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Is the Idea of ‘Areas of Limited Statehood’ Useful or Superfluous?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The October 2014 edition of Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions is a special issue on 'areas of limited statehood’.   As the overview essay states, the themes and arguments of the special issue revolve around external actors, state-building, and service provision in areas of limited statehood. It is an excellent issue of the journal and worth reading. What I am interested in is the idea of ‘areas of limited statehood’ itself.

Now, as we all know, professors spout theories and fine distinctions the way fountains spout water. The global community concerned with the fragility of states has been trafficking for a while in terms like 'fragile states', 'failed states', 'weak and failing states' and combinations thereof. Does the idea of areas of areas of limited statehood serve any additional purpose?

The authors of the overview essay, Stephen D. Krasner and Thomas Risse, say yes. They argue that the focus is statehood or state capacity. They urge readers to think about truly ‘consolidated states’ and then reflect on the nature of most of the states we actually have in the world today. What are consolidated states? Here is how they define them:

While no state governs hierarchically all the time, consolidated states possess the ability to authoritatively make, implement, and enforce central decisions for a collectivity. In other words, consolidated states command “domestic sovereignty”…

‘Limited statehood’, they argue, is a very different reality:

Limited statehood concerns those areas of a country in which central authorities (governments) lack the ability to implement and enforce rules and decisions and/or in which the legitimate monopoly over the means of violence is lacking.

Dark gray: consolidated states; White: countries with areas of limited
statehood; Black: failed states; Light gray: missing values

Sources and Indicators: Lee, Walter-Drop, and Wiesel (2014)

The authors argue that while we have a few consolidated states in the world today, and some failed states, most states have ‘areas of limited statehood’. They give the following concrete territorial examples: ‘the Amazon region in Brazil, Northeast Kenya, and parts of Southern Italy’. I would add parts of Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger…the places where the terrorist group Boko Haram seems to operate with impunity.

The idea of ‘areas of limited statehood’, then, is that while most states in the world today have not failed and are not about to fail, they nevertheless have within them areas where they either cannot implement central policies or exercise security control or both. They have ungoverned or hard- to- govern spaces, sometimes vast ones. Most states, therefore, do not really have full command of the territories that they are supposed to govern under international law.

In many countries, I would argue, state authority or presence declines the further you travel away from the national or provincial capitals. In fact, I remember that when I moved to Western Europe to live and began to travel around the region, I was astonished by the intensity of state presence even in supposedly remote villages. Coming from Africa, I knew that was not the case at all in most parts of the continent. From the perspective of citizens in many countries today, and in key regions of these countries, the modern state is something entirely alien and, in any case, far away.

So, I am persuaded by the idea of ‘areas of limited statehood’ because it captures a useful analytical distinction.  Sadly, however, the expression itself is not likely to win a prize for elegance.

A final point worth emphasizing is this: there is a huge communication dimension to the challenge of ‘areas of limited statehood’.  First, information and communication capacity are central to state effectiveness. And they have always been.  Empires dating as far back as ancient Rome needed to be able to communicate effectively with the entire territory, know what was going on where, know who had what or was doing what…all as quickly as possible or they would collapse. It was a communication infrastructure challenge that smartly governed empires and kingdoms strove to solve. Second, access to national media by citizens is a key part of the challenge. If a part of the country is exposed to media from another part of the world and not the national media, rather than being a part of a unifying national conversation it will be part of different conversations and world views… and it will confront temptations to exit. Finally, states that cannot engage in two way conversations with citizens in certain parts of the country will soon find out that they are not governing those parts of the country.

Incidentally, some of the communication dimensions of the challenge of ‘areas of limited statehood’ were examined recently in a text co-edited by one of the contributors to this special issue of Governance. For more, please see: Bits and Atoms: ICTs in Areas of Limited Statehood, edited by Steven Livingston and Gregor Walter-Drop.

Photograph of young girl by Cmacauley via Wikimedia Commons
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