The Slippery Road: The Imperative for State Formation

By Hesselbein, Gabi | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Slippery Road: The Imperative for State Formation


Hesselbein, Gabi, Harvard International Review


In a perfect world, people would live in prosperity and peace, enjoying everything a perfect market and a perfect state have to offer. Unfortunately, this is a far cry from today's reality, even in the industrialized world. A large number of countries face deteriorating living conditions and serious setbacks in human development.

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"State failure" is the term used by scholars, development agencies, and politicians to describe a very complex situation in which such degeneration occurs. While some argue that this failure translates into a threat to Western societies, the empirical evidence shows that the threat to life and limb is mostly directed toward the inhabitants of the affected countries. Typically, there is or was internal war, in which external participants, malnutrition, lack of medical services, warlords, child soldiers, refugees and internally displaced people, and impunity for all sorts of war crimes make matters very problematic in the future.

At the Crisis States Research Centre, we define a "failed state" as a condition of "state collapse"--e.g., a state that can no longer perform its basic security and development functions and no longer has effective control over its territory and borders. A failed state is one that can no longer reproduce the structures and capacities for its own existence--such as present day Somalia and Iraq after the US-led invasion. This term is used in very contradictory ways in the policy community. For instance, there is a tendency to label a "poorly performing" state as "failed"--a tendency we reject. The opposite of a "failed state" is an "enduring state," and the absolute dividing line between these two conditions is difficult to ascertain. Even in a failed state, some elements of the state, such as local state organizations, might still exist. What is clear is that a failed state has gone through severe conditions of crisis and fragility, caused both by internal and external factors.

Why do states collapse and cease to exist in the sense that they cannot function for their own populations or in the global community? In our view, if the modern nation-state collapses, structures of authority continue to exercise personalized power over populations on a sub-national level. Ultimately, this happens because political coalitions at the center of the state break down under the pressure of a crisis, lack of resources, and lack of economic growth in general. It is crucial to first examine the most prevalent explanations of failed states to show that international intervention is best justified by the patrimonialism explanation of failed states.

The Role of Corruption

Perhaps the most powerful contemporary explanation for state failure, in terms of its political impact, is the argument that a powerful elite or "state bourgeoisie" manages to institutionalize theft and corruption, thus destroying the economy, social fabric, and state infrastructure. This is the perception underlying the promotion and institutionalization of the "good governance" agenda (transparency, accountability and democracy) advocated and financed by the United Nations, the Bretton Woods twins, and the donor community, with the aid of numerous NGOs.

This argument rests theoretically on Hartmut Elsenhans' "state class" construct. Since classes such as landlords, workers, and bourgeoisie were generally absent in the agrarian societies that became independent countries during the 1960s, he identified the upper and middle echelons of the state bureaucracy to be the central political and economic actors: the "state class." He described them as "kleptocratic";--that is, they had an urge to steal. According to Elsenhans, the resources of the state, as well as the few islands of economic surplus production, were privately appropriated. The "kleptocracy" was safeguarded by repression and by the cooptation of an aspiring bourgeoisie. It formed an economic, social, and political system that was characterized by corruption and a waste of resources. …

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