The violence in South Sudan that erupted in December and the creeping disintegration of the Central African Republic highlight the troubles of weak states. They also show that something is seriously flawed in the way the US and EU, the world’s largest foreign aid donors, conduct state building in weak or failing states.
Facing these challenges, voices are now growing to cut back on meddling with weak states. Michael J. Mazarr recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that US “obsession with weak states was always more of a mania than a sound strategic doctrine. Its passing will not leave the United States more isolationist and vulnerable but rather free the country to focus on its more important global roles.” This is wrong. Rather than abandon the weak, the US and Europe should scrutinize their short-sighted state building approach, which needs fixing as much as the “fragile states” do.
To be sure, it is the international community’s moral obligation to act when states and their people face existential threats. German Federal President Joachim Gauck just reinforced this key principle in his keynote address at the 2014 Munich Security Conference. Providing sufficient assistance to weak states like South Sudan is one thing. The other is to do it right.
Yet, it is not done right. Four lessons learned the hard way by diplomats and aid workers in Rwanda and Srebrenica, and learned during extensive state building operations in Kosovo and East-Timor, and in counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, are consistently neglected.
Address local power politics
Legitimacy of government in a nascent democracy does not derive from public elections alone. Crisis diplomats tend to forget that from time to time. Instead, the ruler’s authority derives from a power-sharing deal among only a few powerful individuals who make up the state’s elite.
Particularly in the early days following civil war or a young state’s independence, such an agreement is as fragile as power alliances are fluid.
Resilient political settlements require careful analysis and understanding of the incentives that these elites face as they begin to transition into everyday political life. Experience from post-conflict state building in Kosovo, East-Timor and now again South Sudan show that local power-politics do not end with democratic elections or a peace agreement. This is when they begin. Doing state building right implies seeing the politics in all dimensions of state building and boosting efforts that enhance the inclusiveness of power-sharing beyond state elites.
Bridge social divides
Because a “new” state and its first few governments often lack a social contract, social inclusion must become a central theme of state building.
The society of a troubled state goes beyond elites, and neglecting them puts any political settlement on shaky grounds. Take South Sudan, where today the frontlines are formed along ethnic lines, or neighboring Central African Republic, where Christians and Muslims are pitted against each other, each group fearing for life and survival.
Malevolent elites can easily mobilize well-known social groups and destroy fragile political bargains. Knowing this, bridging social divides and countering social and group exclusion must become a priority if state building is to succeed in the future. State builders, then, must have a better understanding of social divides. They must work with social groups directly in the field, in villages and in cities. They should empower civil society to take on a constructive role in state building, and they should stand up for them if elites curtails their civil rights.
Focus on security sector governance
About three years ago, the World Bank spread the word that reforming security institutions first was key to long-term stability and peace in crisis states. Clearly this lesson has featured prominently in South Sudanese state building. Yet, fighting erupted first in the presidential guard in Juba before spreading rapidly to other branches of the armed forces.
As in South Sudan, external assistance to reforming security institutions too often focuses exclusively on mere training exercises and equipment deliveries. It is not enough to rapidly amalgamate former warring militias without creating a democratic army or police that shares the professional ethos of serving the public. Events in South Sudan tragically show that taking the fast track in security sector reform entails a high risk: the risk that societal divides will crop up inside security forces, who then turn their newly acquired weapons and tactical skills against each other.
Commit and stay
State building needs time and resources — a lot of it. South Sudan did receive considerable foreign assistance, but a closer look reveals two striking patterns that are similar in most “fragile” and conflict-affected states. One, the biggest aid chunk is humanitarian assistance — in the case of South Sudan around 30%. While life-saving, it is oftentimes unsustainable and badly connected to longer-term development goals. At worst, humanitarian assistance under the guise of impartiality and neutrality becomes the easy way to shirk full commitment to state building. Two, the money set aside to rebuild is often too little. South Sudan received US$1.1 billion in development assistance for South Sudan, or around $105 per capita (in 2011). That is hardly enough to “stabilize” the country let alone support its reconstruction.
State building with external assistance, however, means taking on long-term responsibility and committing resources. Consider those countries where the UN, EU and US followed these principles — Kosovo, Bosnia, or Liberia.
They now have gone furthest in developing state institutions and economic development. In those states where international partners have left — Iraq, Somalia, and maybe Afghanistan — violence and broken governments still dominate daily life.
The US and Europe must move beyond superficial state-building
While the above principles are not a magical formula for success, they contain the crucial lessons that were learned during earlier interventions elsewhere. Taking responsibility for state building means taking these lessons seriously. Even though they are learned many times over, they are not consistently applied. The reasons are straightforward but rarely take center stage.
First, policymakers keep state building too simple. Taking up the above principles requires going beyond re-building formal institutions that fool the public. Holding elections is of course a message easily understood by publics at home, but it does little to solve the power conflicts in a newly established state. The focus on formal institutions diverts attention from the complex, but vital, nitty-gritty politics of state building.
Second, policymakers fall victim to short-sighted public attention. Instead of doing it right and addressing the root causes of conflict, international headlines dictate the next center of attention. In South Sudan, governments quickly lost interest when the Arab Spring emerged as the new focus of the crisis diplomacy.
Interventions in failing states come at high risk. Yet, they remain the responsibility of the international community. As long as policymakers in Washington, Brussels and European capitals continue to allow their state building strategies to be limited by the above constraints and continue to ignore the four principles of state building, they will keep on fooling themselves, their publics and the fragile states they aim to fix.