Around this time last year I was in Afghanistan. I was there with some U.S.-run provincial reconstruction teams, some where you could walk around and eat in the locals’ homes; some where the “security situation” (read: RPG attacks) meant the PRTs reconstructed very little. It was ... educational. I will be going back, probably in May, although it’s still uncertain.
I wrote the below essay (among other, less interesting things on the same topic) after I returned. It’s an attempt to put my thoughts in order, although upon re-reading I think it might be more informed by my historical research about the Philippines than anything that I saw first-hand. Be warned: it’s long, and I don’t know if it really makes any sense. At some point I’ll publish it, I suppose, but right now I’m still too confused.
Comments and suggestions would be very helpful.
What, if anything, can foreign governments do to build a functioning state in an environment characterized by endemic political violence? The question has obvious relevance. In many places around the world, the government lacks the ability to carry out basic state functions. In such “failed states” the government cannot adjudicate and enforce property rights, provide public goods, or guarantee security from foreign threats. The result is great human suffering, which can easily overflow into other countries in the form of refugee flows, trafficking in illegal goods, epidemic or endemic diseases, and sanctuaries for criminal or violent groups.
State-builders seek to accomplish three separate but interrelated goals. The first goal is to generate economic growth. Economic growth creates resources that the state can tax (or borrow against) to build its capacity to enforce its own law. Second, state-builders want to give potentially-violent actors a stake in the success of the state. (Economic growth is one potential way to accomplish this, but it is not clear that growth in and of itself is sufficient — it needs to be distributed correctly.) Third, state-builders want to help the local government achieve popular legitimacy. The fact that these three goals are mutually reinforcing means that state-building is possible.
The problem is that the most obvious strategies used to accomplish any one of these goals undercut the other two, especially in the presence of political instability. This means that state-building is difficult. In fact, the inherent difficulty of state-building is compounded by the fact that democratic foreign governments that try to engage in it need to build domestic support, muster the necessary resources, and get its bureaucratic agencies (and foreign allies) to coordinate their efforts.
The first problem faced by ostensible state-builders is that in the absence of complete unity of command — what a less-charitable observer might call “colonial control” — the foreign government and the local national government will remain separate actors. Each one will have their own interests, incentives, abilities, and political constraints. In other words, any strategy designed for one government will have to take into account both the capacity of the other government and the strategic reactions of key political actors within it.
Inasmuch as foreign state-building efforts depend upon actions by the local national government, foreign governments will need an explicit political strategy designed to give local decision-makers incentives to cooperate with the foreigners’ plans. They will need to insure that the executive authorities of the local government are prepared to cooperate at all levels of the civilian chain of command, which can be complicated under federal or quasi-federal systems. They will also need to persuade local legislators to pass appropriate laws. Any strategy that fails to provide carrots and sticks for local national and subnational political actors is doomed to failure. The catch, however, is that foreign state-builders will need to provide such incentives without undercutting the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its constituents.
The problem of coordinating the foreign and local national governments is complicated by the fact that weak states, by definition, lack three key characteristics. The first is autonomy. An autonomous state controls the actions of its own officials; such officials are prevented from acting outside state structures and against government policy. Weak states are not autonomous. Widespread corruption, for example, means that local officials have little incentive to carry out national directives that would interfere with their ability to extract rents. In extremis, public officials are effectively for sale to the highest bidder. The public goods that public officials are supposed to provide will become private goods available only to those willing to pay. Private actors may try to provide public goods themselves — but they will have little incentive to provide them to anyone besides themselves and their close supporters. In such a situation, a foreign government will need to work its strategy around the state’s lack of autonomy by providing public goods itself or creating mechanisms by which the state can gain control over its own officials.
A capacious state is one that possesses the material resources it needs to carry out its basic functions. Unfortunately, weak states often run into a Catch-22. Without an army, police force, judiciary, bureaucracy, education system, public health system, public infrastructure, and — most importantly — tax collectors, the state will collect few taxes. Without tax revenues, however, the state cannot pay for the army, police force, judiciary, bureaucracy, education system, public health system, or infrastructure needed to support the economy that will generate tax revenue, let alone pay for efficient tax collectors. One exit from this trap is to borrow, but private lenders are unlikely to entrust much money to a weak government that faces violent opposition and a correspondingly short expected lifespan. Foreign governments will need to provide the material resources that the state needs to carry out its functions. The problem is that foreign aid runs the risk of divorcing the local government from the consequences of its actions and policies. Why govern well, if foreign governments will keep the largess coming regardless? Foreign governments can, of course, threaten to cut off their aid — but the local government may not believe that such threats are credible. After all, an aid cut-off would cause the local state to collapse, and why would the foreigners be there at all if they didn’t fear the consequences of such a collapse?
Finally, a legitimate state is one whose citizens believe that the state has the right to exercise authority. More importantly, a legitimate state is one in which its citizens believe that other citizens believe that it has the right to exercise its authority. If some critical mass of citizens come to believe that other citizens believe that the traffic laws should be respected, then fewer people will break the laws, because they will fear the opprobrium of (or other sanctions from) their fellow citizens. Fewer lawbreakers, however, will make it easier for the state to catch and punish those who do break the law. Lawbreakers will therefore face a higher probability of being caught. That will further decrease the amount of people who choose to break the law. With fewer lawbreakers, the state will need to expend fewer resources to enforce the law. All other things being equal, therefore, a legitimate state will be better able to control its territory and provide public goods than an illegitimate one.
