Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Taking down the failed state

On the margins of a seminar about the situation in Darfur with the Sudanese anthropologist Munzoul Assal (trained in Norway, a happy coincidence that meant that over lunch I had a rare chance to alternate between all the languages I know -- English, French, Norwegian, and Arabic) here in Paris last month, one interlocutor's chance mention of the term "failed state" prompted a brief, but heated, discussion about using this term to describe Sudan. The consensus: please can we get rid of this term? It impedes rather than facilitates analysis.

Since Foreign Policy magazine/the Fund for Peace have recently unveiled their rankings of the world's states most at risk of failure, and because I have so far devoted more time to discussing historical state formations than those presenting today, I'd like to return to this issue of how to analyze the state in Central Africa. On the FP/FfP rankings, Sudan, Chad, CAR and the Democratic Republic of the Congo occupy four of the top eight "most failed" spots.

As I see it, the main problem with the term "failed state" is that it assumes that states come in a one-size-fits-all model. In so doing it excises all the differing histories that led to the diverse political forms that exist within todays' umbrella category, the state. (Keep in mind that the idea that the world is composed of a vast number of equal and sovereign states is a very recent one, with colonies a normal feature into the 1970s.) All of the French Congo (Gabon, CAR, Republic of Congo, part of Cameroon), for instance, was privatized. The vast terrain was divided among forty concessionary companies who ruled from their factoreries in hopes of extracting profit. The few, underfunded civil administrators lamented to no avail how difficult it was to reclaim power from the concessionaires, who generally relied on forced labor and brutal sanctions and flagrantly ignored all the workers' rights laws the French tried to pass. To assume that a situation like that will transform itself into a Habermasian idyll without some kind of massive inputs is ridiculous. And to assume that it will soon collapse into anarchy is also ridiculous, an unhelpfully literalist interpretation of Hobbes' state of nature.

But more to the point, the idea that a set of indicators, no matter how well chosen, will produce reliable rankings about something as difficult to quantify as political life and prospects is dubious, even among those friendlier to statistics than anthropologists tend to be. Sebastian Ziaja at GDI (the German Development Institute -- the Germans seem to be producing a lot of clear-sighted research) has compared the various indices of state failure. In a soon-to-be-published paper, he shows that they have surprisingly high rates of divergence.

For the thing is, the factors that appear on the surface to threaten anarchy -- refugee flows, for instance -- can actually produce relatively persistent political regimes. Scholars of West Africa's recent conflicts have amply demonstrated how "warlord states" produce profit and security for those at the top.

Alex de Waal, who has had the benefit of a kind of anthropological fieldwork among Sudan's leaders while working for the African Union during peace negotiations on Darfur, suggests that Sudan should be understood as a "turbulent state": "constantly full of almost random motion, inherently unstable, yet never showing any fundamental change in its condition" (from a lecture available here; he discusses the term more fully in his chapter in The War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, which he edited). Peripheral areas like Darfur are crucial to a turbulent state, because the destablization there helps those in the center remain among the ruling elite. The ruling elite itself is turbulent and consists of multiple loci of power and unstable coalitions.

De Waal notes that it is tempting to see Sudan as a gyroscope, always tilting and yet never off-balance. But to do so would be to make the mistake most commonly associated with social anthropologists of the 1930s-50s. They saw all facets of human life as performing a function within the structure of the society (hence their school is often described as "structural-functionalist"), which served to reproduce a stable equilibrium, despite the appearance of conflict. But of course, any such system is always changing, and always full of conflicts, making it difficult to predict what the future holds. So the gyroscope's implication of balance is misleading.

Roland Marchal develops a version of the turbulent state theory in his analysis of Sudan's neighbor, Chad. He describes how conflict and dissent in Chad's peripheral regions, particularly those bordering Cameroon, CAR and Sudan, has long been the justification both for repressive tactics throughout the country and for the existence of the state itself, which because of the unrest appears as the go-to container of stability. The situation reproduces itself as the Sudanese and Chadian leaders court and support each other's armed challengers.

The northeast CAR serves as an additional rear base. At the same time, this ground produces a similar dynamic within CAR, in which "rebel" groups emerge in the hinterlands and demand inclusion in the capital. These armed groups in the peripheries, then, strengthen the "failed" central state by providing a justification for its existence and an impetus for programs like security sector reform (SSR -- restructuring, training, and equipping the military), which, despite decades of attempts, has yet to fundamentally alter the center/destabilized peripheries dynamic. And given the poor record of the military, which grows out of the heinous abuses of the colonial guards, further attempts to empower it seem unlikely to better the situation of the country's peaceful inhabitants, who don't care so much about the military or armed groups as for some small improvement in their standard of living.

At this point, I'm eager to go into the mid-century anthropologist Max Gluckman's fascinating work on cycles of rebellion, but this post has meandered enough as it is.

A final word on "failed states": some might say that the term "failed state" is useful for advocacy and grabbing people's attention. But advocacy based on slippery analysis doesn't tend to produce lasting solutions. Iraq was described as a kind of failed state in 2003; it remains near the top of the rankings today.

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