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    « Jihadi Tongue in Cheek Media | Main | Twists and Turns: Spatial Anthropology »

    The State of State Failure

    What word or phrase best describes the state of Somalia? Iraq? The Democratic Republic of Congo? The Solomon Islands? All of these have been described as ‘failed’ states, although the buzzword among policymakers these days seems to be ‘fragile’ states. What we call them is more than just playing with words. Words shape ideas.

    It's useful to think of the problem of statehood in historical context. The current international order was established in 1945 amid the rubble left by a world war. When the United Nations was founded in that year it had 51 member states. Today it has 192 members, with Montenegro being the latest to join the club. Most of today’s states thus became sovereign entities as a consequence of the break-up of the great European colonial empires, especially if we remember to include the Soviet Union in this group.

    Before the Second World War, vast areas of the world were formally administered under the authority of states sometimes thousands of miles distant. Since 1945, the general principle has been that nations have a right to a state of their own. But, people being what they are, not all nations have in fact been able to exercise that right. The important thing is that the principle is acknowledged.

    It's a fact that many of the territories that have acquired sovereign status have not lived up to all the expectations placed in them by leading powers, or by their own people, or both. The problem is what to call such places. And behind the problem of the label is the question of how to think about them.

    What is really meant by ‘fragile’ states is ones that have acquired legal sovereignty but that have lost, or more probably never acquired, the effective powers attached to that status. There are more and more such states. How many depends on one’s definition of fragility. The United Kingdom’s government development agency, the Department for International Development (DFID), one of the smartest outfits in the business, estimates that 46 states, over one quarter of the world’s total, fall within its definition of ‘fragile states’. The population of these 46 states is over 870 million. DFID bases its definition of fragility on a state’s record in combating poverty. Others define fragility not by reference to poverty, but to security. Referring to the slightly different concept of ‘failure’, in the United States' 2002 National Security Strategy, President Bush stated that America ‘is now more threatened by weak and failing states than…by conquering ones’.

    So, states are sometimes considered fragile when their people are poor and their governments aren’t doing much about their poverty, and sometimes when they are deemed to constitute a threat to international security. Yet, some states that show distinct signs of distress cannot be thought of as either failing, failed or fragile, notably when they have a long history of resilience. Russia is a good example, as even in the turmoil of the early 1990s, it was hard to doubt that the idea of a Russian state was firmly implanted.

    The problem of definition becomes clearest when one takes particular cases. Take Zimbabwe, for instance. ‘Fragile’ is one thing the Zimbabwean state is not. On the contrary, it is surprisingly robust. It is the Zimbabwean economy that is fragile, thanks mostly to a series of disastrous policy choices made by the government. The people in charge made these choices for political reasons, ultimately because a large part of the elite believes that its own immediate interests take priority over those of the larger national community, and this part of the elite has had the means and the will to impose its view. If Zimbabwe is not a fragile state, then, what is it? It is a state that has failed generally to live up to the expectations vested in it since independence in 1980, and it has failed more particularly to maintain a respectable economic performance. It has not failed in its ability to reproduce itself, or to defend its sovereign rights, or even to fulfil the demands of many African nationalists – President Mugabe’s trump card up to this point, although it looks now as though he may be getting to the end of the road. [Editor's Note: See the Institute For War and Peace Reporting's Zimbabwe Election Photo Diary]

    Categories of state fragility and failure are used to lump countries that have quite different problems or characteristics. About the only things that they have in common are, first, that all of them have the legal status of sovereignty and, second, that all of them disappoint key actors in world affairs in significant ways. Whereas globalization is creating unified markets, and electronic media are bringing people into closer communication, it seems that the world is becoming more fragmented politically. This is reflected in the problems landing on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council. Between 1946 and 1989, it met 2,903 times and adopted 646 resolutions. Between 1990 and 2000 it met 1,183 times and adopted 638 resolutions. These days it is publishing more resolutions than before citing Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the relevant section dealing with the use of force. As of December 2007, the UN had 17 peacekeeping missions with over 100,000 personnel, a fair number of them under arms.

    Nor is the UN the only body being asked to undertake peacekeeping missions. We have North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) peacekeepers in Afghanistan, European Union peacekeepers in Chad and the Central African Republic, African Union peacekeepers in Burundi and Sudan, and more besides. One of the effects of the growth of international peacekeeping is to undermine the fundamental legal convention underpinning international order: namely, that the world is divided into sovereign states that, ordinarily speaking, are able to take charge of their own affairs. One or two states — Mozambique, for example — may manage to resume business-as-usual after a UN intervention. But more and more, this is clearly not the case. Even if the UN and African Union missions manage to stop the killing in Darfur, what happens next? Does the UN envisage eventually handing Darfur back to the Khartoum government, the people who did most of the killing in the first place? Or is the implication that Darfur will eventually become independent, as happened in Kosovo?

    Darfur and Kosovo began as regions under the authority of a sovereign state. In other cases, such as the Central African Republic, an entire sovereign state has so little administrative control over the population that there is no realistic possibility that it will develop into an effective government.

    In all these cases, the question that poses itself with increasing insistence concerns the future legal status of countries or territories such as these. It is increasingly clear that a number of the places that acquired sovereign status since 1945 have not made the grade as far as the major powers are concerned. In some cases, there is no reason to believe they ever will, at least not within the foreseeable future. In all of them, people lived and had ways and means of managing their affairs before 1945. Whether or not those historic methods are still viable today is not clear. Nor is it clear whether such methods would be acceptable internationally. A number of forms of government that were respectable in the past — including empires and protectorates, but also stateless territories — are not acceptable today.

    The development business tends to shy away from the fundamental question of what status to accord to problem states that are deemed not to make the grade as sovereign states. Development people tend to take technocratic approaches, and they are light on political issues. However, the question of legal status isn't going to go away. On the contrary, there is every indication that it will become more acute.

    I'm not going to discuss the way forward here, except to say that it's a matter that urgently requires debate.

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