State-building vs intervention, or how not to help

Together, distorted understanding and flawed policy have compounded the problems of weak states in the global south. A different approach to state-building is needed, says Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou

The most insightful intellectual or literary works can always cast valuable light on a world in movement. Just as Edward Said’s Orientalism is revealing of persistent dystrophies in coverage of the Muslim regions in the wake of the Arab uprisings, Chinua Achebe's trilogy (Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, The Arrow of God) remains crucial to understanding the socio-political dynamics of post-colonial Africa. Even after many narratives of social transformation in the global south, even the articulation of many yearnings for democracy, the work of the Palestinian scholar and the Nigerian novelist highlight anew an enduring reality: the inability of the state in the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa to achieve normality in its relationship with its own society and with the world at large.

These writers' imaginative perspectives may at times even be a more penetrating guide to understanding this reality than dominant social-scientific frameworks such as "terrorism", ‘the Arab spring", the "crisis in the Sahel", or "armed rebellion in central Africa". The latter tend to generate prisms that oscillate between ahistorical and excessively optimistic narratives of overnight rupture (e.g., "the Arab world will never be the same") and paternalistic fatalism about the inevitability of conflict in traditional societies (e.g., "Africa's political units, not drawn on the nation-state model, are artificial entities"). When dynamic, complex events begin to unfold in these "trouble-spots", the effect of such arguments both is to encourage interventionism and public fatigue towards them, neither of which proves conducive to the thing they need most: state-building.

The normalising of intervention

The unceasing conflict in Africa, and near-permanent social strife in large parts of the Arab world, can all too easily be depicted as inevitable - as if the "Arab spring" was always destined to turn into a "winter", and rebellions were endemic to African political culture. The problem with this "naturalising" assumption is that reordering these states and societies then becomes a proper, indeed legitimate way of defusing “threats to international peace and security” (as United Nations Security Council phraseology would have it). In turn this entails a sort of stealthy recodification of  the grammar of international relations, as the successive post-cold war, post-9/11 and post-Arab spring worlds are repackaged as the ground for a new alarmism. 

The language of "weak", "failing" (or "failed"), "collapsed", "fragile" and "unstable" states began to emerge with some insistence in the wake of the cold war (Robert Kaplan's warning in 1994 of a "coming anarchy" was typical). In the 1990s, though, the development of these states was understood through a relatively benign outlook that stressed human rights, good governance and political liberalisation, whereas in the 2000s a newfound emphasis on security reoriented the discourse towards control, order and discipline. A telling indicator of is the transition from Gerald B Helman and Steven R Ratner’s 1992 article “Saving Failed States”, based on democratic purposes, and Seth Kaplan’s 2008 book Fixing Fragile States, focusing on neutralising security threats. The road travelled can also be charted in some eleven interventions in twenty-one years: Somalia 1992 (United States), Rwanda 1994 (France), Haiti 1994 (US), East Timor 1999 (Australia), Yugoslavia 1999 (Nato), Afghanistan 2001 (US/UK), Iraq 2003 (US/UK), Ivory Coast 2004 and 2011 (France), Libya 2011 (Nato) and Mali 2013 (France).

The effect of these shifting international priorities over two decades was all too often to compound the existing institutional weakness of states without any necessary improvement in legitimacy, as their alignment with exogenous priorities took priority over indigenous requirements. This pattern suggests that compelling certain states to adopt ideals assigned to them from outside (whether democracy or security) ultimately serves to lead them into weakness.

In fact, though, there is nothing inevitable about the vulnerabilities of any state, much less of those states that are still writing their own development processes. Their conditions are fundamentally products of history and, as such, can be remedied. When states are described as weak, failed, or unstable, there are reasons for such pathologies, factors that have produced these conditions. Yet too often, such weakness is construed in a deterministic way as if it was merely a matter of performance, and of internal, domestic matters alone. This conveniently removes key elements such as the cumulative weight of history, the sedimentation of different regimes and experiences, and the regional and international contingencies in which these states exist.

To the extent that the state is an abstract, continuous, survival-seeking, resource-gathering entity, and policy is the process that follows from its very existence, it follows that state-building is a political activity. Hence, there is an important difference between state-building as an internal mission (even when assisted from abroad) and external state-building resulting from intervention (even when triggered by a "responsibility to protect"). The difference lies in the nature of the order built and the ability of that construct to stay the course. The contrast between the democratic state that the United States sought to build in Iraq and the authoritarian Ba’athist state it overthrew is but one ironic example.

If failed domestic state-building is often the product of authoritarianism or corruption, external state-building is equally too often close to a colonial exercise. If coercion rarely, if ever, achieves legitimate order, this has implications for the type of state-building discourse and practice that has developed of late. Indeed, in the mid-2000s there was even a rehabilitation of the discourse of empire among some scholarship and journalism, whose corollary is the call for muscular, "disciplining" approaches to failed states. The subtext to this revived approach is a form of impatience with longer-term domestic liberalisation processes, or even humanitarianism itself; these, it was argued, did not work during its heyday a decade ago, and in the new period of security urgency is a form of luxury.

The misuse of state-building

The larger process can be understood as a move from seeing the failure of weak southern states as a problem to them (which they needed help to overcome) to seeing their failure as a problem to others (for they threaten the security of the metropolis). State-building then becomes no longer solely the sovereign exercise of developing states in pursuit of their development  but also an external aim to ensure that the states built conform to others' security needs. Accordingly, one group can demand that the other fights, combats, defeats (the phraseology is always martial) particular threats or be adamant that elections be held at specific times (France's president, Francois Hollande, declared on 27 March that he would be “intractable” about Mali’s ballot being held in July 2013).

The obstacles to the development of southern countries are often located in the absence of  so-called organisational traditions, in post-colonial pathologies that a stronger central administration would have fixed, or in weak governance that gives rise to proliferating transnational threats. These allow a revealing correlation between domestic fragility and international security that can be remedied through imposed transformation. But all this omits an important component of the equation, namely the continuity and indeed mutation of inherited conflict in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the middle east, which has have had great consequences for the process of building the post-colonial states. In the end it is the cumulative influence of unresolved conflicts and the instrumentalisation of the resulting state-building processes (by both domestic and external actors) that account primarily for poor development performance.

Weakness is not a choice, it is a condition; one resulting from multiple contingencies. Ultimately, what provides direction and impetus to the political process is whatever shapes the building of the state. It is often that which escapes the codification of rigid legalisms that enables successful state-building, namely a sense of confidence in one’s future  -  the subject of those very allegories which Chinua Achebe and Edward Said depict. So, it would seem that a more viable avenue resides in state-building not as an assertion of faith or obfuscating ideology but as a bona fide project organised around the primacy of local preoccupations. State-building would then be not a process of dissemination requiring the imprimatur of powerful states or international organisations but one of legitimised, contextualised and lasting construction.

About the author

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is deputy director and academic dean of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and adjunct professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. He is the author of Understanding AlQaeda (Pluto Press, 2011).

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Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou heads the Regional Development Programme at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and teaches at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. He is the author of Understanding Al Qaeda - Changing War and Global Conflict (Pluto, 2nd edition, 2011) and Contre-Croisade - Le 11 Septembre et le Retournement du Monde (Harmattan, 2011), and a contributor to Jussi M Hanhimäki & Bernhard Blumenau eds., An International History of Terrorism  Western and Non-Western Experiences  (Routledge, 2013)