the US National Security Council, “America is threatened less by conquering states than by failing ones”. An independent research organisation, the Fund for Peace, has even begun issuing an annual report that ranks weak and failing states. But what exactly is a failed state? It’s a question I put to Professor Martin Doornbos of the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

There’s many different ways in which one can understand the word, the term, the concept, and I suppose that many people will have a different idea of what a failed state is. In the end, one can only say, I suppose, that a failed state is what somebody has in mind that a failed state might be or look like.

Mark Schneider agrees that the concept is quite vague. He’s the senior vice-president of the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C.

You have to think about it in terms of a continuum that is between a weak state and a fragile state and a failed state. And essentially a failed state is generally thought to be one that does not have the capacity or the willingness to deliver services, to provide fundamental security to its citizens, to control its own territory. In that sense it is failed in its ability to carry out the functions of a state. We’re talking here about a state at the extreme end, unable to provide water, unable to provide any kind of guarantee. The individual is totally at risk from forces around him or her, and in that sense the state is simply not capable of carrying out the functions of a state.

David Sogge, a fellow of the Trans National Institute, an organisation based in Amsterdam which works on global problems such as militarism, poverty and social injustice, says the terms first emerged in the early 1990’s.

I trace it to the early 1990’s, that is after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of state socialism, which by the way marked the end of a period in which it was for some Western countries, but the United States in the lead, a matter of policy to weaken states it didn’t like. It was around that time that the term began to make its way into public talk. It really began to get traction in 1992 and 1993 with the breaking apart of the Yugoslav Federation, and there we had observers such as Robert Kaplan in his books and his journalistic pieces, talking about the failed states, the collapsed conditions of that part of the world, and he reported in other pieces on the coming anarchy that he observed in places like West Africa and the Horn of Africa, as well as Eastern Europe.

No nation wants to have the term “failed” or “failure” associated to it. That’s the reason why the Dutch Foreign Ministry doesn’t use it, says Wepke Kingma, the head of the Ministry’s Africa Division.

We prefer to talk about fragile states in our internal discussions because it’s not very polite to go to a president and say ‘hello, President of a failed state or a fragile state, we’ve come to help you’. And in our definition, a fragile state is a state where the monopoly on violence is no longer with the central government, or partly no longer with the central government, for instance because there are armed bandits making the life unsafe for the citizens. The second characteristic of a failed state is that a failed state is no longer able to provide basic services to the population. In that realm, you can think about services like health and food provision, but you can also think about justice and a safe place in the streets.

But very few countries are able to provide essential services to their people. Even in wealthy countries, like the United States, there are millions of people who don’t have access to education and health care. So does that make them failed states?

The states that are fragile in the terms you are describing – the United States – would perhaps prefer to refer to themselves as providing lean and mean services and coverage to their citizens. In some cases, it’s actually been a matter of deliberate policy. I think we can detect some traces of that in today’s market-led forms, models of development, where the market rather than the public sector is responsible for putting a floor of security under people and providing them with a sense of well-being.

So if the term “failed state” can be interpreted in so many different ways, is it actually a valid concept? Mark Schneider again.

I think it’s quite a useful term if you think about it again as a continuum, and if you recognise that what you are attempting to do is identify those states that are moving in the wrong direction and is moving towards increased fragility, increased instability and that are potentially in the category of failed states, that if you are able to identify those kinds of elements early enough, you can then hopefully work with them in intervening to strengthen their institutions, to strengthen the bonds between citizen and state, to strengthen, if you will, the reconciliation among different groups within the nation state and avoid it continuing down that slope to becoming a failed state.

Dr. Stephen Ellis of the University of Leiden disagrees. He believes that failed states are so different in nature that it isn’t useful to put them all in one basket.

If you talk of a failed state, it’s a mechanical metaphor, as if a state was like a car and it stops working. So you get into an auto mechanic and you fix it and then drive it again. But I think states are much more like people. So it’s probably better to think of them in terms of health. States fall ill and like people, once they’re unwell, they get unwell in different ways. And so when you want to make them better, you bring in a doctor. He has to treat each patient separately, really according to their history and their symptoms and so on and so forth. So although we’re stuck I think with this expression of failed states, I think it’s really better to think of them as being like people and they get sick. When they can no longer do what they aspire to do or what they are supposed to do because of various forms of malignant disease.

David Sogge also has his doubts about the usefulness of the term “failed states”.

