Weak States and the Savage Wars of Peace
Stabilising Fragile States
Engaging Fragile States: Closing the Gap between Theory and Policy
David Carment and Yiagadeesen Samy
Fragile States and Violence: The Limits of External Assistance
Lothar Brock, Hans-Henrik Holm, Georg Sorensen, and Michael Stohl
Goodbye to Good Governance? How Development Discourse Copes with State Failure
Tobias Debiel, Daniel Lambach, and Birgit Pech
The Failing State in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Afghanistan: A Seriously Disrupted State
Failed-State Status and the War on Drugs in Mexico
Adam David Morton
Giving a State a Bad Name? Kyrgyzstan and the Risk of State Failure
Bringing State Theory Back In: Why We Should Let Go of ‘Failed States’
Nation-Building Interventions and National Security: An Australian Perspective
Michael G. Smith and Rebecca Shrimpton
Ending in Tears: Britain's Uneasy Relationship with Cyprus
Volume 13 ● Number 1 ● Winter/Spring 2011—Failed States
Bringing State Theory Back In: Why We Should Let Go of ‘Failed States’
Our diplomacy and development capabilities must help prevent conflict, spur economic growth, strengthen weak and failing states, lift people out of poverty, combat climate change and epidemic disease, and strengthen institutions of democratic governance.1
Similar assessments of the global security environment have in the last decade been made by the United Nations, the European Union and the governments of the United Kingdom and Australia, to mention but a few.
Indeed, concern over the potentially adverse security implications of state failure has been translated into a greater willingness in the post–Cold War era—particularly since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States—to intervene in states perceived as fragile and at risk of failure. State-building—the supposed solution to the problem of state failure—comprises a varying mix of coercive and non-coercive measures aimed at strengthening the capacity of intervened-in states to perform the functions of modern statehood adequately. It is now applied not only to conflict or post-conflict situations, but as a precautionary measure to “a wide spectrum of developing countries, both in war and peace”.2
A Problematic Concept
Consequently, it is imperative to examine the concept of the failed state and its potential limitations, both for making sense of the situations to which it refers and for the proposed solutions to these. The main argument herein is that the concept of the failed state has been implicitly understood through two dominant notions of state capacity: a neo-liberal institutionalist variant and a neo-Weberian institutionalist variant. Despite some important differences between these occasionally overlapping approaches, they share a number of problematic characteristics.
First, capacity is articulated in a way that obscures the highly political and contested nature of all projects of state-building, whether internally or externally driven. Second, the state and its institutions are abstracted from the social and political conflicts that accompany processes of capitalist development, whether preceding or driven through state-building interventionism. As a result, the notion of the failed state is highly descriptive, seeking to evaluate existing situations not on their own merits, but in terms of an ideal/typical state of either a neo-liberal or neo-Weberian kind. It is thus a “negative” way of understanding the complex social phenomena to which the concept of state failure is applied: it tells us what is not happening, rather than what is happening. The failed state is therefore a concept with very little analytical merit that obscures more than it reveals and that should be dumped unceremoniously by researchers.
A way out of the failed-state cul-de-sac is through a more rigorous integration of state theory into the study of so-called failed states. Particularly useful is the branch of state theory associated with scholars like Nicos Poulantzas and Bob Jessop. These scholars and others working in a similar vein, rather than fetishise the state, view it as a social relation and the functioning of its institutions as an expression of social power and never-ceasing struggles between coalitions of interests—classes, class fractions, distributional coalitions and other societal groups—over power and resources. State capacity in this sense represents the capacity of state institutions to privilege some interests over others—a relational attribute based on particular political and ideological environments formed in the context of particular patterns of economic development.
In what follows, I go on to discuss the limitations of the neo-liberal and neo-Weberian institutionalist conceptions of state failure and then proceed to provide a brief overview of the utility of another approach, which is based on social-conflict theory and grounded in state theory.
State Failure and the Limits of Institutionalism
Morten Bøås and Kathleen Jennings have recently argued that the failed-state label is applied selectively when it is in the interests of powerful governments to do so. While this argument is generally true, it is nevertheless impossible to deny the emergence of a commonsensical notion of what state failure means. Manipulation of the term for political reasons is therefore restricted by the development of a large body of knowledge that shapes both the nature of the problem and the solutions to it.
