Failed states or a failed paradigm? State capacity and the limits of institutionalism

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  • Failed states or a failed paradigm? State capacityand the limits of institutionalism

    Shahar HameiriAsia Research Centre, Murdoch University, South Street, Murdoch, WA 6150, Australia.


    In the post-Cold War era, a voluminous literature has developed to define failedstates, identify the causes and parameters of failure, and devise ways for dealingwith the problems associated with state fragility and failure. While there is sometheoretical diversity within this literature notably between neoliberal institu-tionalists and neo-Weberian institutionalists state failure is commonly defined interms of state capacity. Since capacity is conceived in technical and objectiveterms, the political nature of projects of state construction (and reconstruction) ismasked. Whereas the existence of social and political struggles of various types isoften recognized by the failed states literature, these conflicts are abstracted frompolitical and social institutions. Such an analysis then extends into programmesthat attempt to build state capacity as part of projects that seek to manage socialand political conflict. Ascertaining which interests are involved and which interestsare left out in such processes is essential for any understanding of the prospects orotherwise of conflict resolution.Journal of International Relations and Development (2007) 10, 122149.doi:10.1057/palgrave.jird.1800120

    Keywords: economic development; failed states; governance; institutionalism; statecapacity; social conflict


    The post-Cold War era has been a time of exponential growth for scholarly andpolicy-makers interest in state failure. Major political leaders have placed failedstates and the problems associated with them at the centre of their countriesforeign policy agendas (e.g. Blair 2005; White House 2006). This concern hasindeed been translated into a number of forceful interventions instates such as Afghanistan and the Solomon Islands, with the proclaimedobjective of stopping and even reversing state decay and failure. The purpose ofthis article is to scrutinize the literature on failed states with the intentionof examining what concept of state failure emerges, what the problems are withthis conceptualization, and subsequently what the limitations of this literaturesprescriptions for addressing state failure are.

    Journal of International Relations and Development, 2007, 10, (122149)r 2007 Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 1408-6980/07 $30.00

  • While this article examines and evaluates the notion of state failure, this isnot an attempt to refine this concept. Indeed, the label failed state is itselfproblematic because of its propensity to stifle efforts to contextualize andbetter understand what are in essence very complex social phenomena someof which are rooted in global or regional, rather than in state-based processesof collapse (Berger 2006) that might explain these very states. By this I donot suggest that there are no serious problems associated with thedisintegration of the state apparatus in some states; rather that there is aneed for a more sophisticated theorization of state dynamics than thatadvanced in the failed states literature. The problem with this literature, hence,is not that it has invented problems that do no exist, but with the frameworkswithin which these problems are interpreted and evaluated and the blueprintsfor intervention and action these sorts of analyses invite. In one sense thesestate failure theories seek to bring back the state, both as an actor and as theobject of theoretical examination; but as I argue below, this is a problematicconception of statehood that does not view power and conflict as intrinsic tothe phenomenon of the state.

    The central argument presented and developed in this article is that whilethere is some theoretical diversity within the failed states literature notablybetween neoliberal institutionalists and neo-Weberian institutionalists statefailure and the very conception of statehood are commonly defined in terms ofstate capacity. Since capacity is articulated in technical and objective terms,the highly political nature of projects of state construction (and reconstruction)is masked. Crucially, within these approaches the state and its institutions areabstracted from the social and political conflicts that accompany processes ofcapitalist development. Capacity-building, thus, becomes essentially a form ofantipolitics (Jayasuriya and Hewison 2004) in that it justifies and evenencourages radical forms of intervention and social engineering. However,because little attention is given to the structural and political realities ofconflict and interest, these approaches are limited both in their capacity tounderstand the roots of the problems afflicting these states and in theircapacity to prescribe suitable remedies to these problems.

