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Symposium 2009

Proposal - A Framework for Fixing Fragile States: Leveraging Social Cohesion and Local Institutions

The Challenge

In a number of territories primarily situated in the poorer parts of the world, the state no longer performs its basic security and development functions. Beyond causing hardship for their own citiz ...

In a number of territories primarily situated in the poorer parts of the world, the state no longer performs its basic security and development functions. Beyond causing hardship for their own citizens, failed states provide breeding grounds of organized crime and terrorism.

The Roots of Fragility

The illegitimacy and poor governance that debilitate fragile states can be traced to many factors—such as colonialism—that have combined to detach states from their environments, governments from their societies, and elites from their citizens. Whereas a robust state uses local identities, local capacities, and local institutions to promote its development, a fragile state’s formal governing structures undermine all of these indigenous assets. As a consequence, a weak state cannot leverage its people’s histories and customs to construct effective formal institutions with wide legitimacy; nor can it draw on the social capital embedded in cohesive groups to facilitate economic, political, and social intercourse; and nor is it able to employ the traditional governing capacities of its citizens to run the affairs of state. The sociopolitical, geographical, and economic problems that typically lie at the root of state dysfunction are usually systemic in nature and complicate all efforts to reform governments and economies.

The political identity fragmentation that is a hallmark of fragile states directly impinges on their ability to foster the positive institutional environment necessary to encourage productive economic, political, and social behavior. In the early stages of development, when formal governing institutions are typically feeble, states must depend on the resilience of their societies to police members’ behavior, to lower the cost of various transactions between members, and to encourage the security of property. Whereas many cohesive groups of people with long common histories have developed sophisticated political, economic, and societal systems that maintain stability and foster economic progress, divided populations have no such mechanisms.

Such societies suffer from severe shortages of trust—a prerequisite for any economic and political development. Democratic systems cannot function without trust; where there is little trust, there is, for instance, little incentive to accept the results of elections. Prosperous economies likewise depend upon a certain level of trust, which is a key ingredient in all but the briefest of commercial transactions.

The state in fragile countries is so weak because its societal roots are extremely shallow. Imported state structures and laws have little relevance for populations whose own institutions, norms, and systems of governance are deeply embedded in centuries of common history and intricate social relationships. A state that ignores indigenous capacities for institution building undermines the ability of its citizens to manage their own affairs—and reinforces a dependency on outsiders.

The very nature of the formal state in many fragile states frequently exacerbates their problems. Overly Westernized legal, governance, and education systems preclude local communities from taking advantage of their own resources, capacities, and social networks and create unnecessary conflict between formal and informal institutions. Highly centralized governing structures in countries where formal state bodies remain ineffective and where alternative sources of income remain few forces groups to compete for scarce state resources, accentuating political identity fragmentation in the process. Society in such environments becomes obsessed by this conflict, not with generating wealth or increasing national prestige.

The deadly combination of weak social cohesion and feeble state institutions (in some cases complicated by difficult political geographies and a lack of a necessary critical mass of human resources and market size) creates problems that are not amenable to the types of solutions—such as more aid, competitive elections, and economic reform—typically advocated by the international community. Sprawling countries with diverse populations, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sudan, are unlikely to ever produce stable regimes unless they decentralize far more authority to their regions and find a way to take advantage of local populations’ indigenous capacity for institution building. These countries’ national leaders have little incentive to serve distant areas populated by disparate groups because the leaders view these groups more as competitors for state power than as compatriots. The inability of central governments to project authority much beyond their capital cities—due to thin road networks, limited administrative resources, and weak nationwide societal bonds—further reduces the capacity of centralized states in large countries to serve their populations. But even in more compact countries there is a need to find ways to take advantage of indigenous capacities—and narrow the gap between informal and formal institutions.


Rethinking International Assistance

Most Western policymakers and practitioners today pay lip service to the idea that states will not prosper unless they are built by local people using local resources, but the great majority of development projects continue to be implemented with inadequate attention to the local social, cultural, and institutional context. By not seeking to better integrate indigenous institutions into the formal state—and thereby precluding the evolution of any organic process of reform led by local communities and driven by local resources—the imported, generic model of state-building has in fact perpetuated the most artificial aspects of postcolonial states, preventing them from developing real ties to their own citizens. Such an approach exacerbates existing ethnic, religious, and tribal divisions; encourages an unhealthy dependency on foreign aid; undermines whatever governing capacities local peoples have developed on their own; and torpedoes the chances of fragile states ever becoming self-sufficient.

States cannot be made to work from the outside. International assistance may be necessary but it is never sufficient to fix fragile states. Instead of seeking to impose a Western-style blueprint unsuitable for local conditions, international action should be first and foremost about encouraging the creation of governing institutions that better leverage or help form the cohesive societies necessary to promote development on their own. States work effectively when they are a logical reflection of their underlying sociopolitical, historical, geographical, human resource, and economic environments, and when they are deeply integrated with the societies they purport to represent, able to harness the informal institutions and loyalties of their citizens.

Indeed, it is not coincidence that the most successful countries in Africa and the Middle East—Botswana, Somaliland, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait—are all built upon traditional identities and institutions accepted by the great majority of their citizens. (Cohesive societies, it may be noted, are also able to escape the “resource curse” that seems to afflict all other developing countries.) In contrast, countries whose governments are the least dependent on their indigenous social structures—such as Nigeria, the DRC, Somalia, and Syria—are much more likely to have corrupt officials, illegitimate states, and ineffective systems of governance.