The typical definition of state failure is based on the idea that there is a minimum set of functions every state must be able to perform adequately. In other words, state failure is defined in terms of the existence or absence of state capacity across various functional, institutional and geographical arenas. This tends to create a spectrum of functionality, with strong states at one end, failed or collapsed states at the other extreme, and various other weak or fragile states in between.
There are, however, two prevalent ways of defining state capacity in the literature: one that could be described as neo-liberal institutionalist, and the other neo-Weberian institutionalist. These are not neatly separated, as many scholars straddle both camps, and indeed the notion of state “capacity” is strongly rooted in the Weberian tradition. Nonetheless, there are important dissimilarities between the two approaches, pertaining to how they define state failure and explain its origins, and to the solutions they prescribe for it. Both, however, are limited by their propensity to treat state capacity as something that stands outside social and political struggle, or any social relation for that matter. This leads to an emphasis on evaluating whether particular states approximate pre-existing institutional functionality benchmarks, thereby failing to account for why certain institutions emerge in the first place and why they operate the way they do. Below I discuss each of these approaches individually.
Neo-Liberal Institutionalist Conceptions of State Failure
For neo-liberal institutionalists, the notion of state capacity refers to the ability of the state to provide hospitable conditions for liberal, market-led development to occur. State failure/fragility and social conflict are seen as corollaries of poverty and underdevelopment. The latter, in turn, are viewed as rooted in the failure of particular states, because of poor governance and bad leadership, to benefit from the opportunities provided by global markets. State failure is thus seen as fundamentally internally generated, with the way out requiring that states make themselves more attractive to foreign private-sector investment. This way of conceiving state failure has been particularly influential in the actual practice of state-building, primarily because of the dominance of development assistance organisations in this field.
Intellectually, neo-liberal institutionalism combines the normative preference of neo-liberalism for extending liberal market relations into all social, economic and political spheres, with a focus on the institutional prerequisites of successful market-led development. It thus owes more to new institutional economics (NIE) than to neo-classical economics. Within the world’s major bilateral and multilateral international development organisations, chiefly the World Bank, this way of understanding development and the state’s role in it has become dominant since the mid-1990s because of the inescapable failures of the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 1990s in terms of both implementation and outcome. SAPs used conditionalities to promote rapid liberalisation of trade and financial flows, privatisation and public-sector cutbacks, as a way of energising the private sector and reducing government debt in recipient countries. During this period, the state was typically seen as an obstacle to economic development. However, with many developing states experiencing a decade of zero or even negative growth, and with financial crises rocking Mexico, Russia and East Asia in the 1990s, the state made an impressive comeback and came to be seen as crucial for successful development outcomes. Unlike in the Keynesian post-war era, though, the role of the state was circumscribed to that of providing and guaranteeing the “right” institutional environment in which liberal markets could blossom—a set of institutions, policies and even social attitudes often called “good governance”.
As the above implies, the association of development outcomes with good governance was not made in the context of a growing interest in failed states, but had its own intellectual and institutional trajectory within the international development assistance industry. In fact, the linking of aid effectiveness and good governance was initially seen as reason for pulling out of “poorly performing” states, many of which are now described as “fragile”. In the wake of the 11 September attacks, however, when failed states came to be seen not only as a humanitarian problem but as a core security concern, mainstream donors began to think about ways of assisting the emergence of environments conducive to liberal market-led development even when these environments were not there. In this manner, pre-existing ideas about what constitutes suitable institutional supports for markets were extended into the state‑building sphere.
One prominent example of what effective statehood might mean in practice for neo-liberal institutionalists is provided by the World Bank’s Country Policy and Institutional Assessment (CPIA). The CPIA is a questionnaire designed to help the bank’s staff evaluate the institutional quality of recipient states. The CPIA comprises sixteen criteria in four clusters: economic management, structural policies, policies for social inclusion/equity, and public-sector management in institutions. In each category a state is ranked from one to six, with one indicating an unsatisfactory performance for an extended period. States that score poorly across several criteria are defined as “fragile”. The CPIA comprises a ubiquitous neo-liberal ensemble. As Andrew Rosser argues:
The criteria that make up the CPIA emphasise the importance of deregulated markets, conservative macroeconomic and fiscal policies and public administrative and other institutional structures that provide transparency and accountability.3
The assumption therein is that the sole way to ameliorate state weakness and alleviate conflict is through market-led development, which can be achieved only if the right institutional processes are in place. This is a point of divergence between the neo-liberal and neo-Weberian approaches because for the latter there can be more than one path to successful economic development.
