Links about States

Almost all states are artificial to some extent...

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.

6 thoughts on “Links about States

  1. emily

    January 10, 2011 at 1:37pm

    No, I do not think there is such a thing as a “natural state.” While social contract theory is nice on paper, there really are no incidents on paper of people coming together and agreeing to be ruled in exchange for state provision of protection and various services – not voluntarily at least. As you said, virtually all states are formed by force or coercion.

    States may be beneficial, and I am not going to argue that one way or the other; but the idea that states are a natural progression of civilization is, in my opinion, wrong. Instead, they are a tool used to consolidate political or economic power into the hands of elites. Even democratic states do this. Even states like the United States – founded in principles of liberty – was coercive in its beginning and would not exist it not for superior force on the part of the colonists.

    Still, I think that western civilization and its concepts of state and power seem to work effectively. It is when we began exporting these concepts forcibly onto other parts of the world where it becomes less clearly effective. Why do we have one concept of “nation state?” Why are virtually all over forms of governance deemed inferior? Why is the nation state defined as natural and other forms are artificial? We need to reconsider these labels and discard the nation state as the only legitimate form of governance. As you mentioned there are plenty of examples of statelessness that worked well enough.

    (And I’d go even as far as to say, those examples ARE NOT stateless….they are nation stateless. I think this distinction is important because the state is just a governing power, but a nation state is this modern, western concept of a defined border and a central authority. Calling these pre-colonial societies stateless ignores that they actually did have governing power and quite developed systems of governance.)

  2. Jason

    January 11, 2011 at 12:54am

    You wrote: “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.”

    To quote Englebert: “In precolonial Africa, state formation had often involved the subjection and assimilation of competing groups, but in post-colonial Africa, the state was first imposed from outside as an imperial extension, then was severed from its imperial core and abandoned by its creators…”

    Not all states are formed by imperial conquest, which lends itself to a special degree of arbitrariness and lack of legitimacy, making the ‘artificial state’ problem bigger than you give credit for.

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    January 11, 2011 at 5:36am

    Emily – I like that distinction you draw, and I agree with you. My point about the West African ‘kafu’ was that they had authority structures (based on kinship and chiefdoms) boundaries (based on villages, though these were fluid) and taxation systems – so they were governed.

    Jason – To some extent I do agree with this. However, internal (to Africa) colonisation wasn’t much different. When members of one clan or ethnic group invaded a neighbouring area, conquering what parts of it they could, to expand their sphere of influence, obtain new subjects and extract more resources, they would have been just as alien as a completely ‘foreign’ colonial power.

    Take Ethiopia – Not only does it have several languages, it has several language *groups*. It’s not even a case of one Semitic speaking tribe or group subjecting another – Ethiopia is a country of Semitic speakers, Cushitic speakers and some other languages. The people are incredibly diverse. What’s more, they would count as an ‘artificial state’ by the Alessina definition Easterly uses, because they have split the Afar people in half. Half live in Ethiopia, and the rest in Djibouti, all in the Danikil or Afar depression. Should this be a state in it’s own right?

  4. Jason

    January 14, 2011 at 1:17am

    What do you make of Englebert’s theory, espoused in “State Legitimacy and Development in Africa”, that state legitimacy, which he asserts is directly associated with the colonial legacy, is the main determinate of the development capacity of African countries (as of 2000 at least, when the book was written)?

  5. Jason

    January 14, 2011 at 1:27am

    I ask because he seems to provide a wealth of solid quantitative analysis to back it up? Can you point me to any studies that condradict or undermine his analyisis?

  6. Ranil Dissanayake

    January 14, 2011 at 5:37am

    Hi Jason,

    I’m not massively familiar with his work, so I can’t give you definitive answer. Firstly, though while it’s certainly a factor, state legitimacy derives from much more than the colonial legacy.

    Secondly, what kind of quantitative analysis does he use? how does he measure state legitimacy. It seems like a very knotty concept, and I’m sure he’s using proxies. Proxies always bring problems, though they’re not always insurmountable.

    That said, I do think it’s a very important thing: if a state is illegitimate, state-driven development will be much more difficult; most models of development have involved the state (even those in the UK and US, where the state place a very important role in redistributing and securing rights to property etc.) Thus, a weak state weakens capacity for development.

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