How Not to Nation-Build

A revised version of my 2009 Christian Michelsen lecture is published by the London Review of Books. In the lecture, I argue that conventional models of state-building that are based on trying to achieve an end-state that accords with an idealised, western view of a state, are not only doomed to failure, but also miss or even undermine what can actually function in these countries.

The original sin of much international policy in this field is a familiar intellectual error, to overlook the necessary analysis of how countries, in which state institutions do not possess the autonomy or capability required for them to manage political conflict, actually function. It’s an argument in which an “ought” is derived from an “is not”: a country like Afghanistan or Somalia doesn’t look like Austria or Sweden, but it ought to. Better, I argue, for the outcome to make Afghanistan or Somalia more like a better version of itself. Superficially it’s a pessimistic analysis, insofar as it implies that the existing international toolkit isn’t up to the job. At a deeper level it is a more optimistic account, because another implication is that “failed”, “fragile” or problematic countries may possess the mechanisms that could enable them to achieve stability — provided that those mechanisms are supported.

Central to my argument is the observation that we have been witnessing a monetisation, in convertible currency, of loyalty payments in a patronage system. This is a facet of globalization that has profound consequences for the ability of the rulers of patronage-based political systems to stay in power at an affordable price. The dollarization of political markets means that it may be getting harder, not easier, to build capable states.

The implications of this analysis go well beyond state building and also are relevant to the functioning of peace support operations. I argue that peacekeepers face a real risk of becoming entrapped in the multi-layered politics of their host countries, over time becoming as much part of the problem as part of the solution.

It is also relevant to the design of peace processes. For example, over the last nineteen years there have been innumerable attempts to bring peace to Somalia, all of them based on the same formula of talks among armed groups with the objective of establishing a power sharing formula for a sovereign government. The same template has been applied time and again, with only very minor modifications, and has run into very minor variations of the same fatal flaws. The first peace efforts back in 1991-92 at least had the virtue of credibility, in that many Somalis expected them to succeed. Today’s efforts lack even that. Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. If there are reasons why international institutions persist in the same formulae, despite such obvious flaws, they must be reasons other than hope of success.

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9 thoughts on “How Not to Nation-Build

  1. Dear Alex,

    is there a way in which I can read the article without buying a subscription to the London Review of Books?

    I am interested in your thesis though not entirely convinced that the political marketplace is a distinct mode of political economy. Rentierism and related pathologies are symptomatic of a transitional peripheral capitalist economy in a state of crisis, and are intrinsically unsustainable.

    Your final paragraph prompts me to request a commentary from you on the Darfur so-called “peace process” which conforms, so far as I can ascertain, to the characteristics you ascribe to the Somali version. I fail to see, nonetheless, the objective political interests of the metropolitan powers in sustaining the status quo in either Somalia or in Darfur, though as things stand they are doing an excellent job of making both into indefinitely prolonged conflicts.

  2. Dear Abd al-Wahab,

    Unfortunately, the full article is available on a subscription basis only. However you can read much of my analysis on this subject on the “political marketplace” thread on this blog.

    I will post something soon about how best to utilize the empirics of what is happening in Darfur, an analytical lens, and the experience of past peace processes, to the design of a political process to take things forward in Darfur.

  3. Alex, your arguments are interesting and important to note. I think many times we are too quick to compare fragile states with our own Western, developed states. Some countries not structurally stable enough to protect a western democracy at this point in their political lifetime, and forcing it on them may destabilize the countries further. As you argue, a more dynamic approach to state-building is needed. I would love to read your speech!

    I’d also invite you to check out the Pulitzer Center’s work on fragile states, including Sudan (which is my area of expertise):

    Christian Pelfrey
    Summer Security Fellow, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

  4. Dear Abd al-Wahab,

    Actually you don’t have to subscribe to the London Review of Books to read Alex’s article. If you have a credit card, you may purchase only that one article and then download it as a PDF file to your computer. It costs 2,75 pounds sterling.

  5. Dear Daniel,

    “If you have a credit card…” In those six apparently innocuous words lurks a long story with a moral, highly relevant to recent discussions in this forum. For credit cards can not be used in Sudan on account of a U.S. policy of financial sanctions. If I could put a five dollar bill in an envelope and post it to the London Review, all would be fine. But as a Sudanese resident, possession and use of a credit card is an impossibility. Should I request a non-Sudanese visitor to make use of his card, and reimburse him with the said amount in any currency, such is the sophistication of the electronic tracking system for credit card transactions, that the otherwise innocent act of purchasing online a journal article, would lead to that friend having his account frozen and an investigation launched by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. A policy intended to punish the Sudanese regime and make it more difficult for it to acquire weapons and the means of repression has the impact, intended or not but certainly predictable, of isolating the Sudanese citizenry from the intellectual life of the rest of the world. How this is supposed to promote democracy, human rights, and affection for America and its way of life, I have yet to hear a coherent explanation.

