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Friday, 13 October 2017

The contested meaning of Failed States for international order

The first SEESOX Michaelmas Term seminar offered the opportunity to Susan Woodward (City University of New York) to speak on her latest book “The Ideology of Failed States: why intervention fails”. The Discussant was Adis Merdzanovic (St Antony’s), with Kalypso Nicolaidis (St Antony’s) in the Chair.

In her presentation, Woodward underlined that, rather than criticise the concept of a “failed state” (FS) as such – which she had done frequently – she wanted to look more closely at why, despite its obvious flaws, the concept was used so frequently, even casually, particularly by international actors. Looking at its origins, the concept of an FS, perceived as the security threat for international peace at the end of the Cold War, was used as a new basis and organization for more intrusive intervention within countries by the United Nations, as well as a new justification for development aid to poorer countries now that the anti-communist legitimation had no basis any more. This concept had seen off the challenge of alternative analyses favouring a cooperative, developmental approach to international relations that would have entailed major change to the post-war international order. It thus reinforced the system built after World War II, especially the Bretton Woods institutions, NATO and the OECD development donors. But, with the end of the Cold War, the stabilising influence of competitive rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, which had given poorer countries space for their own development alternatives, was no longer there. The large majority (70%) of development assistance was therefore being spent on technical assistance (highly paid experts from the donor countries) with only a residual 19% (11% in Africa) of discretionary spending by the beneficiary country. In practice, this policy had led to increasing investment in resources and capacities for intervening actors, rather than in the capacity they said they were building in target countries. This increasing institutionalization for policies of intervention by international actors had reached the point where it was now difficult to imagine either any possibility of change for countries where intervention takes place, or the reform of the international order as had initially been hoped in 1989-1992.Merdzanovic welcomed the fact that the book required readers to think about the impact of the use of a concept like FS on the states so designated. He wholeheartedly agreed with much of the content of the book, describing it as a “very valuable, much-needed contribution of a truly interdisciplinary character”. He questioned however whether it was useful to characterise the FS concept as an ideology; if at all it was a rather thin one. In addition, he regretted that no consideration had been given to agency in Woodward’s main argument; international interveners had been more successful in strengthening real capacity, when they shifted from an agenda-setting to an arbiter approach. Are the structural preconditions, of themselves, a sufficient condition for failure of intervention?

In the subsequent discussion, Woodward questioned whether the basis for intervention – to create a state functioning according to the needs of intervening actors – was in fact necessary. In practice, the FS concept had become so all-encompassing that it failed to distinguish reality. The challenges were: to help development by reintroducing policy competition at international level; and to find labels for actual issues and categories of countries, rather than this wholesale label that blinds one to what needed to be considered and assessed. There was a spirited discussion of the need for state structures - such as a central bank – as well as how far external interveners in practice bypassed state structures.

My own conclusions? The FS concept may have had some value initially, but it has clearly been abused – whether or not it is an ideology. It no longer really serves, if it ever did, as a tool for policy analysis and formulation. It could be helpful to move away from it and develop a different approach to development support – perhaps based on policy competition. International development actors can always benefit from the periodic re-examination of their basic approach.

Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX Associate, St Antony's College, Oxford)

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