The Conscientious Nation-Builder’s Dilemma

6 Nov

Why do state-building efforts fail?  It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.  To address the limitations of state-building, I want to use the perspective of the “conscientious nation-builder”: a well-educated and well-meaning foreigner working within the bureaucratic apparatus of a governmental organization undertaking a nation-building effort.  This framework problematizes the notion that nation-building is fundamentally a technical exercise and helps explore the contradictions and paradoxes faced by nation-builders that not even the most nuanced solutions can solve.

An assumption made by most political scientists and nation-builders is that most states carry out governance evenly in their territories.  Risse et al. in Governance Without a State challenge this notion, arguing that in most states in the world, state power is severely limited beyond cities.  In place of state power, local governance structures operate.  These structures interact and negotiate with the state.  This is even more true in states such as Somalia, the DRC, and Afghanistan which have undergone extended nation-building attempts.  If many developed states cannot effectively exert their power on rural areas, attempting to recreate this model in states already suffering from a severe lack of capacity presents obvious problems.  Risse’s volume argues that nation-building attempts should work with existing state-local partnerships rather than working toward an ideal-type state.

Nation-building operates on the implicit assumption that there are inherent, concrete benefits in nation-building.  Ariel Ahram, in Proxy Warriors, argues that this isn’t always the case:

“The problem is that so many efforts to strengthen states and eliminate militias have proven quixotic if not counterproductive.  Existing policy options do little to alter the fundamental incentive structure that allow leaders in most developing countries to continue to rely on localized, informal militia forces.  Peace building and international trusteeship are susceptible to subversion by both their sponsors and their recipient or target states.  Reenacting Europe’s blood-drenched history by allowing strong states to weed out the weak is dubious on both practical and moral ground.”

Similarly, Rory Stewart argues that the presence of the state is not always necessarily better than its absence in Can Intervention Work?:

“It is true that there were no police and civil servants in the villages of central Afghanistan, and there had not been for over twenty-five years.  Yet I walked entirely safely alone and unarmed for three hundred miles through them without being robbed or murdered, because the area was generally densely controlled, in a way that had little resemblance to the descriptions or prescriptions of the international community.” 

While Ahram argues that states do generally provide security more effectively to their people, he also posits that attempts to assert a state’s monopoly on violence in areas where it doesn’t exist may only further endanger the population’s physical security.  If militias are often no worse than states, and attempting to implement state primacy has negative effects, why do nation-building attempts seek to do just that?  I think there’s an element of control: it’s easier for outsiders to understand states as Westphalian, rather than dealing with local rulers, structures, and customs.  If states do not fit this blueprint, international actors have more difficulty interacting and negotiating with non-state actors that practice governance.

Ahram and Risse et al.’s functional approach to states and state-buildings is refreshing, but they miss an important point in their policy prescriptions.  People generally want states for the same reasons nation-builders do.  Even if states are abusive, they provide order and predictability that may or may not be provided by the non-state actors that fill the void.  For the conscientious nation-builder, this presents a puzzle.  While the end goal of a state monopoly on violence will likely be popular, the road to that point is littered with barriers that may make the enterprise counterproductive.  Even if the target state does achieve a monopoly on violence, human security may be no better than it was previously, and many people may have died along the way.

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State argues that authoritarian high-modernist attempts to remake society are destined to fail.  The logic of the state revolves around ordering complexity, or what Adam Elkus would call “binning“.   However societies tend to resist this attempt at uniformity.  Individual interests clash with bureaucratic logic, and local social structures do not all function in the way that the state finds easiest to control.  Therefore there is a fundamental tension between the state (order) and society (disorder) that authoritarian high modernism finds itself unable to overcome.  It is simply impossible for a state to regulate society without conceding to the society’s culture, history, and structure.  The project of nation-building can be conceived as authoritarian high modernism.  For example, Rory Stewart argues that state-building attempts in Afghanistan, and in particular a national development strategy, failed to adapt to the specifics of the Afghan situation:

“This specialized language–drawn from development theory and overlaid with management consultancy before being inserted into the multilateral policy-drafting process–was bewildering…Among the sixty-nine separate tables and charts in this 137-page plan, including ones on “predicted teledensity” and “status and accomplishment, national police and law enforcement,” the following words did not appear: Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Islam, Sharia, jihad, communism, Northern Alliance, warlord, democracy, equality, insurgency, resistance, and consent.  Were you to delete the word Afghanistan and replace it with the word Botswana, it would be very difficult to know of which country you were speaking.”

