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The Concept, Causes and Consequences of Failed States: A Critical Review of the Literature and Agenda for Research with Specific Reference to Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Jonathan Di John 1  

The European Journal of Development Research volume  22 ,  pages 10–30 ( 2010 ) Cite this article

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This article provides a critical review of recent literature that has attempted to define what a ‘failed state’ is and explains why such states emerge. It is argued that aggregate indices of ‘failure’ are misleading due to the wide variations of capacity across state functions within a polity. The focus on ranking states also distracts attention away from analyses concerning the dynamics of state capacity. Moreover, many of the definitions either compare reality to a Weberian ideal, or assume that violence is ‘development in reverse’, both of which are ahistorical and unhelpful as a guide to policy. The second part of the article assesses the contributions of functionalist, ‘new war’ and neo-Tillean approaches to explain state failure. The article finds that while these theories take concrete historical situations seriously, they have important theoretical and empirical shortcomings. Finally, the conclusion outlines an agenda for further research.

Cet article offre un examen critique de la littérature récente cherchant à définir ce qu’est un État défaillant, ainsi que les raisons donnant lieu à leur émergence. Il considère que les indicateurs agrégés permettant d’établir qu’un État est défaillant sont tous trompeurs en raison de la grande variation qui peut exister au sein d’un même État quant à sa capacité à assurer ses différentes fonctions. Il est souligné que les classements détournent l’attention des analyses portant sur la dynamique variable de la capacité des États. Plusieurs approchent comparent, de plus, la réalité avec un idéal weberien, ou bien supposent que la violence est une forme de développement « à l’envers », ce qui constitue une présupposition anhistorique et inutile du point de vue de l’aide à la décision. La deuxième partie de l’article se penche en particulier sur les contributions fonctionnalistes, du paradigme des « nouvelles guerres », ainsi que des approches basées sur les théories de Charles Tilly. Bien que prenant en compte les réalités historiques, ces différentes approches ont toutes des points faibles, tant théoriques qu’empiriques, et la conclusion de l’article se base sur ces derniers afin d’élaborer un agenda de recherche futur à propos des États défaillants.

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The notion that state failure constitutes a direct threat to the United States is now seen as a mainstream view. In 1992, then UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali laid the foundations for that principle in a treatise to the Security Council entitled ‘An Agenda for Peace, Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking, and Peace-Keeping’ .

On the liberal view of war and violence, and what has come to be known as the ‘liberal peace thesis’, see Howard (1978) and, Pugh et al (2008) .

A variant of this argument, the so-called rentier state theory, argues that when states gain a large proportion of their revenues from external sources, such as mineral resource rents or aid, the reduced necessity of state decision-makers to levy domestic taxes causes leaders to be less accountable to individuals and groups within civil society; more prone to engage in and accommodate rent-seeking and corruption; and less able to formulate growth-enhancing policies (for example Karl, 1997 ; Moore, 2004 ).

The theoretical and empirical shortcomings of the resource curse have been treated elsewhere ( Sambanis, 2004 ; Snyder, 2006 ; Di John, 2007 ).

In a similar vein, Ghani and Lockhart (2008) describe state success or failure (in a technical way) as a function of whether key functions of the state such as a legitimate monopoly on the means of violence, administrative control and the rule of law are achieved.

Iraq only qualifies as a failed state after the US-led invasion.

See Torres and Anderson (2004) for a summary of the range of definitions.

The Bank identifies fragile states by weak performance on the Country Policy and Institutional Assessment. The Bank proceeds with the ahistorical idea that conflict is ‘development in reverse’ and its goal is to get countries to achieve ‘good governance’, which is viewed as an input into state-building and development, an idea that is problematic, ahistorical and not supported by the evidence ( Swensson, 2005 ; Khan, 2007 ).

This section on the CIA draws on the analysis of Logan and Preble (2006) .

In this perspective, it is important to distinguish between processes of state-building and state-formation. The former typically encapsulates a set of technical interventions (and is often assumed to be a fairly quick thing to achieved), and typically comes with external interventions of one kind or another; the latter is a historical, highly varied, non-linear and conflictual, typically more internal process. For a discussion of the importance of viewing state capacities in a historical and political perspective (and just in technical terms), see Cramer and Goodhand's (2003) idea of ‘failing better’ in the context of post-war Afghanistan, and Kriger (2003) on the political dynamics of incorporating former guerrilla soldiers who fought for independence in post-war Zimbabwe.

For further critiques of indices of state fragility and governance, see van Waeyenberge (2006) .

Following the standard Weberian definition, patrimonialism is a system of personal rule based on administrative and military personnel, who are responsible only to the ruler. Neo-patrimonialism, a term first coined by Eisenstadt (1973) , and one which features prominently (though not exclusively) in the political science literature on Africa, commonly refers to a form of organisation in which relationships of a broadly patrimonial type pervade a political and administrative system which is formally constructed on rational-legal lines ( Clapham, 1985 , pp. 39–60). In this system, the office of power is used for personal uses and gains, as opposed to a strict division of the private and public spheres. Clientelism, in this article, refers to a specific set of patron-client relationships where leaders (patrons) provide state resources in the form of credits, subsidies and employment opportunities to clients (individuals and groups) in order to secure the loyalty of such clients. One common form of client loyalty is voting for the party responsible for dispensing with state patronage.

For discussions of these processes, see Lugard (1965) and Mamdani (1996) .

The model assumes that leaders have short-term time horizons, seeking to maximise returns immediately rather than promote long-run investment ( Chabal and Daloz, 1999 , p. 113). In other words, leaders are modelled as ‘roving bandits’ as opposed to ‘stationary bandits’ ( Olson, 1993 ).

It is important to note that Collier's work not only formalised many of Keen's insights but narrowed the relevant variables to supposedly measurable economic indicators, while Keen (2008) subsequently broadened his view of functions to include a range of non-economic functions.

It should be kept in mind that developmental outcomes are not only or even mainly the result of a leader's intentions or aims. Developmental outcomes are often the unintended consequence of conflicts and political struggles ( Brenner, 1976 ; Knight, 1992 ). Also, the distinction between developmental and predatory is not necessarily in binary opposition. Leaders who do not have developmental aims will not necessarily become predatory.

In this sense, Duffield's (2001) work commits many of the theoretical and empirical errors as earlier dependency theories (on the methodological problems of dependency theory, see Palma, 1978 ).

See also Stewart (1994) who showed that the evidence of varying performance across a number of indicators during war suggested policy could be used to mitigate costs of war.

South Africa, Botswana and Mauritius would be three countries that maintained a relatively centralised state.

In her work on the political economy of civil war in Lebanon from 1975–1990, Picard (2000) develops a more nuanced view than Leander does on the dynamics between state and non-state leaders and how this dynamic affects state functions. Although war led to substantial fragmentation of the economy and polity, the milita groups did not seek to destroy the state as they benefitted greatly from their complementary role to the state economy. Picard also notes the important role militia entrepreneurs played in the reconstruction of the post-war economy.

See, however, Bräutigam et al (2008) on the link between taxation and state-building in developing countries.

See Paris (2004) for a critique of the idea that economic and political liberalisation is appropriate in reconstructing post-war economies.

Beyond the African context, there is a substantial literature on the role that political party pacts have played in maintaining peaceful transitions to democracy in less-developed countries ( Burton and Higley, 1998 ).

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Di John, J. The Concept, Causes and Consequences of Failed States: A Critical Review of the Literature and Agenda for Research with Specific Reference to Sub-Saharan Africa. Eur J Dev Res 22 , 10–30 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1057/ejdr.2009.44

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