Much of the development, governance and more general international affairs literatures speak of failed or fragile states when describing a breakdown of governance capacity. In Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood Gregor Walter-Drop of the Freie Universität Berlin and I use a different formulation. We provide a more nuanced conceptual foundation for thinking about the nature of statehood and how digital technologies might serve to ameliorate the effects of what we call limited statehood. Following Max Weber, statehood is characterized by a monopoly on the means of violence, the ability to make and impose binding rules, and by the effective provisioning of public goods. An area of limited statehood is defined by the absence of some or all of these qualities.
As Thomas Risse and his colleagues have argued, limited statehood has at least three manifestations. It can be territorial, limited to a particular geographical space within the larger context of the sovereign borders of an otherwise consolidated state. The urban slums of Nairobi, Lagos, or Rio are territorial areas of limited statehood, confined spaces where basic public goods – clear water, sanitation, security, and infrastructure such as roads and sidewalks — are missing. Limited statehood can also be sectoral, limited to specific policy areas where the governance capacity of the state falls short. And it can be temporal, where an otherwise fully consolidated state suffers a temporary loss of governance capacity. Disasters in this respect constitute a governance stress test, measuring the governance capacity of state institutions. When Typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines in November, destroying everything in its path, the Philippines government was overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge found in restoring order and providing for basic public services. In much the same way, the Japanese government was overwhelmed by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The tsunami added to the burden when it caused level 7+ meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans fits this category “in the sense that U.S. authorities were unable to enforce decisions and to uphold the monopoly over the means of violence for a short period of time.” These examples make clear that even fully consolidated states such as Japan and the United States can experience periods of limited statehood.