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Fixing a Broken World

February 25, 2009


The Economist, in a recent International section article, asserted that “in almost any discussion of world affairs, there is one thing on which doves and hawks invariably agree: much more needs to be done to shore up states that are failing, in a state of collapse, or so poor that they are heading in that direction” [“Fixing a Broken World,” 31 January 2009 print edition]. Since Development-in-a-Box™ is one of Enterra Solutions® core approachs, development is a topic I frequently address in this blog [see, for example, my posts entitled Dealing with Failed States, More on Dealing with Failed States, and Fixing Fragile States]. As an opening to its article, The Economist claims that “the planet’s most wretched places are not always the most dangerous.” That shouldn’t come as too great a surprise since the residents of some of those countries are so poor that they spend nearly every waking moment just trying to stay alive. The Economist continues:

“For development-minded people, such benighted places are an obvious concern because of their desperate suffering; and for hard-nosed strategists, states that hardly work are places where terrorists could step into the vacuum. Indeed there is a certain convergence between these points of view: aid workers agree that security is essential to prosperity, and generals want economic development to boost security.”

I’m delighted that the symbiotic relationship between security and development has finally been recognized. It means that development and security personnel should be able to find some common ground. This hasn’t always been the case. As I have noted in the past, nation-building was anathema to the U.S. military in the early 1990s. On the other hand, relief and development groups have always shied away from working too closely with the military. Although NGOs have good reasons for maintaining their distance from the military, the military has learned that it cannot avoid a role in nation-building.

“In America these days, defence planners say they worry more about weak states, even non-states, than about strong ones. ‘Ungoverned, undergoverned, misgoverned and contested areas’ offer fertile grounds for terrorists and other nefarious groups, says the Pentagon’s National Defence Strategy, issued last year. The penning of that document was overseen by the defence secretary, Robert Gates, who will remain in charge of defence policy under Barack Obama. Large chunks of its language could have been issued by bleeding-heart aid agencies or the United Nations: it speaks of the need to ‘build the capacity of fragile or vulnerable partners’ and to address ‘local and regional conflicts’ that exacerbate tensions and encourage drug-smuggling, gun-running and other illegality. To the chagrin of old-school sceptics, nation-building is now an integral part of American strategy.”

Capacity building is a term borrowed from the relief and developments communities and its use is another sign that, at last, there is a growing understanding between the two communities.

“Similarly, the European Union’s declared security strategy sees state failure as an ‘alarming’ phenomenon. It opines that: ‘Neighbours who are engaged in violent conflict, weak states where organised crime flourishes, dysfunctional societies or exploding population growth on its borders all pose problems for Europe.’ A rather precise taxonomy is offered by Robert Cooper, a British diplomat and Eurocrat, in his book, ‘The Breaking of Nations’. He splits the world into three zones: Hobbesian or ‘pre-modern’ regions of chaos; areas ruled effectively by modern nation-states; and zones of ‘postmodern’ co-operation where national sovereignty is being voluntarily dissolved, as in the European Union. In his view, chaos in critical parts of the world must be watched carefully. ‘It was not the well-organised Persian Empire that brought about the fall of Rome, but the barbarians,’ he writes.”

You might recognize some similarities between Cooper’s taxonomy and Tom Barnett’s, my colleague at Enterra Solutions. Tom’s Core States comprise Cooper’s modern and post-modern states and his Gap States comprise Cooper’s pre-modern or Hobbesian states. Between the two, Tom places Seam States, which are often the places exploited by criminal and terrorist organizations as gateways into the developed world. Tom believes that diplomacy is the only security tool necessary for working with the Core, but in the Gap, a capable military force (a Leviathan force) is also a necessary part of the kit. Between the extremes of diplomacy and conflict, Tom recommends using a nation-building force (a System Admin Force) to help Gap countries along the path to prosperity. He was preaching his gospel of “shrinking the Gap” long before it was adopted by the U.S. or the EU. The Economist‘s article provides a brief history of why thinking changed.

“Strategists have worried about failing states ever since the end of the cold war. At first, zones of war and chaos were seen primarily as threats to the people living within them, or not far away. But since the attacks on America in September 2001 such places have increasingly been seen as a threat to the entire world. Western intervention is now justified in the name of fighting terrorism, not just of altruism. Take the case of Somalia: America sent troops there in 1992 to help the United Nations stave off a humanitarian catastrophe, but the armed chaos of Mogadishu soon drove it out. In recent years, America has again been active in that region, carrying out air strikes in Somalia against suspected jihadist camps. It supported Ethiopia’s military invasion in 2006 to defeat the Islamist militias that had taken power in Mogadishu (arguably causing even more chaos) and is now backing an African peacekeeping mission for the same reasons. The waters off the Somali coast, moreover, have become one of the prime zones of piracy at sea, disrupting shipping through the Suez Canal. Even China has felt the need to send warships to the Gulf of Aden to protect its shipping. Afghanistan, too, is often seen as a classic example of the perils of collapsing states: acute poverty and years of civil war led to the rise of the Taliban and allowed al-Qaeda to turn into a global menace. After the American-led intervention in 2001, both have rebated themselves across the border in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, from where they wage a growing insurgency in southern Afghanistan, destabilise Pakistan and plot attacks against Western targets around the world.”