I’m seeing it less and less useful, except perhaps to underscore the need for legitimate public realm, provided under democratic terms, provided under terms that are meaningful to people who, as we all do, require order, security, services, that only public bodies can provide. When those are weakened or destroyed, then we are sent back into conditions of anarchy, conditions of survival of the fittest, a Darwinian world, and I don’t think that’s desirable or for that matter feasible. So if we take that perspective on things, we might by stretching the term regard it as a useful one. But I think it may be more valid to turn it around and ask well, what are the characteristics of a state, of a public order, that are desirable and feasible that we want to build?

Professor Doornbos, who specialises in African affairs, agrees. By using the term “failed state”, we are attributing blame to a country and its government, but a much more fundamental question needs to be raised.

Was that model of a state as being proliferating in the post-World War Two period, was that a successful model, was that a useful model to start with? It’s never been asked. The assumption being that all new states that became part of the international community as of the 1950’s onwards would then be states as we knew them and so forth, without questioning how they would gain that capacity. One didn’t recognise that in many cases these were actually very fragile states that could easily come to collapse on the burden of responsibilities being assigned to them. For quite some time, that fragility was not so evident, and that’s mainly due to the Cold War because the superpowers, looking for allies everywhere, and had no problem in propping up regimes so that on the surface it would appear that there was a functioning state. But the moment the Cold War was ending, that particular kind of layer of hegemony etc. disappeared, and it laid open a whole series of different potential sort of rupture lines in many different cases. It could be very different from case to case: ethnic conflict or regional or weak economy and so forth, but in many of these situations, one began to see a different kind of internal contradictions that became more fully exposed than was the case before.

Nonetheless, it seems that the term failed or fragile state is here to stay. It is being used more and more, for instance, to refer to two countries which are in the news almost daily: Iraq and Afghanistan. But what are the factors that lead to the collapse of states? Civil conflict is one of the essential elements, believes Professor Martin Doornbos.

One cannot say that everywhere where there is civil conflict, there will be state collapse because it’s quite conceivable when you have very severe civil conflict within the context of a particular state, but with a government or a regime which with or without much legitimacy still is holding fort and is able to move on and pass on that administrative institutions of apparatus to others, so that it could continue to lead its own life and maybe witness the workings of a kind of peace between the various segments of society that are in civil war. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that some civil war will lead to separation, especially if it has a kind of regional basis and I would myself add to this that in some situations it might even be better to have a kind of separation instead of trying to keep something that fits very difficult together, to try to keep it together at all costs, as it were.

Civil conflict is just one of a myriad of factors that can lead to state collapse.

They involve weak leadership and governments, substantial corruption. They involve the existence of large-scale criminal organisations, weak civilian control over security forces, political exclusion of ethnic, religious or minority groups and discrimination against them. Sometimes, they involve substantial population shifts through migration, and obviously in the modern era, they involve the threat of terrorist organisations.

While these are all factors that can lead to state failure, there is no standard recipe for the collapse of nations. To use Dr. Ellis’s analogy, states can become sick for a variety of reasons. It’s just that some become much sicker that others. David Sogge believes that it has actually been the policy of international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, over the past two decades to weaken the economies of poor and fragile nations. He cites a study carried out by two IMF economists.

There’s been a World Bank and IMF policy to shift the tax burden from the external flows – duties and export taxes – to internal sources: citizens and their economic transactions. Now, states have complied with that, and the results have been – according to these two IMF economists – actually catastrophic for states. They have been made poorer because instead of finding that their tax base has been strengthened by these measures – which is what the IMF had told them would happen – they’ve actually become poorer, that there’s been no compensation for internal taxes for the lost external taxes.

Professor Martin Doornbos tends to agree:

The thinking became we want leaner states. Tremendous retrenchments, dismissals, the state lost its power, but also lost its autonomy of action, and that is a very, very serious matter. And the result, what one has gotten is many situations in which the state is much more fragile than it has ever been. It has very little capacity of holding things together. What that also means is that so many policies and so on for states now to execute are being developed elsewhere. In the development field, it has become a matter of take or leave it, in which one talks about policy dialogue but that’s a kind of euphemism basically for something where on the donor side, there’s a very strong emphasis on certain things are of interest to them, and in which there is very little of a tendency to really try and sort out what are the basic wishes, priorities as being perceived by a potential national leadership.

Dr. Susan Woodward shares the same beliefs. She’s a political scientist at the City University of New York.

