Small Wars Journal

Reconceptualizing State Building in Africa (I)

Sat, 01/15/2011 - 8:23am
Reconceptualizing State Building in Africa (I):

Non-State Systems, Decentralization and Refounding African Statehood

by Mark Massey Jr.

Download The Full Article: Reconceptualizing State Building in Africa (I)

State building is asserted as the remedy to state collapse. It is heralded as both an immediate solution to contemporary collapse and the preventive medicine against future collapse. It has ascended to a new level of importance in the post-9/11 era. Analysts deem failed states more of a threat to international security than powerful, hegemonic ones, reflecting one prominent scholar's observation that "chaos has replaced tyranny as the new challenge" of the 21st century. Yet, state building is exceedingly difficult and complex; its track record is mixed at best. This series of four articles, under the heading of "Reconceptualizing State Building in Africa," aims to provide a reconceptualization of state building. This introduction lays out the arguments to follow in the proceeding articles, in order to provide a roadmap connecting the arch of the overall series.

The troublesome record has as much to do with how we misconceive state collapse (the problem) as how we conceive state building (the solution). Thus the first article, "Start by Rethinking State Collapse," critiques the traditional theories of state collapse and offers an alternative way of understanding it. It presents seven key points—the seven deadly sins of state collapse theory. Some of these points identify erroneous assumptions and misunderstandings that must be shed, and some of these points suggest new ways to look at the issue. The traditional theories are constrained by state-centric dogmas of political science that oversimplify the problem (and thus solution). By adopting a multi-disciplined understanding that incorporates lessons from anthropology, sociology and conflict economics, we develop a more comprehensive understanding of why states fail—and how to rebuild them.

The second article, "The Unbearable Lightness of Governance," argues for a fundamental reconsideration of traditional state building approaches. The standard centralized, top-down strategy is counter-productive. Instead, efforts must cultivate bottom-up, decentralized approaches based on fostering local governance.

The third article, "Below and Beyond the State," explores the implications of non-state systems (i.e. non-state structures, networks and complexes that provide economic, social and/or political services in cases of state collapse/failure). The emergence of such systems is an overlooked and under-researched trend. Analysts typically dismiss them as temporary, criminal offshoots of anarchy. But this is premature and erroneous. These systems must be understood as emerging orders that challenge fundamental assumptions about state-society relations. While some are oppressive and violent, others are peaceful and democratic. We must stop ignoring them and start tracking them. The article looks at Somaliland (Northern Somalia) as a case study. Though Somalia is assumed to be a zone of violent anarchy, Somaliland's non-state system of "governance without government" is organically evolving from the bottom-up. It is surprisingly peaceful and democratic with "high levels of legitimacy and local ownership" capable of providing significant levels of governance, public security and social services. It is striking how, in the absence of international support and recognition, Somaliland's bottom-up, organic, democratic peace stands in stark contrast to the violent, internationally-led, top-down state building failures in Southern Somalia. There are other similar cases across Africa. Thus far we have ignored them to our own detriment. However, they could prove to be building blocks for rejuvenating legitimate, stable and representative governments in Africa.

The fourth article, "Lessons for State Building," identifies the lessons and implications for state building. While the previous articles focused on the "why," it focuses on the "how." It suggests ways to incorporate these lessons and apply them to the design and on-the-ground implementation of state building missions.

As a collective, these articles are meant to open new perspectives urging state builders to craft nuanced approaches that fuse internationally assisted, top-down methods with organic, bottom-up reconstruction.

Download The Full Article: Reconceptualizing State Building in Africa (I)

Mark Massey, Jr. works for The Louis Berger Group, Inc., an engineering and economic development firm focusing on stabilization and reconstruction programs in conflict countries. He holds an MA in International Conflict Studies from the University of London's King's College and a BA in Political Science and History from McGill University.

Editor's Note: This essay begins the first part of a four part series.

About the Author(s)


The Cajun (not verified)

Wed, 01/26/2011 - 3:11pm

Bill Cs comments are welcome and bring up a few relevant points worth addressing. As a respectful rebuttal:

1) In terms of targeted audience: this paper was not directed at the US Government per se, but instead to the general "state building community" (be they the US, UN, local governments, local populations, NGOs, etc.) If anything, its "perspective" of interests is concerned with those people that live in collapsed/failing states, offering suggestions that would provide them better forms of governance, stability, which would in turn lead to more peace and prosperity.

2) Nonetheless, this approach is in the better interests of the US. Taking a US interests centered approach to state building in the way Bill C. suggests is usually counter-productive in the long run, even for US interests. It is in fact part of the problem because this approach sometimes contributes to state collapse. Supporting autocratic leaders that give us access to what we want, while doing little for their own populations, is a main reason why so many states have failed to take root with their own populations. They thus suffer from legitimacy problems that can spur rebellion, state failure, and even collapse (see the DRC as a prime example). This comes back to bite the US in the end, as collapsed states are one of the biggest threats to US security. So this newer approach is, in the long run, in the better interests of the US. At the end of the day, a stable, functioning government is better for everyone (including the US) than a failed/collapsed state. There are rare exceptions of course (North Korea, Iran), but for the most part this holds true.

3) Regarding Bill Cs assertion that the United States might stand hard against these new [alternative] systems/models: this is certainly true in some cases (e.g. exploitative systems in the DRC), but not true in others (e.g. Somaliland). But that is exactly why we should start paying attention to these various systems: some can be beneficial, peaceful, even democratic allies, while others can be oppressive and violent. We must learn to distinguish bewtween them, cultivating the better ones and opposing the negative ones. To dismiss them all at once is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 01/16/2011 - 9:22pm

1. "Instead, she suggests considering a different perspective: not that African societies cannot fit the nation-state model, but rather that the nation-state model may not fit African societies."

Again, this may be missing the point. It may not be so important -- to the United States -- whether (a) African societies are a poor fit for the nation-state model or that (b) the nation-state model is a poor fit for African societies.

Rather, what may be most important to the United States, is whether the nation-state model -- in Africa or elsewhere -- it a proper "fit" for what WE require, to wit:

a. That foreign states and their societies cause few(er) problems for the United States,

b. That foreign states and their societies are readily and easily accessed by the United States, its allies, its businesses and its business-partner states, and

c. That foreign states and societies are optimally organized, ordered, configured and alligned so as to, otherwise, provide for our strategic needs.

Thus, the nation-state model generally (and state-building specifically) may serve a higher purpose than indigenous "fit" as far as the United States is concerned. Its purpose (that of the nation-state/state-building) is to provide better control, better access and better utilization -- by the United States, et. al. -- of foreign lands, foreign resources and foreign populations.

2. "What we are witnessing, one scholar explains, is not the collapse of the state so much as the formation of alternative economic and political systems to replace the state."

Unless it can be verified that these alternative economic and political system(s) will better meet the needs and requirements of the United States (noted at "a" - "c" above), then one might suggest that the United States would stand hard against these new systems/models.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 01/16/2011 - 7:14pm

Could the author, early on, have gotten off on the wrong foot with his understanding and characterization of "the problem?"

From the perspective of the United States, the problem would not seem to be so much "state collapse" as it is "states and societies not ordered, organized and configured such that they might be (1) less of a problem for the United States and (2) more of a vehicle which the United States can readily access and optimally utilize in the pursuit of its interests."

Thus, "state building" (and its US-specific requirements) -- as we see it -- is perceived as the solution to this problem (states and societies not ordered, organized or configured so as to cause us less problems and optimally provide for our needs) and not so much as a solution to "state collapse" defined in some other way.