The latest nation to come under the harsh light of the international community is Yemen. Al Qaeda issued a call for volunteers to come join them there and the invitation has apparently been heeded.

“Western intelligence agencies say that, with the recent improvement in security in Iraq (a totalitarian state that became a failed state only after the American-led invasion), the world’s jihadists now prefer to head for Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen. Misrule, violence, corruption, forced migration, poverty, illiteracy and disease can all reinforce each other. Conflict may impoverish populations, increase the availability of weapons and debilitate rulers. Weak governments, in turn, are less able to stop corruption and the production and smuggling of arms and drugs, which may in turn help finance warlords, insurgents and terrorists.”

The article is accompanied by a map that shows failing or failed states, terrorist havens, drug routes, and areas prone to maritime piracy. For those familiar with Barnett’s work, The Economist’s map reinforces the area that Tom labeled the Gap in his New York Times‘ best-selling volume The Pentagon’s New Map.




The point of the map is that bad things almost always emanate from ungoverned or poorly governed places.

“Instability breeds instability. The chronic weaknesses of civil institutions in Sierra Leone and Liberia contributed to the outbreak of devastating civil wars in both countries, fuelled by the profits from the illegal smuggling of ‘blood diamonds’. Meanwhile war and genocide in Rwanda contributed to the collapse of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s. The chaos there, sustained in part by fighting over mineral resources, sucked in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. Chad and Sudan support rebels in each other’s countries. At the very least, there is evidence that economic growth in countries next to failing states can be badly damaged. And if a poorly functioning but important oil-producing state like Nigeria were to fall apart, the economic fallout would be global. Moreover, weak governments may lack the wherewithal to identify and contain a pandemic that could spread globally. That said, the interplay of these factors is hard to describe, and the very definition of failed states and ungoverned spaces is anything but simple. Few states have completely failed, except perhaps for Somalia. And even here, the territory is not completely ungoverned. A part of the country, called Somaliland, is more or less autonomous and stable—and another bit, Puntland, is relatively calm, although it is the source of much piracy. The region to the south is dominated by warring clans, but even here some aspects of normal life, such as mobile telephone networks, manage to survive.”

In a world struggling with a financial crisis and weary of sending troops to deal with the globe’s forest fires, the article ponders where one begins to deal with “a broken world.”

“One starting point in any analysis of failed countries is the theory of Max Weber, the father of social science. He defined the state as the agency which successfully monopolizes the legitimate use of force. But what does legitimate mean? In some places, state power is exercised, brutally but effectively, by whoever is top dog in a perpetual contest between kleptocrats or warlords whose behavior is lawless in every sense. If definitions are elusive, what about degrees of state failure? Perhaps the most detailed study is the index of state weakness in developing countries drawn up by the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, DC. This synthesizes 20 different indicators and identifies three ‘failed’ states—Somalia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo—along with 24 other ‘critically weak’ ones. One striking feature of such tables is that states fail in different ways. Among the ten worst performers, Iraq is comparatively wealthy and does well in social welfare, but is highly insecure; Zimbabwe is comparatively secure, but ruined economically and politically. The next ten-worst performers are even more mixed.”

The reason that I stress taking a holistic approach when I discuss Development-in-a-Box is because each nation’s situation is unique. While that may sound oxymoronic (how can anything “in-a-box” deal uniquely with any situation?), the “in-a-box” character of our approach has to do with the utilization of standards and best practices — not a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all solution. The Economist underscores why this is important.

“The collapse of states is as varied as the states themselves. Some were never functioning states at all, just lines drawn on maps by colonisers. Many African borders encompassed lots of ethnic groups and divided some of them. When the colonialists left, so did the bureaucracies that supported these entities, abandoning them to poverty, civil war or both. The cold war helped fuel many conflicts, for instance in Angola and Mozambique, where superpowers backed rival factions. Other parts of Africa, such as Somalia, fell apart after the withdrawal of superpower support. The conflicts of Central America died down in the years following the end of the cold war. But the fighting in Colombia has dragged on, as the FARC guerrillas finance themselves through drugs and kidnapping. The end of Soviet communism freed or created many countries in Europe. Some prospered as they were absorbed into NATO and the European Union, while others fragmented bloodily, notably Yugoslavia. Enclaves of ‘frozen conflicts’ remain on Russia’s periphery—for example Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria which survive as unrecognised statelets with the Kremlin’s support. Whichever way state collapse is assessed, it will always be an imperfect measure of priorities for policymakers. On a map of the world using the Brookings index of weak states, the epicentre is self-evidently sub-Saharan Africa, particularly around Congo, with blobs of red in Iraq, Afghanistan and Myanmar. But this overlaps only in part with, say, the ungoverned spaces that America’s State Department regards as the nastiest havens for international terrorists, such as al-Qaeda.”

The article goes on to explain that the way to reduce international threats emanating from the Gap is to recognize and deal with local challenges. It also goes to explain why it asserts that “the planet’s most wretched places are not always the most dangerous.”