This way of understanding the role of the state is underpinned by a conception of politics as “a set of external factors hampering the natural functioning of markets”.4 Hence, the criteria by which effective statehood is measured, the institutions that issue public policy, and the capacity with which these institutions are supposedly imbued, are all depoliticised and abstracted from actual social and political relations, particularly those associated with capitalist development. As a result, neo-liberal institutionalists end up measuring the degree to which particular states approximate the neo-liberal ideal type, through exercises like the CPIA, but they have a hard time explaining why particular situations deviate from it, and an even harder time achieving the governance objectives they desire in practice. The neo-liberal institutionalist conception of state capacity, and hence of state failure, is a descriptive category and not a way of explaining the complex social phenomena to which it ultimately refers.
Neo-Weberian Institutionalist Conceptions of State Failure
That there is a sizable and diverse neo-Weberian literature on state failure is hardly surprising, given the centrality of the concept of the state for scholars in the Weberian tradition. For several decades now, neo-Weberian scholars have argued that states are not simply vessels of society, but potentially autonomous and powerful institutions:
States conceived as organizations claiming control over territories and people may formulate and pursue goals that are not simply reflective of the demands or interests of social groups, classes, or society. This is what is usually meant by “state autonomy” … Pursuing matters further, one may then explore the “capacities” of states to implement official goals, especially over the actual or potential opposition of powerful social groups or in the face of recalcitrant economic circumstances.5
For neo-Weberians, state capacity is both horizontal and vertical. Horizontally, as we can see from the above quotation from Skocpol, state capacity measures the relative power of the state vis-à-vis oppositional social forces and markets, a major point of divergence from neo-liberal institutionalists, for whom state intervention in markets, as opposed to the prevention of interference in them, is undesirable. Vertically, state capacity is measured in relation to an ideal/typical modern state:
From the outset, the modern state … represented an ideal of sovereign territoriality to which rulers aspired, but which they seldom achieved. Even Western European states today do not always reach the Weberian pinnacle in which a rationalized central bureaucracy enjoys a monopoly of organized violence over a given territory and population.6
Neo-Weberian scholars often disagree on what precisely the ideal/typical state should look like. Some take a more expansive approach that includes issues like welfare provision, infrastructure and public health, while others focus on core activities like external security—protecting the state from outside enemies. In fact, for some, influenced by Joel Migdal’s “state in society” approach,7 a successful post-colonial state has to accommodate or even at times adopt more traditional forms of governance in order to become legitimate. Such disagreements aside, all neo-Weberian authors view state capacity as potentially uneven, varying across the state’s different functions and institutions, as well as across geographical terrain. Capacity refers to the rule-making power of the state’s institutions: their ability to plan official goals and implement these successfully.
The trouble is that defining state capacity in this way reifies a problematic distinction between state and society. To make sense, the horizontal notion of capacity requires at least two predefined entities and at least one of these to act upon and affect the other. While from this view society does not necessarily collapse when the state collapses, this approach seems to suggest that for the state to be strong it has to penetrate society and subdue recalcitrant elements. This way of viewing state–society relations has strong authoritarian hues, resembling earlier work by Samuel Huntington on political order in changing societies.8 Indeed, although in the neo-Weberian conception state capacity is freed from neo-liberal ideology, it still embodies a preference for order and stability of a particular kind, rather than a way of explaining social and political dynamics in their own right, including those associated with the disintegration of centralised power structures.
By neglecting to examine the power relations that cut across the permeable boundaries of state, society and markets and to theorise the links between social and political conflict and capitalist development, neo-Weberians remain trapped within unhelpful binaries, such as state/society and traditional/modern. The effect is to dehistoricise the development of particular state forms. Despite the relational veneer of the horizontal dimensions of state capacity, both these and their vertical counterparts embody a technical way of understanding state capacity, as both have state functionality, understood vis-à-vis the Weberian ideal type, at their core. This is because the main issue for horizontal state capacity is essentially who delivers the state’s functions—state institutions or societal groups? As a result, much like the neo-liberal variant surveyed above, the neo-Weberian definition of state failure, which is premised on a particular neo-Weberian definition of state capacity, remains descriptive. It is unable to explain adequately the emergence and trajectory of conflict: the latter remains a kind of “by-product” of low state capacity. As noted earlier, the usage of the term “failed state” leads to “negative” assessments preoccupied with the degree to which particular states approximate the Weberian ideal/typical state—assessments which carry little explanatory force.