I think that the current development policies are creating failed states and they’re creating increasing unemployment, increasing informal sectors of the economy, people who can only find work in marginal activities, even in criminal activities. Many of the problems we face internationally are a result of these policies. And the sad part for me is that at one time – in the 1940’s and the 1950’s, when for example the World Bank and the IMF began – their development policies for Western Europe were good policies, and they worked. So there has been a change in the past 25 years against policies that we know are better policies.

There does appear to be a fundamental contradiction. How can international financial institutions, with the backing of the major powers, be in favour of weakening national governments? After all, says Stephen Ellis, international law and conventions are based on nation states.

Our international system depends on states being able to do a certain number of things, and I think thereby is the problem because the way I see it – I should say I’m a historian by origin, I like to look at these things in historical contexts – and say it’s only since the end of the Second World War, since 1945 – that we have an international order which is expected to be based on sovereign states all over the world, what I think is about 192 states. And clearly a large number of these, especially the ones that are the products of decolonization, whether in Africa or indeed in the former Soviet Union, they’ve shown that they are not up to the task. But these are places where they’re weren’t sovereign states. There was no conception of a sovereign state in the Western sense until maybe late in the 20th century, the second half of the century.

The majority of weak and failed states are located in Africa. This is no coincidence, says Dr. Ellis.

If you take the long history of Africa over several hundred years, there’s very little history of state formation in the Western sense of the term. Now as many people will know, there were famous political creations in medieval Africa, the Monopotama, the Empire of Mali, and these were major units, but they weren’t really comparable to the medieval states of Europe, and they worked in quite a fundamentally different way, in ways that I can’t go into right now, but they weren’t comparable with European states, not even European states of the Middle Ages. So Africa doesn’t have the same history of state formation as for example Europe does or for that matter, China or Japan. And in fact, if you look in the long term, one of Africa’s contributions to human history is to show how it’s possible for people to live together not in states and still to get on together and to do all the things that human populations do when they have some sort of peace and harmony.

One of the best examples of how countries can continue to function without national structures is Somalia. It became an independent nation in 1960, but after years of political, economic and social upheaval, Somalia eventually collapsed. For the past 15 years, the country has had no government.

I’ve been visiting there a number of times, and it is surprising to see all things that are possible without the benefit of the state. People in Somalia will all famously remember the frightening years of Siad Barre, representing the Somali state till 1991, which was terrorising  its own people. So in that sense, one can understand that some might be just as happy without a state than with it. Nonetheless, even there, one would recognise that a state or some form of political organisation is necessary for a number of things, as simple but as basic as registration of property, coastal patrol, mediation between conflicting parties and so forth. And with the complexity of the present day world, some form of state, I suppose, is inevitable but unfortunately one has not seen much thinking going on about possible alternatives are there to the present-day state system. That’s a very, very big problem.

It’s a problem few politicians – or anyone else for that matter – want to even touch with a yardstick. They prefer to see what can be done to get countries out of a state of collapse. The Dutch government has invested a lot of time and effort in this area.

In the post-conflict situation the first thing is to bring the security sector – security sector reform –  to a more stable situation and which you can also think about the police and the justice. And then you start with reconstruction and then in the longer term you can start with more let’s say traditional development cooperation efforts. The interesting thing here is that a lot of the terminology and the questions, the problematic around failed states then comes up, because in these countries which are post-conflict, there is an issue of bringing back the power to the central government because they have lost it to rebel groups and they have to take it back. There are a lot of rebel groups which have to be disarmed and integrated or given another job or integrated in the national army. Basic services have to be put into place quickly because otherwise the civilians will lose their faith in peace. Peace has to be better than war and it’s very important to very quickly with the international donor community to help them bring back the ability to provide basic services.

You’re talking about generations and the international community has to be prepared to accept long-term engagement with these countries, not necessarily the same level.

Mark Schneider again.

In other words, you may need a peace-keeping force today in Haiti and 10 years from now you still need international engagement, but hopefully you won’t need a peace-keeping force, but you will still need international cooperation, technical support to the government bodies in putting into effect effective programmes of recovery. I should add that we are now in an era of post-Cold War, where at the very least the international institutions through the United Nations are able to play the role that they were essentially created for, which was to try and prevent countries from falling into this category, attempt to work with them when crises do occur, but that possibility exists.

