The state of the States: understanding fragile states

February 22, 2013

On 22 February 2013 Dan Smith published a post on his blog on the ‘state of States’. While not directly touching on human rights defenders, it gives in few words an excellent overview of the formation and deformation of States which provide much of the power and abuse that human rights defenders struggle against. I summarize some of the  main issues here, but urge you to read the full text:

First he points out that most states are relatively new. By 1900 there were just 48 states in our modern sense of the term. In the years either side of World War I, with the break-up of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, there was considerable state-making. Even so, the UN was founded by just 51 states. Today, 193 states make up the UN, the newest being South Sudan in July 2011.

From 48 to 193 (recognised states, that is) - from The State of the World atlas

From 48 to 193 (recognised states, that is) – from The State of the World atlas

If nothing else, these figures show that in our era sovereignty and statehood have been extremely desirable items in the global market of power and politics. Seen in historical perspective, the growing strength of international organisations, laws and linkages of all kinds is undeniable and remarkable. But that has been balanced by the growth in the number of actors within those institutions. If the idea still persists that the world is heading towards ever larger and more encompassing sovereign units – a widespread surrender of sovereignty upwards, so to speak – the figures lead to a different conclusion.

Yet the fact that the shape of the state system today is so very recent offers a second conclusion, going in almost the opposite direction. For sure, the numbers lead us to think a trend towards supra-states is unreal but they could also suggest that the system is not in any sense fixed and is liable to change. The author then goes on to ask a simple but very basic question:

THE PURPOSE OF STATES?  In value-free terms, the purpose of states is to organise power. The modern state organises power with a greater degree of predictability and durability, normally based on law, than preceding varieties. (acquisition of territory through marriage and war has fallen into disuse). States today may be weak or strong by a variety of measures, their borders may be tight or porous, their finances robust or rocky – and their government come and go – but they endure and provide the organising framework of power in that territory.  What’s left to argue about is how individual states organise power, to what ends and whose benefit.

The author then looks at some extreme cases of  THE FAILURE OF PURPOSE (promising to look at more standard cases in future posts)

Because the state system is taken for granted and left unexamined, odd and paradoxical ideas about politics enter our discourse……..Like the closely related concept of “failed states” back in the 1990s, that later evolved into the more nuanced but equally unhelpful “failing states”, which has since been replaced by the yet more nuanced and rather helpful term “fragile states”, the concept of “ungoverned spaces” carries unexamined notions of what governing is and what a state is. These notions forget the actual diversity of states and conjure up a narrow range – France, Britain, America or Sweden. Finding nothing that those notions of statehood can recognise in a particular territory,… the temptation is to recognise only a void.

I find the term “fragile states” more useful because the metaphor of fragility has a sharp truth in it that outside powers would do well to respect more than they normally do. But mis-used, it too comes to imply void, no authority, no power – a blank sheet of paper. Operating on that basis is bound to lead you astray both in understanding the problems that ordinary people who live in those insecure circumstances face and in figuring out what might be done to bring about a general improvement. It means not facing up to the realities of power in that place. The truth is not that there is no power or authority but that the way that power and authority are organised and used places ordinary people in a situation of terrifying insecurity.

It has been shown time and again in countries torn apart by war and rampant instability – for example, Lebanon in the 1980s, Somalia in the 1990s, eastern Congo for much of the past 15 years, swathes of Afghanistan and Pakistan today – that there are other kinds of effective power than that which resides in the modern state…. As International Alert‘s report on eastern Congo has demonstrated, that results in the international community promoting solutions that won’t work and add up over time to a waste of effort and resources.

What are often called “ungoverned spaces” are really “spaces governed in ways and by people that other people think are the wrong ways and the wrong people. And what used to be called “failed or failing states” are states in which power is organised in a way that, generally speaking, you and I find offensive. But it is power and they are states – and if any of us want to help do something about the abuses, we need to pay attention to that.

for the full text:

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