Letting Go of ‘Failed States’: Towards a New Approach
So far I have argued that the two main ways of conceptualising state failure—the neo-liberal institutionalist approach and the neo-Weberian institutionalist approach—are descriptive categories that do little else than measure the gap between a particular state and an ahistorical ideal/typical state, defined in terms of its functionality. This is not a useful way of examining the states often defined as “failed” or “fragile” and their societies. In this section, I provide a brief introduction to an alternative approach, premised upon the work of state theorists Nicos Poulantzas and Bob Jessop, as well as on the insights of the critical political-economy approach known as social-conflict theory. While neo-Weberian and neo-liberal institutionalism emphasise the institutional attributes of so-called failed states and in particular the capacity of state institutions to perform certain functions, both ignore the centrality of social and political conflict to the development of all states, including those of western Europe and North America. The focus on social conflict, based on a broader system-level, structural analysis of state–society relations, locates state capacity in the context of the historical development of the state and the material relations it embodies. In other words, capacity is no longer an objective attribute of “states”, but a relational property of particular and historically constituted power structures.
The state from this perspective is not simply an amalgam of institutions and actors, real though these are, but an expression of power. State power is a set of complex and dynamic social relationships that shape the development and use of the state apparatus. The significance of institutions is not in their capacity as such but in the sorts of interests and conflicts they privilege or marginalise. Hence, rather than reifying the distinction between state and society, both should be seen as spheres in which power is organised and exercised. This approach seeks to transcend normative notions of statehood to understand the environments of deprivation and contestation within which state power is created, exercised, broken up or (inevitably) used to benefit particular interests.
The Solomon Islands
The example of the Solomon Islands is instructive in demonstrating the utility of this approach over the dominant ones examined in the previous section. Since July 2003, there has been an extensive and expensive Australian-led state-building intervention in the Solomon Islands: the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). The mission’s declared aim is to strengthen the capacity of the Solomon Islands to prevent state failure. RAMSI’s design and objectives have been broadly shaped by a neo-liberal institutionalist notion of state capacity.
Reports making the case for intervention, such as “Our Failing Neighbour”9 by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), emphasised the link between the ethnic conflict and turbulence the Solomon Islands had experienced between 1998 and 2003 and the weakness of the modern state there vis-à-vis other more traditional societal forces. The state’s weakness led to a legitimacy deficit, it was argued, and finally to the state’s near collapse prior to RAMSI’s arrival. In particular, issues of corruption and patronage, at times linked with the traditional Melanesian “big-man” culture, were singled out as deleterious for both the state’s authority and for economic performance since independence.
Much of the blame for the persistence of such pre-modern modes of governance was laid at the feet of the British colonial authorities, who the ASPI report argued were not interested in state-building prior to their departure in 1978. Thus, on this view, RAMSI was tasked with eliminating corruption, supporting good governance in the neo-liberal mould, and building the capacity of the Solomon Islands state to continue performing along these lines once the mission ended. As in the broader failed-states literature, the Solomon Islands’ problems were understood to stem from the absence or weakness of a particular ideal/typical form of state and associated modes of governance. Unsurprisingly, the solution was to create this kind of state through intervention.
The problem with this approach, however, is that it ignores the actual historical development of the state in the Solomon Islands and the real social and political forces associated with it. Indeed, “stable political parties and functioning central bureaucracies [cannot] be willed into existence outside of social conflict.”10 In fact, violent conflict in the Solomon Islands emerged in the late 1990s not because of the absence of “good governance” but because of challenges that rocked the patronage networks underpinning state power. In the Solomon Islands, patterns of economic development, whose origins date back to the colonial era, have had a crucial impact on the nature of political governance and social conflict, both before and after the crisis.
The British model of economic development relied upon large-scale, foreign-owned logging and plantation operations, mainly on alienated land. With independence, rents from these operations, which flowed into the state, became crucial for the formation and maintenance of political coalitions in a state that geographically and ethnically was highly dispersed, in which transportation and communication infrastructure was very poor, and where no ideological cleavages existed between political parties. After independence, logging was permitted on customary land, which accounts for approximately 87 per cent of the Solomon Islands total. As a result, logging volumes grew exponentially. Revenue from logging became not only crucial to government finances—growing from approximately 25 per cent during the late colonial period to about 45 per cent of total export receipts by the mid-1990s—but an indispensable element in the “money politics” that provided the glue holding together the Solomon Islands’ loose political coalitions and binding the capital Honiara to the archipelago’s far-flung peripheries. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that since independence, election to political office has depended upon the effective redistribution of logging rents among supporters.
