"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


is state failure a technical problem?

Thursday our college hosted the Ambassador of Germany to the United States, Dr. Klaus Scharioth, for a talk on German-U.S. relations and global challenges. In his talk, the ambassador identified five major issue areas that are of concern to both our countries: climate change & energy independence, nuclear nonproliferation & disarmament, the economic & financial crisis, terrorism, and failing states.

In his comments on state failure, Ambassador Scharioth focused on the need to train leaders in failing states and to support their efforts to govern because we all face the consequences of state failure through such issues as terrorism, insecurity, and nuclear proliferation. Most of his comments focused on Afghanistan, and at one point, the ambassador stated that it is important to "put people in a position that they are so well-trained, they can help themselves." In other words, state failure is, at least in part, a technical problem. Technical problems have technical solutions, so training officials and bureaucrats should address the problem of governance in weak or failing states.

Here's my question regarding the Ambassador's comments (which, to be fair, I'm sure represented nowhere near the entirety of his thinking on the issue): is state failure really a technical problem? Of course we are all familiar with the technical problems that accompany state failure: roads don't get paved, hospitals are under-equipped and understaffed, borders aren't secure, and policing is almost non-existent. It makes sense that to solve these problems, we would train individuals and supply necessities.

But are the roots of state failure always simply a technical issue that can be solved if enough money is thrown at it in the right way (eg, by not letting corrupt leaders have access to cash)? I am by no means an expert on Afghanistan, but my understanding is that part of the governance issue there is not so much a technical problem as it is a cultural one. It's not entirely clear that everyone in Afghanistan has an interest in being governed according to the norms of modern statehood, especially if that form of governance is to be highly centralized. Particularly in the rural areas, many Afghanis are perfectly content to be governed the same way they've been governed for centuries: by decentralized, traditional authorities and some kind of loose national government whose reach into individuals' private lives is fairly limited.

Again, I am not an expert on Afghanistan and may have completely misunderstood how traditional governance works there. But it seems to me there's a larger question here raised by the idea that a technical solution won't fix culturally-based issues relating to state failure. Government don't work in Afghanistan. Some technical solutions will solve the technical problems associated with state failure.

But will a focus on training people to govern solve that problem if the general population doesn't want or need government to work in the way outsiders think it should? I'm not sure. At any rate, Ambassador Scharioth's point has given me much to consider.


Anonymous Ranil Dissanayake said...

Culture may well play a part (there are still parts of the world with a deep aversion to being governed externally). As or more important will be simple incentives. What are the leader's incentives? And how can he satisfy them?

These are actually both really complex questions. For example, if the incentive is to self-enrich, corruption might be the result. But still, some corrupt leaders are developmental because they are best able to enrich by skimming a little from a growing pie. Others smash and grab. Why? The incentive is the same, but what are the structural constraints to how they can satisfy them.

Other times, incentives are themselves modified by structures. In places with strong party politics, the incentive to remain in power also requires the party remain in power: your incentives are thus complicated by a need to do what is good for the party as well as what is good for the self.

I'm no expert in any of these questions, but they leap to my eye in this discussion.

But then, I've previously argued that even budgets are not technical issues, but political economy issues, so your really preaching to the converted here.

Friday, January 29, 2010 6:56:00 AM

Anonymous Ranil Dissanayake said...

and very belatedly, I've spotted that I use 'your' instead of 'you're'. The Grammar Nazi from xkcd.com would have beheaded me by now.

Friday, January 29, 2010 8:23:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Exactly. And there are non-material incentives as well. People do all kinds of things because it's what dad wants them to do, or because God will smite them if they don't, or whatever. How do you account for that in a democratization program or a development project?

Your/you're reminds me that I need to update my writing checklist for students...

Friday, January 29, 2010 3:10:00 PM

Anonymous Peripheries said...

I agree with you that state failure, with its technical consequences, is certainly not a technical problem. I think however that it is better defined as a political than a cultural problem. The history of state-building and government in Afghanistan is much more complex than its usual portraying (the romantic and democratic Shuras, and these handsome warriors that take no orders from anyone and fight the invaders). The country has seen several waves of modernization and return to “traditions” (however interpreted by the ruler of the time), periods of centralization and decentralisation since the 1920s, with the state having sometimes a fairly heavy reach in people’s private life (e.g the massive resettlements Pashtun population from the South to the North until the 1970s, the 1920s first legislation on women’s rights, communist policies “forcing” rural women and girls to school or more recently Mujahedin’s and Taleban’s Islamic edicts about vice and virtue)

I think the current “ungovernability“ of Afghanistan should be seen in the light of a thirty-year conflict, with extensive external interference, which has heavily modified the interactions between the various social and ethnic groups, and between state and society.

Just a few examples:

- the “village mullahs” played a relatively modest role in the political sphere, which was dominated by more educated Muslim scholars and community elders. The Taleban in that sense can be interpreted both a social and intergeneration revolution (poor mullahs and youth- the students) that has had lasting effects.
- warlords too are an enduring but recent feature of the political landscape, at the expense of community elders.
- many of the people I have met said that the relations between Tajik and Pashtun groups started to deteriorate during the 1992-1995 civil war between the various Mujahedin factions previously based in Peshawar. This has to do with the fact that Mujahedin groups increasingly resorted to ethnicity as a mobilisation mechanism, probably more effective in a conflict.
- the secular left used to be a political force to be reckoned with. It was one of the main blocs, along with Islamists against the last monarch Zaher Shah. It has almost completely disappeared - many of the left wind urban middle classes have probably migrated, many have joined the Islamic movements, as it is increasingly hard - if not straight out impossible - to have a secular discourse in today's Afghanistan.

A lot of the zero-sum politics could indeed be related I believe to everyone’s expectations that Afghanistan fatigue will set in and that various groups will end up having to fight for power in a re-enactment of the last twenty years. But part of it is also due to the structural changes in the political sphere, which has affected the formal and informal mechanisms that use to offer a minimum of cohesion to an otherwise diverse society, as well as people’s expectations.

I guess one could write a couple of PhDs on the issue but these are just some disordered thoughts. Although (much) less dramatic, it is a bit of the same phenomenon that occurred in Chile where the Pinochet dictatorship, and the intensive reforms undertaken under his leadership have changed people’s expectations from the state, the relative strength of social classes and their ability to mobilise etc….The outcome was not state failure as in Afghanistan but similarly illustrates the centrality of politics.

I will stop before addressing the solutions…I wish someone had one, and agree with you that a technical approach on its own is bound to fail.

Sunday, January 31, 2010 2:11:00 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home