  6. Dear Abd al-Wahab Abdalla,

    Thank you for pointing out the problems created by the U.S. imposed sanctions hinders democracy in a country such as Sudan. Some years ago, I was involved in an effort to produce a documentary on the archaeological finds in Kerma relative to the Pharoah Shabaka that was prohibited by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control as possibly being helpful to the Khartoum government.

    There is a lack of awareness of the counter-productiveness of these sanctions.

    Nevertheless, Coca-Cola still manages to buy Gum Arabic from Sudan because Gum Arabic is essential to the production of Coca-Cola and was therefore exempted from the sanctions.

    And I think that your query as to: “How this is supposed to promote democracy, human rights, and affection for America and its way of life…” is very relevant.

    And Alex, I agree with your assessment regarding the “peace processes” that: “If there are reasons why international institutions persist in the same formulae, despite such obvious flaws, they must be reasons other than hope of success.”

    Finally, I would like to say that while I have not posted recently due to a heavy work load, I have enjoyed the discourse over the various topics.

    Best regards

  7. Dear Alex

    I always read and with interest your entries, but about countries in trouble, I wish you could look beyond those countries and problems to the world to-day and see who decides and dictates, the same people whose sanctions deprive Abdel Wahab from subscribing to the book-review, and Oscar from conducting research, from sending books to Sudan, while they exempt gum-arabic from the list , are the same powers that control almost all peace-processes or influence them, not to mention that they also control and dictate on the major International Institutions that mediate some of these peace-processes, the UN could have succeeded in saving Patrice Lumumba, had the UN been left to carry out its mandate objectively.

    You may also see this in Dar Fur,and the intransigence of Abdel Wahid.

    This is simply to say we need a new look and new discourse,and to point to the real reasons of failure.

  8. Dear Abd al-Wahab,

    In your initial post, you say that “rentierism and related pathologies are symptomatic of a transitional peripheral capitalist economy in a state of crisis, and are intrinsically unsustainable.”

    I would like to draw your attention to an excellent article by Douglas North, “Limited Access Orders in the Developing World: A New Approach to the Problems of Development,” dating back to 2007. In it, he argues that rentierism is not a pathology but a crucial organising paradigm of the majority of the contemporary societies, with the exception of Anglo-Saxon and European ones. Never loosing historical perspective, he also elegantly reminds us that the very same organising principle until recently held for the countries we now call “developed” – and tries to explain how did the change take place.

    Much like Alex’s entry here, North’s article is pessimistic inasmuch as it shows the impossibility of turning developing countries into copie conforme of the developed ones by simple transplantation of the “successful” institutional forms. Which may sound like no-brainer, but is a tough sell, especially if you are a western policy maker that needs to justify his/her spendings abroad to the taxpayers. I sometimes fear that many among my fellow citizens still express their belief in the essential equality among human beings through their trust in the universal validity of the insitutional forms that we have designed in order to formalise and safeguard such equality in our own societies (after centuries of misrule and wars).

    But North is also optimistic in a way that he offers a new analytical framework for thinking about fragile and developing societies and a possibility for designing smarter politiclal, developmental and other strategies.

    Kind regards,

  9. Hi Alex,

    I recently became aware of your work on “political marketplaces” through teaching a course at SOAS in London on “War to Peace transitions”. It resonates very strongly with my work on conflict and security in Indonesia and the parallels between some of the African cases you discuss, and the dynamics in Sudan and Nigeria in particular, are striking.

    I have been writing – against the grain, and often against my own convictions – about the beneficial role that “corruption”, or patronage, has played in stabilising Indonesia during its rocky transition. The Indonesian government has been smart and strategic about using patronage where necessary to buy in restive provincial elites and stabilising their political system. I have been frustrated on several occasions on how difficult it is to discuss this topic openly, without being told these ideas are “heretic”. So I have found your pieces on this topic very helpful – and inspiring – as a comparative framework in which to discuss the positive role patronage can play in fragile places.

    Thanks a lot – Claire

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