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.