How to help failed states?

How to help failed states?
Written by Marko Kananen
Thursday, 12 March 2009
Somalia has been in a state of chaos and anarchy since the fall of dictator Said Barre in 1991. The war situation has thus continued, with short exceptions, for 18 years. Due to the humanitarian, political and economic disaster, caused by two decades of war, Somalia is generally described as a failed state. But what do we mean by this concept, and more importantly, what can we do to help Somalia and all the other failed states?

Somalia has been in a state of chaos and anarchy since the fall of dictator Said Barre in 1991. The war situation has thus continued, with short exceptions, for 18 years. Due to the humanitarian, political and economic disaster, caused by two decades of war, Somalia is generally described as a failed state[1]. But what do we mean by this concept, and more importantly, what can we do to help Somalia and all the other failed states?
Although there are lot of differences between various failing states, there are also certain similarities between them. According to João Marques de Almeida, adviser to the President of the European Commission, failed states share four characteristics. Firstly, in a failed state the central government has lost its control and authority over its territory and is thus unable to safeguard peace, law and order. Secondly, failed states are characterised by “warlord politics”: violence is needed to control the distribution of wealth and the building of political alliances. This makes it hard to distinguish between rebel groups and government forces. Thirdly, in failed states humanitarian tragedies, caused by extreme poverty, hunger and deceases are widespread. Also human rights and democratic norms are commonly subverted. Fourthly, conflicting parties are financed, for a large part, by money coming from kidnapping, trafficking, prostitution, and smuggling. Hence, the state of anarchy serves as a façade for organised crime.
Failed states pose a severe challenge for the EU’s traditional methods of foreign policy. First of all, most of the instruments available to the EU depend on the diplomatic channels and existence of an effective and recognised state. However, this is not, per definition, the case in the context of failed states. In many conflict areas it is hard to find political leaders who are in a position to, first of all, negotiate and cooperate with the international community and secondly, to have enough influence to truly change the situation. For example, in Somalia there have already been 14 attempts to create a central government – so far they have all failed. The country is divided into multitude of clans and sub-clans, not to mention that the northwestern part of the country – Somaliland – has unilaterally claimed independence. Therefore it is not a surprise that the diplomatic channels have remained mostly mute.
But what is the alternative to diplomacy? Military interventions can make the matters even worse. The UN Mission in Somalia (1992-1995) led to significant casualties and failed to restore order. Hence, as the example of Somalia shows, even a benign intervention, such as protection of food delivery, can become violent and turn the intervener into a party to the conflict. In addition to being risky, dangerous and possible ineffective, military interventions are also domestically highly unpopular. Therefore the European Union has rejected calls from the African Union and Somalia's neighbours to deploy peace-keeping forces in the country.
In addition to diplomacy and military intervention, humanitarian aid is one of the standard methods in crisis situations. This has been the case also in Somalia. However, already since the 90’s there has been a growing awareness of the problematic effects caused by the international aid. In Somalia, aid materials have become a main target for the various militia and bandits and they are used to financing the war activities. This does not mean that humanitarian aid to Somalia could or should be stopped. On the contrary, according to the UN analysis more than three million people in Somalia – a third of the total population – is dependent on humanitarian assistance. But aid alone can not solve the problems of a failed state.
In Somalia all the standard prescriptions for troubled countries – diplomacy, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid – have thus proven to be unable to change the situation. Therefore, there is clearly a need for alternative ways of helping failed states. Lately, various books and reports have been conducted to highlight these new ways of crisis management. The thing that most of the experts seem to be emphasising is flexibility. For example, Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart[2] have criticised the western world for its outmoded vision of a sovereign state, which in many parts does exist anymore. Today, identities and loyalties do not necessarily correspond to traditional nation-states, and nations are not as unified and autonomous as it is often expected. Therefore, the authors are encouraging the international community to create and to foster more bonds with different actors of civil societies and markets.
Also João Marques de Almeida is supporting this kind of perception. In stead of emphasising the fixed idea of sovereign statehood under central government and democratic principle, more flexible solutions, such as trusteeships, shared sovereignties or federal structures, should be employed to deal with the complex situation. In Somalia this has been partly done in case of Somaliland. The international community has not recognised Somaliland’s independence, but it has still cooperated with the government in Hargeisa. Although independent Somaliland does not fit into the image of a unified Somalia, held by the international community, from a humanitarian perspective relatively peaceful and well functioning Somaliland is a big step forward.
In addition to flexibility we need pragmatism and concrete solutions on the level of individuals. As Paul Collier writes in “The Bottom Billion[3]. “, the reasons for Africa’s history of repeated coups d'etat and civil wars are not caused merely by a fractious populace or especially bad politics, but mostly by poverty. In an environment of hopeless poverty, joining a rebel army offers a small chance of riches. Therefore, a citizen-based approach, emphasising the basic wellbeing of the people is crucially important in stabilising societies and preventing the circle of violence.
What Collier, Ghani and Lockhart all emphasise, is the importance of engaging the local people in tackling their problems. They have to be allowed to and empowered to promote and manage local projects. For example, food aid is far less helpful than giving people the chance to earn money to buy their own, by providing them with work. This means that the international community has to take a bottom-up approach, supporting, encouraging and enabling the local people to take the matters in to their own hands. A good starting point is the creation and gradual expansion of networks of local actors.
Bottom-up approach also means that the international community has to strive for to cooperate with all the parties connected to the conflict. The international community has to make clear that it supports the general principles of reconciliation and consensus-building, and not a certain political leader or a party. As put by Ghani and Lockhart, foreign-backed leader, taking decisions from the top down, is far less likely to be seen as legitimate by citizens, or to inspire their loyalty.
To conclude, failed states need careful handling. In a situation of complex power structures and vulnerable institutions, the role of the international community is important. However, it has to remain in a background and let the local people take the lead.

[1]Since 2005 the American think-tank Fund for Peace and the magazine Foreign Policy have been publishing an annual failed state’s index, listing the most vulnerable states facing the risk of a major collapse. In the last year’s index Somalia took the unwanted first position.
[2] Ghani & Lockhart (2008): Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World. OxfordUniversity Press.
[3] Collier (2008): The Bottom Billion. Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Oxford University Press.

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