    In contrast, I propose a framework that reverses the relationship betweeninstitutional capacity and social conflict. Rather than viewing the latter asbeing shaped by, and subjected to, the former, I argue that to comprehend whyinstitutions operate the way they do we need to understand the underlyingsocial dynamics, framed by conflict, that work through social and politicalinstitutions (Robison and Hadiz 2004: 5). By grounding capacity in conflict, weeffectively re-politicize capacity, defining it as a socially constituted anddynamic phenomenon. It is a form of socially produced power [that] reflectsthe particular patterns of relationship current in a sociopolitical formation atany point in time (Malloy 1991: 9). Therefore, capacity is not something that

    Shahar HameiriFailed states or a failed paradigm?


  • resides necessarily within certain institutions or with certain individuals, but anattribute that relates to broader social and political structures, such as thoseaffecting class and ethnicity, within which institutions develop. It is therefore aterm that only has analytical merit within a theoretical framework that has aconcept of power. Reinterpreting the conflictcapacity relationship helpsexplain why in some cases state capacity may improve in relation to certainWeberian institutional benchmarks only to see the intensity of social conflictincrease rather than drop off.

    The article contains two main sections. The first provides a criticalexamination of neoliberal and neo-Weberian institutionalist approaches to statefailure, while the second section develops the theme of conflict analysis. There isno claim here that this article submits anything like a complete alternativeframework, but it does represent an initial attempt at such an agenda.

    Current Approaches to State Failure and Their Limitations

    In this section, I examine the ways in which the literature has conceptualizedstate failure, the implications of these varying conceptions and theirlimitations. Although the focus here is theoretical rather than empirical, it isdifficult to make a clear-cut distinction in relation to the failed states literaturebetween professional and practitioner texts since there is significant conver-gence and cross-fertilization between them. Indeed, much of the currentliterature on failed states does not come from traditional universitydepartments, but from purposely set-up, government-funded research institu-tions and think-tanks operating near or completely separately from establishedacademic institutions.1 Thus the question of whether the literature is driven bythe policy agenda or vice versa is akin to the proverbial chicken-and-egg. Thefailed states literature did not emerge in a vacuum, however, and the concernwith state failure is related to other themes that have been receiving muchacademic and practitioner attention since the end of the Cold War. Theseinclude: the spread of market systems and the world economy to manydeveloping and post-communist states, good governance, state sovereignty,international terrorism, illegal migration, the rising incidence of ethnic conflictand environmental degradation.

    Yet, because policy and theory have been so closely intertwined in the studyof failed states, it is important to bear in mind from the outset that this veryway of representing states is itself political and not an objective and empiricalassessment (Bilgin and Morton 2002: 56).2 According to Milliken and Krause(2003: 12), it has as much to do with

    dashed expectations about the achievements of modern statehood, orthe functions that modern states should fulfil, as it does with the

    Journal of International Relations and DevelopmentVolume 10, Number 2, 2007


  • empirically-observed decomposition or collapse of the institutions ofgovernance in different parts of the world.

    While they are correct to point out the ideological facet associated withdepictions of state failure, the problem with Milliken and Krauses argument isthat they do not recognize that these so-called expectations and functionshave themselves changed significantly over the years, in line with the changingroles of states in the global economy and in promoting global security(Jayasuriya 2005).

    While I divide the literature into neoliberal institutionalist and neo-Weberianinstitutionalist approaches to state failure, in reality this distinction is notprecise. Some authors and even development agencies (e.g. Rotberg 2004;Fukuyama 2005; DfID 2006) cannot be located neatly in one camp or the othersince their frameworks are more eclectic, drawing occasionally on conceptsfrom both perspectives.3 Indeed, Robison and Hadiz (2004: 23) argue that theneoliberal concern with state capacity itself has Weberian roots. However, thistypology does recognize the main theoretical fault-line within the literature onfailed states. Further, the distinctions between the two camps are notinsignificant as they fundamentally represent differing understandings of therelationship between politics and economics. Because of their differences,neoliberal and neo-Weberian institutionalists often tend to identify dissimilarcausalities for state failure, define state failure in different ways, as well asprescribe different solutions to the problems they associate with state failure.These theoretical divergences also mean that our critique of these approaches isnot wholly identical. However, as I have already noted, the parallels betweenthe two camps are also strong and it is where they meet that we find theiracutest deficiencies.

