The referendum in Southern Sudan has brought the issues of state formation, state weakness and statelessness back to mind for a lot of bloggers and writers about development. Chris Blattman has posted about what sounds like a really interesting book about statelessness here. Blattman points out that statelessness is often a choice, rather than a passively received condition, and goes on to say:
Why? Well, states historically (and in too many contemporary cases) have been coercive and extractive. Evading rather than entering states has often been the most sensible way to improve well-being. Only recently have (some) states become less predatory. (Or perhaps they remain as destructive in their assimilation, but the lure of consumer products has become too great?)
This is a very germane debate for scholars of Africa, because statelessness was found in large parts of Africa right up to the colonial period. However, it’s important to understand that statelessness doesn’t necessarily mean chaos or the absence of authority, or even of taxation in some forms. Before large states were formed through warfare, colonialism or creeping expansion, much of West Africa was made up of self-governing groups of villages, based on kinship and familial ties and led by chiefs. In Somalia today, though it is functionally stateless in large part, the Islamic Courts movement has support because it provides a substitute source of authority and justice.
For this reason, I’m quite interested to read this book and to assess the second part of Blattman’s statement above. States do not have the monopoly on extractive or coercive behaviour. However, they do formalise such behaviours over larger areas and multiple subject/citizen groups and have other characteristics that distinguish them from tribal authority. They also provide services and solve the collective action problem through coercion. That’s why it’s so interesting to see when and why some groups consider statelessness to be their best solution.
Elsewhere, Aid Watch has questioned whether after Sudan, other states in Africa should redraw their borders and goes on to point out that ‘artificial states’ are prone to worse development outcomes. I’m not a big fan of either of these lines of thought, even though I freely acknowledge that the borders created by colonialism were arbitrary. What Easterly and gang don’t recognise is that virtually *all* states were formed by conquest or other forms of coercion and are thus to some extent arbitrary. At some point in their history virtually every state in the world that is not an island-state has created new boundaries for itself.
This raises the question of what a natural state is, as opposed to an artificial one. Is it one that was never colonised? Ethiopia was never colonised, but it did rather a lot of colonising itself. The Axumite empire conquered lands to the South and North of it’s original base, and subjected new communities to its rule. There is no shortage of archaeological and written evidence to this end, but it was more than a thousand years ago. Does time make it a natural state? Perhaps, but even then Eritrea seceded only in 1993. If secession makes ‘natural’ states, what of the United States of America? Is that an artificial country, given the South once wanted independence?
I’ve written a bit about states and statebuilding in the past. In this post, I looked at why states are important for development, and some reasons why they have been difficult to form in Africa (my thought on this has evolved since I wrote this). Here I wrote about how some African leaders succeeded in creating unified states out of the arbitrarily drawn boundaries of colonialism. And finally, to introduce a little more complexity into the idea of state strength and failure, a quote from Chris Bayly on how states can be simultaneously strong and weak.