“On that list [the nastiest havens for international terrorists], Iraq and Afghanistan figure prominently—but in these countries, arguably, the problem is more one of national insurgencies than international terror. Once the tribes of western Iraq (whose grievances were local) had been induced to switch sides to the Americans, al-Qaeda was quickly evicted from that area. Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders are sheltering in Pakistan, yet this ranks as only the 33rd- weakest state on the Brookings index. One area of concern is the Sahel, a vast semi-arid area south of the Sahara desert. The Americans fear that in this region Islamist terrorists could begin co-operating with existing rebel outfits, such as the Tuareg, or with drug smugglers. The Pentagon has created a new Africa Command to help monitor the area more closely and train local government forces. The State Department identifies other ungoverned spaces such as Yemen (30th on the Brookings index), parts of Colombia (47th), the seas between the Philippines (58th) and Indonesia (77th), bits of Lebanon (93rd) and the ‘tri-border area’ between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay (none ranked as particularly weak). Conversely many of the most wretched places in the world—Congo, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Myanmar and North Korea—are not known as havens for international terrorists. Attacks linked to al-Qaeda, moreover, have been conducted in well-run countries such as Britain and Spain. For American counter-terrorism officials, the biggest terrorist threat to the homeland is posed by European radicals who are able to travel to America more freely than, say, a Yemeni. Some scholars worry about social breakdown in poor mega-cities. But to regard the British Midlands and the banlieues of Paris as ungoverned spaces would be stretching a point.”

Barnett has always argued that criminal and terrorist organizations like to to hide in places that are not well-connected, but they need enough connectivity that they can exploit the world’s communication and transportation networks to implement their plans. They also like weak governments because weak governments are generally corrupt governments. The Economist seems to agree.

“The common denominator for al-Qaeda’s activity is not state failure, but the fact that attacks are carried out by extremists claiming to act in the name of the world’s Muslims. Their safe havens are not necessary geographical but social. Being based in a remote spot, far from government authorities, may be important for training, building esprit de corps and, in the view of intelligence agencies, trying to develop chemical and biological weapons. But for al-Qaeda, remoteness alone is not enough. Terrorists need protection too, and that has to be secured from local populations as in Pakistan’s tribal belt. International terrorists, moreover, need to be able to travel, communicate and transfer funds; they need to be within reach of functioning population centres. Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank, argues in a forthcoming book that international terrorists do not find the most failed states particularly attractive; they prefer ‘weak but moderately functional’ states. The shell of state sovereignty protects them from outside intervention, but state weakness gives them space to operate autonomously. Afghanistan’s history is telling. Al-Qaeda was forged from the Arab volunteers who had fought with the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of the country. With the end of the cold war and the fall of the communist government in Kabul, the country fell into civil war. Arab fighters largely pulled out in dismay. Some went to Bosnia and Chechnya. Others intensified insurgencies back home in Egypt and Algeria. Osama bin Laden found shelter in Sudan under the protection of its Islamist regime. What took him back to Afghanistan was the rise of the Taliban. Afghanistan at that time was not an ungoverned space, but a state sponsor of terrorism; indeed, al-Qaeda arguably became a terrorist sponsor of a state.”

The article concludes that a similar pattern can be applied to other “global plagues.”

“Terrorism aside, what of other global plagues? Afghanistan is still the world’s biggest source of the opium poppy, despite the presence of foreign troops. Next is Myanmar, also near the bottom of the pile. But Colombia, though not ‘critically’ weak, is the biggest producer of cocaine. The cocaine routes pass through countries of all sorts; Mexico is among the top performers in the Brookings index, but is the main drugs highway to America. Similarly, piracy depends on geography. A non-existent state may allow pirates to flourish, but without the proximity of a shipping route they have no targets to prey on. Measures of corruption, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, correlate strongly with the index of state weakness. But here too there are anomalies: Russia is ranked as a middling country in terms of state weakness, but does worse in the corruption index; Italy scores below some African countries.”

Only when it comes to health does the pattern begin to break down.

“When it comes to pandemics, there is no simple correlation between disease and dysfunctional states. The countries suffering most from HIV/AIDS are in southern Africa: apart from Zimbabwe, most governments in that region are quite well run. The states that have seen the most cases of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu are Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Egypt, none of them among the worst cases of misrule or non-rule.”

Even health concerns, however, can be traced to areas of poverty and poor social services. The disappointing thing about The Economist‘s article is that it offers no recommendations for a way forward.

“Everybody agrees that more effective government around the world is desirable, especially for those living in or near broken countries. Failed states always cause misery, but only sometimes are they a global threat. Given that failures come in so many varieties, fixing them is bound to be more of an art than a science.”

I have to agree that there are no pat answers for dealing with failed, fragile, or weak states. But if you read the posts I cite above, you’ll understand that the development community is gaining a better understanding of what kind of activities can help. Some countries have drawn a short straw. They are situated on land barren of resources and far afield from strategic flows of goods and resources. They are likely to remain wards of the world, but they need not be sources of threat. Although the task of “fixing a broken world” won’t be easy, The Economist is correct that “much more needs to be done to shore up states that are failing, in a state of collapse, or so poor that they are heading in that direction.”

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