In theory, autonomy, capacity, and legitimacy are mutually reinforcing. A legitimate state will have an easier time controlling its public officials, and therefore gain autonomy. An autonomous state is less likely to have to deal with rapacious public officials, and thus have an easier time maintaining its legitimacy. Similarly, a legitimate state will find it easier to tax its citizenry, raising its capacity. A capacious state, of course, will have the resources it needs to reward (or punish) its own officials when they step out of line, thereby increasing its autonomy. And so on.
In practice, however, strategies intended to promote state autonomy or legitimacy will undercut capacity, and vice versa. Worse yet, in politically unstable countries even autonomy and legitimacy can conflict. Projects intended to promote economic growth, for example, must be sustainable — it makes little sense to build projects that will require a permanent foreign presence to keep running, or that local governments will be unable to maintain. In addition, specific projects will have little long-term economic impact unless property rights are transparent and secure, and markets are open and competitive. Otherwise private actors will have little incentive to engage in productive activities or invest in the future, even if outsiders build roads or school buildings.
The catch is that one of the easiest and most effective ways to build a political coalition is to distribute economic rents to your opponents. The government can create barriers to entry, give out tax exemptions, or provide protection from foreign competition. In fact, even a very weak government can create rents for particular groups simply by agreeing to try to enforce those groups’ property rights while doing nothing to enforce anyone else’s. Such arrangements can build a sustainable political coalition, but they are not conducive to long-term economic growth. In addition, building such coalitions is a very difficult activity that requires a great deal of political skill and cultural sensitivity. Foreigners may be up for the task — but the knowledge they would need about local conditions poses a formidable barrier. Historically, the United States has had at best mixed success in building such coalitions in places like Latin America and the Philippines, where Americans possess a great deal of local knowledge. The chances of success in more foreign locales are quite a bit lower.
Worse still, economic rents need to come from somewhere — usually the mass of the populace. Extracting rents from desperately poor people (or comfortably middle-class ones, for that matter) rarely does much to enhance the legitimacy of the state. Moreover, unless rent-generating strategies are carefully-designed to depend on the stability of the central government, they can also undercut state autonomy by giving lower-level officials a source of income other than that provided by their salaries.
Foreign governments can, of course, sidestep the bad effects that come from the political generation of economic rents by using their own resources to pay off potential opponents. The funds so used are unlikely to promote economic growth, however, even if they are less likely to directly retard it. In addition, foreign governments will need to credibly promise that they will continue to pay off potential opponents in the future. Otherwise they will withdraw their support once the payments stop coming.
Foreign governments can try to square the circle by running development projects and providing public goods directly while also distributing rents to key local actors via other channels. There are two problems with this strategy. First, it can be expensive. Second, the direct provision of state functions by foreigners can undercut the legitimacy of the local government. Even if successful, a “direct action” strategy requires that the foreign presence itself enjoys popular legitimacy. This is not impossible, of course. The U.N., the U.S., the U.K., the E.U., and Australia have all in recent years intervened in such a way in various places with some level of popular legitimacy. But it is difficult, particularly because direct action bears a discomforting resemblance to classical colonialism. In addition, direct action makes disengagement difficult, if local actors grow to rely too much on foreign resources, expertise, and adjudication … but even if a foreign presence enjoys legitimacy at the start, it is not clear that it will do so indefinitely. An intervention that directly provides state functions without local intermediation runs the risk of simultaneously making itself unpopular and indispensable — a highly undesirable situation for a foreign state-builder.
In short, any state-building strategy with a chance of success needs to recognize its limits. Plans must take into account the limits of its local partners rather than wish those limits away. Local authorities need to be given incentives to cooperate, but in a way that minimally undercuts their autonomy and legitimacy. Resources need to transferred to the local government, but in a careful and planned manner that recognizes the tradeoffs and makes an informed decision about what needs to be sacrificed. In addition, any realistic strategy must recognize that perfection is not attainable. The United States occupied the Philippines for 46 years (not counting Japanese rule in 1942-44) and failed to fully achieve any of its goals. Saying that perfection is unattainable, however, is not to say that success is unattainable. It is to say that success must be realistically defined. Otherwise, one might as well wish for a pony.
Goals need to be limited and realistic. Successful state-building will almost certainly not result in a place that looks like West Germany or Japan, where the U.S. simply needed to get existing state institutions up-and-running under a new, more-democratic management — the Germans and the Japanese already knew exactly what a fully-built state looked like. (In fact, successful state-building is unlikely to look like the less-heralded and less-ambitious 1989 U.S. action in Panama, which did result in democracy, but in which American forces only needed to re-install a duly-elected government.) Nor will it look like Botswana or South Korea, where successful states emerged on the basis of centuries of social development that preceded their colonization. Rather, a realistic state-building strategy would hope for an outcome not unlike, say, Bolivia: a country where political disputes are not routinely resolved by violence, where rent-seeking (while quite widespread) does not prevent the state from carrying out its basic functions, and where most of the citizenry accepts that the government of the day has a legitimate right to rule.