It’s just as important to try to prevent countries from reaching the brink of state collapse. One of the tools used by the international community is development assistance. But Dr. Stephen Ellis of the University of Leiden believes that aid only further weakens states.

This is, I think, a huge mistake, because we’ve seen before that development aid to Africa is a large part of the problem. It doesn’t just make countries dependent because there’s nothing wrong with dependency per se, but it makes them dependent in ways which lead to the political diseases that they suffer from. And we’ve seen that in all sorts of ways: aid has helped to create unhealthy politics in Africa, on the whole. There are some exceptions. And aid tends to be used by Western politicians as a tool whereby anything comes up that is necessary, they can twist the arms of African politicians to get what they want. It’s more part of the problem than the solution.

So what is the solution?

The answer begins with a long-term commitment. The international community has to at the outset make it clear that it is in the business of assisting this state for the long-term and until it does achieve, if you will, some sustainable capacity on its own. And so in the case of Sierra Leone and Liberia, the international community has maintained a significant peace-keeping force there. It’s tried to help in the transition government stage, that is in moving towards an elected government, as you know in Liberia, Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf, was just elected. The election was accepted, and there’s a parliament functioning. They have a commitment for international cooperation over a 5-year period, I think it is, initially. And you simply have to stay the course. You simply have to work with that government in helping it to deal with the problems of development.

Dr. Stephen Ellis agrees.

I find that in most cases where there’s an emergency, the reaction of the great powers, of the Western powers in particular, is to say, well, we’ll send some sort of intervention, maybe a UN intervention force or something else and it’s always designed with the idea that after 2 or 3 years, the problem will be fixed. And it’s clear to me – at least in the case of Africa and in no doubt in the cases of those parts of the world with a clear problem of political structure and so on – is that you have to think much more long-term. You have to think in terms of at least 10 years. Now I’m not advocating huge occupation forces for periods of 10 years or more because it’s not realistic and it’s not even desirable, but you do have to think in terms of the longer term for getting a solution, and unfortunately our politics in the West, particularly in the United States, are not geared towards the long term. Everything is geared to the short term, the media sound-bite, at the very most the next elections. And this is not a helpful way to think about the problems of almost any of the failed states in Africa.

David Sogge believes that to avoid weak or failed states, we need to restructure the international financial system to prevent, for example, dictators from stashing their money in tax paradises. Another issue which needs to be tackled is the brain drain: hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses, teachers, businessmen and other well-educated people are leaving their countries in search of a better future for themselves and their relatives. As a result, in countries like Haiti or Zimbabwe, there are fewer and fewer people left who might be able to help their nation pick itself up. But David Sogge thinks it’s essential that we realise that countries are not doomed to remain fragile or failed.

In the 1950’s, the countries of South Korea and Taiwan were, to all intents and purposes, pretty weak states. They were unable to provide education and health care to their citizens. They were threatened by war and internal upheaval. They had radically unequal social systems. In those years, the United States had the choice of simply turning them into dependent, poor countries that would absorb American export products and be dictated to by American banks and investors. But in those years, they took a different path – and I’m describing summarily as a self-restraint path – they said no. We will allow the economies of South Korea and Taiwan to build strong walls of protection around their economies so that they could build up industries, build up their public sectors, provide health and education services to the people. It was of course under a highly undemocratic form of government. In fact it was very heavy-handed. But it had success.

There is no single recipe to get countries out of state failure. In every case, local and international bodies need to look at the factors behind the collapse or weakness of the country and what needs to be done to strengthen the institutions and civil society. This is what makes dealing with fragile states so difficult. Professor Doornbos believes that state failure is in fact – paradoxically – inherit to the formation of states.

These two different kind of dynamics belong together. So it can be that we are witnessing a formative tendency that takes a very prolonged time, such that one doesn’t even see the state formation occurring, but in that same situation, there can be setbacks that lead to partial or complete collapse, disintegration. One can also turn it around and say after collapse, in a situation where there is a complete disintegration of state institutions, it will never end there, notwithstanding what we can see now in Somalia. There will always be new forms of political organisation emerging. They may be entirely different from what has been there before. It may be based on very different types of forces that are emerging under the ruins as it were of the previous state, but there’s by definition almost a kind of beyond collapse and new forms and processes that one should expect.

“Sinking, Swimming or Simply Paddling” was presented by Eric Beauchemin. It is part of a series on failed states produced by Radio Netherlands Worldwide in collaboration with the Ford Foundation.

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