#learn power wednesdays: State-building in a networked world


Victor Gillam  “The White Man’s Burden (Apologies to Rudyard Kipling)” Judge, April 1, 1899 (Source: The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum). Wrapping imperial conquest in the guise of a civilization mission

the ‘00s, when the hills were alive with the sound of international
interventions, military and otherwise? From Sierra Leone, to Congo, to
Afghanistan and beyond, the decade started off
enthusiastically, with an ambitious and ambiguous blend of regime change
– military intervention to topple unsavory political leaders,
international humanitarian law – the responsibility to protect civilian
populations, and the premise of human development – the pursuit
of the millennium goals to lift millions out of dire poverty. During that
same period, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and East Timor were
laboratories for internationally administered statelets supposedly on
the road to sovereignty.

These modern stirrings of the “White Man’s Burden” , as per Kipling’s epic ode to imperialism a hundred years before, were made possible by a unique conjuncture in international
politics. A host of disparate developments coincided: The end of the Cold War, which temporarily revived the United Nations, the trauma of civil war in the Former Yugoslavia, and of genocide in
Rwanda under the very eyes of the international community, the United States’ unipolar moment, a gradual change of its military doctrine, 9/11, prosperity in the West, and a semblance of its still dominance, economic growth world-wide…

states was the buzz word and state-building was all the rage at that time. The
reasoning was simple – it was non-existent and/ or corrupt/ predatory state
structures that condemned people to live in misery, which in turn fueled
conflict and wars on a local and regional scale. The international
community thus had a vested interest to roll up their sleeves and to get
involved – if need be militarily, to establish conducive conditions on the ground
so that peace and economic development could take root. Politically,
socially, economically and culturally, to foster building viable
structures for people to live together in peace and prosperity.

are we today, as to what concerns those noble ambitions of helping others, to hopefully later help themselves? In the doldrums, it seems. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been
costly political and military failures, and the principle of humanitarian intervention itself has been tarnished either by blatant breaches of international law (Iraq stands out as a war of aggression, non-sanctioned
by any resolution of the UN Security Council), and/ or incompetence to provide sound follow-up planning and implementation of political solutions (looking at you, Iraq and Libya, but also Afghanistan).

There are eery parallels between, say, the US imperial conquest of the Philippines at the end of the 19th century and the war in Iraq, for example. In both cases, a higher goal was invoked – then, to develop and modernise, and most recently, to spread democracy. But “helping carry the foreign
barbarians to civilization” did not turn out so well in both cases. The Philippines had to live through a brutal three-year counter-insurgency war with an estimated 34,000 to 220,000 casualties (many from starvation and disease), complete with concentration camps and, yes, water boarding. American dead of this war are reported at 4,200.

Pile on the brown man’s burden,
compel him to be free;
Let all your manifestoes
Reek with philanthropy.
And if with heathen folly
He dares your will dispute,
Then, in the name of freedom,
Don’t hesitate to shoot.

A stanza from the satirical poem The Brown Man’s Burden by Henry Labouchère, published in 1899 as a response to Kipling’s imperialist verse that appeared just ahead of the Philippines War. Well worth reading.

The Iraq adventure, as we can daily convince ourselves, has morphed into a deadly regional civil war that has destabilised the entire Middle East, with no end in sight. Estimations of Iraqi casualties so far from both international intervention and ensuing fratricide and degradation of vital infrastructure range from 100,000 to over a million people. In 2011, the war in Iraq had cost the lives of 4,425 American, of 4,799 coalition soldiers and of some thousand contractors. This is not counting the wounded (an estimated 250,000 Iraqis, and 32,223 US soldiers wounded-in-action, for example), and those who will perish in the future due to inter-sectarian violence and due to the destruction of what normally underpins the functioning of our modern societies – electricity generation, water sanitation, hospitals, trained doctors and nurses, administration, rubbish collection, transport…

But even internationally sanctioned and successful military operations are no guarantee for long-term success of a country’s stabilisation or state-building. Take Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country in limbo, which simmers in a institutional corset that has permanently divided the country along ethnic lines. Or Kosovo, where international, then EU efforts have resulted in a country famous for its alleged links with organised crime and for exporting male, unskilled workers to European countries that do not want them. Afghanistan, a country in which the international community did a serious effort investing in infrastructure and institution-building risks with time falling back into the hands of the Taliban.

Let’s speak, albeit briefly, about other “negative externalities” of foreign interventions, military or otherwise. Every deployment of troops or of an international mission has so far
seemingly unavoidably encouraged the development of prostitution. Which
in turn has fueled human trafficking to strategic locations, either
in-country or en route. At times, those sent to help in a crisis have been found preying on
vulnerable populations, rather than protecting them – troops or
personnel under the United Nations flag, or dispatched by individual nations are
routinely accused, but so far rarely prosecuted and convicted of sexual
There are of course other significant costs, such as economic distortion. Economies are warped by the influx of “foreign” money fostering inflation, and a de facto segmented labour market – those working for the “internationals”, and those trying to scrape by.

But something else seems to be going on. There is a general feeling that the very concept of international help is literally a dead end. Bi-lateral or international development aid has been identified as corrupting elites of recipient countries, as well as lining the pockets of donor-nations and/ or affiliated big firms. Disillusionment with humanitarian and development aid institutions, instruments, and with the human beings conceiving and implementing policies is ripe.

After this long litany on our collective failures to live up to our own expectations, should we now turn inwards, and deal with our own problems rather than “meddling abroad”? Alas, as we have seen in a recent post on mapping fragile states, existing fragilities have not simply disappeared. Instability is on the rise around the world, and resilience of countries and societies to internal and external shocks is on the wane. In our inderdependent world, splendid isolation is simply not an option, as, as we experience for example with the ongoing refugee crisis around the Mediterranean basin, the consequences of such instability literally wash up on our shores.

So what is to be done? At the very least, lessons – political, military, economic, social and cultural – from the last 25 years of interventionism need to be assembled, and if we don’t want to repeat them in the next decade, carefully digested. Most importantly, the task of state-building, its potential and its limits, needs to be urgently explored – in the context of an interdependent, networked world, in which power balances have shifted and are shifting, and in which states are no longer the sole actors.

Further reading (minuscule selection, to be completed) :

Moyo, Dambisa, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way
for Africa

State Fragility and Statebuilding, OECD

Supporting Statebuilding in Situations of Fragility and Conflict, Executive Summary, OECD, January 2011

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) Ressource page

Johanna M

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