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What have We Learned about Crisis/Fragile States? Findings of a 5 Year Research Programme

Duncan Green's picture

Cards on the table, confronted with a closely argued 11 page exec sum, I am unlikely to then read the full report. But the short version of Meeting the Challenges of Crisis States, by James Putzel (LSE) and Jonathan Di John (SOAS), is a meal in itself. It summarizes 5 years of DFID-funded research by the Crisis States Research Centre, led by the London School of Economics, and is a great way to take the temperature of academic thinking on ‘states with adjectives’ – fragile, failing, crisis etc etc.

The key question it seeks to answer is why the daily and inevitable tensions of politics and ‘conflict as usual’, which exist in any society, tip some states over into a downward spiral of distintegration, grand theft and violence, while others, even poor ones, prove resilient. Key Findings?

Like most political scientists, Putzel and Di John believe that if you want to understand politics, you have to understand elites. And that means jettisoning preconceptions of ‘good governance’ (aka how much do the institutions resemble an idealized notion of American/European democracy) and thinking instead about the underlying political settlement. How do individuals and groups with different slices of power protect and negotiate over their pieces of the pie?

What leads to fragility? In the rather disturbing language of the report:

‘Factors that are most likely to provoke violence and lead towards state collapse [include] the lack of a basic legitimate monopoly over the means of large-scale violence, the absence of control over taxation, the failure of state organisations to operate in significant territories of the country and the existence of rival rule systems that take precedence over the state’s rules.’

And when we talk about ‘states’ we need to go well beyond presidential palaces and parliaments, especially in thinking about cities:

‘Analysis and policy discussion around fragile states has concentrated almost entirely on the “central state”, failing to see the particular place of cities in state formation historically and the contemporary importance of growing cities as key sites of state building and state erosion. The concentration of high-value economic activity within the cities of fragile states renders them central to state-building processes. Elites capable of challenging the bargains on which political settlements rest are often located in cities, and growing civic conflict and violence threatens to undermine state consolidation.’

There’s a good focus on taxation (as you’d expect from anything authored by Jonathan Di John, who was analyzing taxation long before it became the latest development fad:

‘Taxation is a key indicator for measuring state performance and assessing the extent of fragility or resilience of a state. A state’s taxation capacity can provide an objective means to assess the power, authority and legitimacy the state possesses to mobilise resources and the degree to which it monopolises tax collection. The level, diversity and manner of collection of taxes all provide indications of a state’s position on the fragility to resilience spectrum.’

What drives transitions from fragility towards more resilient states?

‘Possibilities exist for transformative political coalitions to emerge committed to establishing security, particularly in urban environments where a diversity of relatively well organised interest groups can challenge reigning political practices. Reformist politics are most likely to emerge when it is in the collective interests of newly emergent elites who do not have the means enjoyed by traditional elites to finance their security privately.‘

Which sounds to me like polisci speak for ‘it’s the new middle classes, stupid.’

The research has bad news for promoters of the more militarist reading of ‘Responsibility to Protect’. Military intervention seems to resemble chemotherapy in that it destroys existing anti-conflict mechanisms:

‘There is a strong, negative and significant association between military interventions and democracy. Military interventions have tended to destroy a state’s conflict-resolution mechanisms, often unleashed forms of politics incompatible with democracy, upset political settlements and critically weakened state systems in general.’

Rather than direct intervention, outside powers should be trying to ‘go with the grain’ of cycles of war and peace, pitching mediation at the right moment when the incentives of warring parties are aligned.

There are stern words for the deregulatory assault on the state undertaken by Washington Consensus policies over recent decades. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the economic arguments, undermining the state has been disastrous in terms of politics and fragility:

‘Policy makers need to consider the extent to which deregulating an economy across the board will be politically destabilising and actually undermine economic reforms….. policies that contribute to state withdrawal are often evaluated on grounds of efficiency and equity, but almost never for their impact on the institutional resilience of the state. This is a major blind spot which has far-reaching consequences for the ability of states to embark upon or return to a path of institutional consolidation.’

The report is vehement about the need for donors to help build strong states:

‘Aid needs to be channelled through the agencies of the state and it should give due priority to developing the core capacities of the state to govern economic development. Donors need to give due consideration to mechanisms that increase the capacity of states to raise their own finances.’

The case for an ‘activist state’ is particularly strong in regards to natural resource extraction, and here the report’s message is interesting – donors and others need to get in before a country discovers natural resources and ‘consolidate a national development coalition before the exploitation of resources begins.’ (this ought to be known as ‘doing a Botswana’ – Botswana nationalised subsoil mineral rights before it discovered diamonds, and has used the wealth spectacularly well ever since).

This is all targeted at aid’s big hitters – DFID, World Bank etc, and their relationships with governments. But NGOs should pay attention too. Putzel and Di John argue that funding civil society protest when the state is fragile or non-existent can be disastrous:

‘Programmes designed to promote participation and tap the resources of non-state organisations must be cognisant of this dimension of state fragility or they may potentially contribute to provoking or aggravating violent conflict.’

Which leads in practice to the kind of convening and brokering approach I’ve talked about on this blog ad nauseam.

Overall, there’s something offputting about the fixation on political elites, almost revelling in an apparently amoral approach of the political sciences – ‘we are trying to understand power and politics, not pass judgement’. I’ve felt the same sense of academic machismo emananating from the ‘decent chap-ists’ of the Africa Power and Politics Programme over at ODI. I suspect there are other things going on behind it – the frustration of disillusioned lefties who feel let down by the past failures of popular movements, or the natural tendency when trying to understand a complex system to steer towards the simplest and most brutal concentration of power. But that’s enough amateur psychotherapy: the research is solid, and the findings fascinating, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to swallow the occasional jarring tone.

This post first appeard on From Poverty to Power

Photo Credit: Natalia Cieslik / World Bank

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