    Crucially, both approaches are limited by their propensity to define statefailure in relation to state capacity. Although state capacity, as we shall see,acquires different meanings in the two approaches, it is still articulated intechnical and objective terms that obscure the highly political nature ofprojects of state construction (and reconstruction). This has at least the threefollowing problematic and interrelated implications.

    First, while the literature does not completely ignore the existence of socialand political struggles of various types, these conflicts are abstracted frompolitical and social institutions and seen as constraints on these institutionscapacity to provide political goods. This is a technocratic notion of the state,which conflates politics with governance.

    Second, this does not recognize that state and institutions both formaland informal develop and change in the context of social conflict andstructural cleavages (Rodan et al. 2006). Since for neoliberal and neo-Weberianinstitutionalists conflict is framed and circumscribed by an overarching

    Shahar HameiriFailed states or a failed paradigm?


  • concern with approximating certain institutional benchmarks, the dynamics ofsocial conflict are not a major analytical concern. Therefore, this concept ofstate capacity fails to account for why certain institutions emerge in the firstplace and why they operate the way they do.

    Finally, capacity-building of the neoliberal or neo-Weberian variety has acrucial material dimension in that it becomes a way of mobilizing the politicalprojects of state building and of managing social and political conflict in amanner that favours particular interests. I now proceed to examine the twoapproaches in detail, beginning with neoliberal institutionalism.

    Neoliberal institutionalist accounts of state failure

    Neoliberal institutionalism is the term I use to refer to those approaches thatcombine the normative preference, associated with neoliberalism, for extendingmarket relations into all social, economic and political spheres, with anemphasis on creating and building the capacity of institutions mostly, butnot exclusively, state institutions to provide the conditions for the effectivefunctioning of markets. This approach has its roots in neoclassical economicsbut is more closely linked to new institutionalist economics (NIE; North 1981,1995).4 Neoliberal institutionalists primary concern is and has always been theeffectiveness of the institutions that are directly associated with the operationsof the market, such as independent central banks, property rights and the ruleof law. However, in recent years, particularly within the World Bank, thestrength of social institutions, social capital and social safety nets has alsobecome an area of considerable interest (World Bank 2001), although this isstill in relation to their potential to support the successful extension of marketsand market relations (Carroll 2006).

    At the heart of the neoliberal institutionalist approach, and this is crucial, isthe conflation of state failure and fragility conceived as a global securityconcern (USAID 2005: 1) with underdevelopment and poverty, albeit with astrong neoliberal slant, separating capitalist development from broaderpolitical issues relating to social conflict (Berger and Weber 2006: 202). Thus,within this literature the relationship between the domestic and the globalspheres is asymmetrical in that the risks associated with the intensification ofdomestic conflict are understood to have global implications, but domesticconflict in itself is not seen as related to changing patterns of capitalisteconomic development, locally and globally. Rather, it is viewed in relation tothe capacity of state institutions to provide conditions hospitable to integrationin the global economy. This serves to reinforce a coercive and interventionistapproach to the states defined as fragile or failed.

    In the donor literature, which comprises a significant portion of theneoliberal institutionalist literature on failed states, the term state failure is

    Journal of International Relations and DevelopmentVolume 10, Number 2, 2007


  • used only infrequently. The preferred term is fragile states (Anderson 2005;DfID 2005; USAID 2005), although the World Bank also uses the term low-income countries under stress (LICUS). There is some variation within theliterature in the way that fragility is conceived. For example, the BritishDepartment for International Development (DfID 2005: 7) defines fragile...


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