This system was threatened in the late 1990s when the Asian financial crisis, which hit logging exports and log prices, exacerbated the government’s slow-burning fiscal problems. With debt ballooning, the government of Bartholomew Ulufa’alu had to turn to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the International Monetary Fund for assistance. The ADB conditioned its support upon the government’s undertaking a painful public-sector reform programme, including large cuts to public spending. As the public sector employed the majority of workers in the formal economy, this alienated the public-sector unions. More problematic, however, was the decision to abolish the area councils, which were a source of income for some local powerbrokers that helped sustain patronage networks. The reforms also had awkward overall implications for the availability of cash in a state-centred patronage system. In the event, disgruntled leaders in Guadalcanal, most notably former prime minister Ezekiel Alebua, sought to extract concessions from the government by encouraging a group of disaffected Guadalcanalese youth to organise and terrorise Malaitan settlers on the island. But these leaders quickly lost control of the flames they fanned.
As we can see, the conflict in the Solomon Islands cannot be explained via references to weak state capacity, because the state that has emerged there since the colonial era is the product of a particular set of social and political power relations rooted in a particular trajectory of capitalist development. Its crisis, therefore, was a crisis of this social and political order, and not a case of state “failure”.
The core argument in this article is that the prevalent approaches to defining and evaluating state failure are highly problematic and should be dropped altogether as a way of examining the complex and often violent social phenomena that occur mainly in the developing world. The neo-liberal institutionalist and neo-Weberian institutionalist approaches critically appraised in the first section are not identical, but both fail to ground the notion of state capacity—so central to their conception of state failure—in any actual social and political relations. Instead, state capacity is viewed as an external yardstick of state functionality premised upon a pre-existing notion of what an ideal/typical state should be. This understanding of state capacity is fundamentally ahistorical and neglects the central role of social conflict in the emergence and development of any state form, instead fetishising the state and its institutions and reifying problematic distinctions between state and society, traditional and modern.
To overcome these limitations, I have endeavoured to show that a more useful approach requires that we look at the state as a social relation and at state power as the contingent outcome of struggles between coalitions of interests whose emergence is rooted mainly in the political economy. Institutions, from this vantage point, are significant not for their “functionality”, but for the sorts of interests and conflicts they privilege or marginalise. The example of the Solomon Islands, where a large-scale state-building intervention has been in place since 2003, is instructive. As we have seen, the crisis, which supposedly led to the near “failure” of the Solomon Islands state, was not a product of weak state capacity, as the dominant approaches would have it, but of challenges to the logging-dependent system of patronage that underpinned social and political power in the Solomon Islands. Ultimately, I urge researchers to abandon efforts to refine endlessly the concept of the failed state and its applications. Instead, they should draw on existing theories and concepts to examine the nature of social and political power in the states they are investigating and how intervention affects the distribution, production and reproduction of power.
2. Christopher J. Bickerton, “State-Building: Exporting State Failure”, in Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations, ed. Christopher J. Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe and Alexander Gourevitch (London: University College Press, 2007), p. 93.
3. Andrew Rosser, “Introduction: Achieving Turnaround in Fragile States”, IDS Bulletin 37, no. 2 (2006), p. 2.
4. Garry Rodan, Kevin Hewison and Richard Robison, “Theorising Markets in South-East Asia: Power and Contestation”, in The Political Economy of South-East Asia: Markets, Power and Contestation, ed. Garry Rodan, Kevin Hewison and Richard Robison (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 3.
5. Theda Skocpol, “Bringing the State Back In: Strategies of Analysis in Current Research”, in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 9.
6. Jennifer Milliken and Keith Krause, “State Failure, State Collapse and State Reconstruction: Concepts, Lessons and Strategies”, in State Failure, Collapse and Reconstruction, ed. Jennifer Milliken (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 3 (italics in original).
7. Joel S. Migdal, State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
8. Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968).
9. Elsina Wainwright et al., “Our Failing Neighbour: Australia and the Future of Solomon Islands”, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Barton, Canberra, 2003 [http://www.aspi.org.au/publications/publication_details.aspx?ContentID=30].
10. Kiren Aziz Chaudhry, The Price of Wealth: Economies and Institutions in the Middle East (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 10.