The key to fixing fragile states is, therefore, to deeply enmesh government within society. People in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Central Asia, and elsewhere have enormous political, socioeconomic, and cultural resources built up over centuries that can serve as the foundation for political, economic, and social development. What these people and these countries need are state models and structures that can be adapted to take advantage of those resources. Foreign assistance needs to complement and reinforce local capacities and institutions and be disciplined enough to avoid undermining or warping locally driven arrangements, which is all too common today, especially with the tendency of so many international programs to focus on financial aid targets, poverty reduction targets, and the importation of generic and typically centralized state models.

Such an approach would emphasize institutional changes that foster more decentralization, greater integration of traditional norms into state institutions, a stronger focus on security, greater accountability and the rule of law, and a stronger sense of unity.

Building unity among disparate peoples at both the national and local levels needs to be a major focus of development. Ghana, one of the more cohesive countries in Africa, has actively promoted national integration by investing in infrastructure, education, and health in the poorer northern areas; by supporting the study, teaching, and use in television and radio of all major indigenous languages; by prohibiting the formation of political parties based on ethnicity, religion or region; and by maintaining the ethnoregional balance in the political sphere. Burundi’s The kind of consociational government introduced in Burundi offers a variety of opportunities to build coalitions and to reduce tensions by lessening or eliminating real or perceived imbalances in representation in cabinets, civil services, legislatures, and the military (Kenya was urged to take similar steps in the wake of its 2007-08 election turmoil). Similarly, apportioning the profits from natural resources in a fair and transparent manner, ensuring that social spending is impartially distributed (something the international community rarely considers even if it is the source of the funds), and reducing economic inequities between rival groups would dispel some of the potential for friction in divided polities.

The international community should also promote and fund programs that create stronger social and cultural bonds across groups, that institutionalize cooperation, and that promote reconciliation where there has been a history of intergroup hostility. Fostering strong “we” feelings through various educational, sports, and cultural programs can foster complementary or multiple cultural identities that strengthen national bonds, diminishing intergroup frictions in the process. South Africa, for example, has creatively used sports since the end of the apartheid era to unite its fissiparous peoples. Programs designed to reconcile long-festering intergroup wounds, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and reconciliation programs in Burundi, have proved valuable in many countries.

In order to better integrate the state with the societies it purports to represent, far more emphasis must be placed on seeking locally appropriate solutions for problems of governance, land and resource management, and knowledge transfer if development is ever going to become locally propelled and thus sustainable. Certainly, no community that has successfully developed has depended as heavily on foreign resources, foreign political models, foreign languages, and foreign laws as fragile states typically do today.

States will work better if they are structured around cohesive population groups able to capitalize on their common interests and affinities. In some cases, government (and its authority, financial resources, and systems of accountability) should be decentralized around cohesive identity groups, such as the Kurds in Iraq, the Isaaq in Somaliland, and the Aymara in Bolivia. In large, sprawling countries such as the DRC and Sudan, locally driven models of development are more likely to succeed than state-based models, especially if gains within local arenas are extended over time both horizontally to other localities and vertically to higher-level government bodies. A locally based model would emphasize the construction of a series of competent city-based provincial bureaucracies built around relatively cohesive populations and based upon locally accepted institutions rather than trying to build a robust national government. It would also ensure that local communities were not held hostage to the dysfunctionalities of a national government. Focusing aid on these “pockets of opportunity,” would be more effective in the short-term—and encourage other areas to improve through competition in the medium term.

Where states are unable on their own to create and sustain some of the capacities necessary for them to promote stability and development, outside assistance might be more helpful if it was directed at supplementing capacity rather than providing more cash or technical assistance. Greatly strengthened regional organizations, foreign states, and even corporations all have a role to play here.

Multinational companies (MNCs) have been at the forefront of efforts to combat AIDS, reduce the incidence of malaria, and raise educational standards in many developing countries. This role could be extended further by mandating some MNCs to provide security and education, health, and infrastructure improvements to local citizens in areas where those companies prospect for natural resources if a weak state is unable to do so. In such cases, contracts would ensure a steady flow of royalties to the government while directing corporations—which typically have much greater administrative capacity than most fragile states—to tame the lawless areas around major mining sites and to ensure that people living nearby reap the benefits of their geography. In these cases, large firms with excellent labor and community relations reputations would be invited to participate in public, transparent bidding processes, and the winning firm would then be monitored by domestic and international oversight committees to make sure it did not abuse its position.

Dramatic change—including abrupt moves to fully competitive elections—can be highly explosive in fragile states, leading to instability that severely undermines the whole reform agenda. The example of Iraq springs readily to mind, but it is by no mean the only instance of an overhasty and ill-considered reform strategy. Many internationally mandated reform efforts, especially those that emphasize economic reform with little regard for the political consequences, have inadvertently undermined social cohesion and security. Therefore, instead of trying to sequence reforms in a specific order, efforts to tackle state fragility should introduce reforms gradually and incrementally, in a way that does not threaten a society’s fragile social bonds. The aim should be to create an iterative and self-sustaining process of change that seeps through a system, affecting society and the state on many levels and transforming their relationship over time. Such an approach would root the state more firmly in society and hold elites more accountable to their populations. Democracy is far more likely to take hold where it is introduced steadily and advances on many fronts; hasty efforts to introduce elections on tight schedules, even when generously funded by the international community (as in the DRC in 2008), are more likely to tear a fragile society apart than to dramatically improve governance, especially in the short term.

Initiatives that improve the fiscal relationship between governments and their peoples—such as increasing the transparency and conduct of budget-making procedures (e.g., the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative), bolstering the capacity of watchdog NGOs, boosting the proportion of revenues coming from taxes—all promise to make leaders more attentive to their citizens.

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