All of this puts the conscientious nation-builder in a difficult position.  Nation-building institutional culture prioritizes addressing and implementing abstract concepts, such as the rule of law and accountable governance, over deep country-specific expertise and an ability to adapt to local situations.  This isn’t a new problem: Scott notes that well-intentioned officials in 19th century Germany failed to successfully codify local forestry practices.  Even if the conscientious nation-builder wishes to get local input on nation-building plans and work with existing social structures, they face two significant impediments.  First, securing physical access to local populations can be impossible in conflict zones.  Nation-builders in Afghanistan spent almost all their time in compounds and needed enormous security details to move beyond those walls.  Second, it’s very possible these ideas that cut against the grain of nation-building culture won’t receive any support from higher-ups (akin to Ferguson’s concept of ‘development discourse’).

The conscientious nation-builder has to deal with the myth of internal sovereignty, the potential harm caused by nation-building, and an institutional culture that leans toward implementing formulaic solutions, but all these may yet be surmountable.  However, the last challenge, that of societies that stubbornly refuse to move away from non-liberal forms of local governance, may be a bridge too far.  Working with these local forms of authorities clash not only with the belief in state primacy, but also with the democratic consensus that permeates nation-building projects.  Rory Stewart again:

“There had been many regimes in the last thirty years, backed by Americans, Soviets, Saudis, Pakistanis, and now the UN mandate: royalist, nationalist, Marxist, Soviet, theocratic, and pro-Western, with many constitutions.  But there always seems to be one power in Kamenj.  Mohsin’s [the local strongman] was not the state that the international community or indeed many Afghans wanted–it was conservative and patriarchal.  But did the international community understand it, or have the formula to transform it?”

Even the conscientious nation-builder is simply not equipped to deal with this problem.  Working with rather than removing people such as Mohsin challenge the very intent of the nation-building enterprise, but so does not working with him.  Instead, as many nation-builders have done before, the conscientious nation-builder may well work with Mohsin and attempt to persuade him to liberalize his rule and surrender to state power, which he will likely agree to do without following through.  The conscientious nation-builder then has arrived at a policy destined to fail with only the best of intentions.

What is the conscientious nation-builder to do?  The problems in this post are not resolvable, but their negative consequences can be dampened.  First, the conscientious nation-builder should place the physical security of a population above everything else, and should work toward diffusing this norm within their institution.  Second, they should elicit and privilege advice from locals and country specialists who have seen previous nation-building attempts fail.  Finally, the conscientious nation-builder should be aware of the limits of the nation-building enterprise.

*A special thanks to Sara Fitzpatrick for editing and to Shervin Malekzadeh for helping me come up with these ideas.

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2 Responses to “The Conscientious Nation-Builder’s Dilemma”

  1. Ariel Ahram November 9, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    I think this post is on to something important. It seems, though, to be afraid to draw its own conclusion, which may be that nation-building itself, conscientious or not, is a fools errand.

    • dhirsch1 November 9, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

      You’re right, I’m not ready to make that conclusion. I do think that overall states are better than non-state actors, and in some situations, it is possible to shift authority from non-state actors to the state without causing net harm. One example off the top of my head: if institutional norms are able to shift enough (and I think there’s some evidence they are) in, let’s say the DRC, and peacebuilders are able to help negotiate local land conflicts and bring in the state then as an arbiter, I think the result may be that people are better off than they were before. Of course, there are many possible negative outcomes, but I’m not ready to totally discount what I see as the marginal utility of nation-building.

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