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Institution Building vs Nation Building: The Debate Goes On

May 15, 2006


Tom Barnett and I have been spending a lot time recently explaining our concept of Development-in-the-Box to anyone who would listen. We are gratified that most audiences not only “get it” but welcome it. There are some pundits, however, who are attempting to distinguish between institution building (i.e., capacity building) and nation building. This is really a false dichotomy and trying to make the distinction is unhelpful in achieving the goal of increasing development and improving lives. To give you a flavor of this “debate among friends,” here is Mark Safranski’s latest entry on the subject:

“Very interesting discussion going on over at Dr. Barnett’s over a TCS Daily review of Blueprint For Action by Max Borders, the TCS managing editor and think tank scholar. In his review of BFA, Max wrote:

“And it is in Barnett’s recommended process of transforming Gap states into Core states that we see the age-old tension between theory and practice start to emerge. Before attempting to expose this tension, we should note that Barnett’s Blueprint for Action is a worthwhile effort. Still, it falls short — not due to the Wherefores carefully elaborated the first book, but due to some of the Hows elaborated in the sequel. The shortcomings of the second stage of Barnett’s grand strategy — implementation — are, in some respects, due to what Friedrich Hayek called “the fatal conceit.” In other words, Barnett focuses too much on nation-building and not enough on institution-building

…The most important aspect of any SysAdmin effort should be institution-building, not just nation-building. This is where the UN and the quasi-governmental behemoths have failed so utterly in just about everything they’ve done. To build a nation without transfusing vital institutions is to build a house of cards ready to collapse. To wit: India and China are in no position to contribute to institution-building, as they’re still grappling with the internal transformation of their own institutions. The most successful Core states are the states that look the most like the US in their institutions. So while you might want Britain or Australia to contribute to institution-building, you’re not likely to want Russia or Brazil to do so.”

Borders review deserves to be read in its entirety, but the point about institutions has become a focal point of discussion. Tom responded in his own post:

“His larger critique that I focus too much on nation-building vice institution-building is at worst a misrepresentation of my ideas (BFA is full of discussion on the latter, which, quite frankly, is logically indistinguishable from the former–to wit, what is a nation but a collection of institutions?) and at best an argumentative ploy (reminding me of the criticism that “Barnett should think less about shrinkíng the Gap and more about growing the Core,” to which I reply “Fine, call it whatever you want.”).

Borders’ points about the complexity of the challenge are all good and his emphasis on, and articulation of, the goals of institution-building are most welcome. But he needs to put his considerable brainpower to the “how’ answers, not just the “how not” summaries of past experience. ”

As I commented at Tom’s, the issue here is primarily one of scale ( a point on which Max strenuously dissents) though nations and states are separate questions. I’m pretty sure we can build states which are nothing more than a large network enjoying the function of sovereignty and a monopoly over the legal use of force. Inevitably, any Sys Admin force will have to build both institutions and the state simultaneously to some degree in order to create a zone of security and order in which civil society and the market can evolve and thrive. I don’t see this issue as an either-or proposition but “both”.

Nations are another question. A functional, competent, state can certainly help the nation-formation process ( Prussia 17-19th century) and a dysfunctional, corrupt or illegitimate state can impede it ( Mobuto’s Congo, today’s Nigeria) but the sense of nationhood comes from the heritage of a shared experience that bridges tribal, sectarian or other associational primary loyalties. We can encourage that or discourage it but I’m not sure that such a thing as a ” nation” in the organic sense can be built.

Our Development-in-a-Box approach is a bottoms-up, standards-based framework that helps any organization which adopts it establish instant credibility, trust, and direction. It simply doesn’t matter whether organizations come from the government or private sector. Safranski is correct that no framework can establish a shared heritage or history, but we believe that hope of a better future can help bridge tribal and sectarian divisions. It won’t be easy, but it is possible. Somalia is an interesting case study. Despite the fact that the country is completely fractured, “Somalia’s service sector has managed to survive and grow. Telecommunication firms provide wireless services in most major cities and offer the lowest international call rates on the continent. In the absence of a formal banking sector, money exchange services have sprouted throughout the country, handling between $200 million and $500 million in remittances annually. Mogadishu’s main market offers a variety of goods from food to the newest electronic gadgets.”


If accepted rules can be established (even informal ones), things can move forward. Of course, things would be a lot better in Somalia if political differences could be overcome. The country is not going to progress much beyond its current level until that happens. Without a shared vision, without some hope that an “A to Z” process for bringing a country out of poverty is available to them, ethnic and tribal differences will continue to impede progress. Development-in-a-Box  is one of the missing pieces in this “A to Z” process.

Another benefit of the Development-in-a-Box approach is that it confronts corruption head-on. Both its standards-based, flexible framework and (whenever possible) a reliance on automated processes, makes corruption much harder to hide. Corruption remains one of the greatest barriers to progress around the world. A quick perusal of the weekend Financial Times underscores this point. Articles included: “Poland sets up anti-corruption body and vows to probe bank privatisation”; “Russia shakes up customs service”; “Taiwan’s financial regulator suspended”; and an article discussing the fact that corruption charges were being dropped against Indonesia’s ailing former president Suharto (not  very good for building confidence in the country’s future).

Max Borders was correct in pointing out that there are always disconnects between theory and practice, which is why our Development-in-a-Box framework recommends applying proven approaches and accepted standards to various organizational activities. At the pace at which the world is progressing, the international community needs to find a way to jumpstart failing economies by using an approach that can attract support from every sector: public, private, and commercial. We think Development-in-a-Box is good start.

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