Why and how failed states recover: book review
30 Sep 2014|

UN Team Navigates through Western SaharaMore than one billion of the world’s seven billion people live in failed or failing states. Why and how do failed states recover and why haven’t the lessons of state failure over the past sixty years been learned? Why do we continue to see the same mistakes repeated again and again?

In his new book Why States Recover, Greg Mills, the head of the South African-based Brenthurst Foundation, conducted fieldwork in over 40 countries on four continents to provide a compelling first-hand account of the causes of state failure and the prescriptions of recovery. Mills concludes that states can and do recover from failure, but we shouldn’t expect any quick fixes.

As someone who has been engaged with fragile and recovering states in Africa over a good many years, I’m familiar with the massive challenges of rebuilding infrastructure and bringing justice and reconciliation to damaged communities.  As Mills points out it starts with a legitimate local leadership building trust through policies that provide better basic services, creating opportunities, imposing the rule of law and opening the door to private-sector investment.

Why States Recover makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of state failure and in some cases, recovery. The book is a deeply personal one, recording Mills’ discovery—mostly from his experiences in the field—that returning failed states to recovery depends crucially on insiders and what they do. The key point here is that successful recovery demands that the political leadership interpret the reasons for failure as primarily internal, not external.

Mills analyses why Africa has the majority of failed and fragile states, while East Asia has turned fragility into some extraordinary successes, maintaining economic growth rates at multiples greater than anything seen in the previous 200 years of European and North American development history.

Despite having similar colonial experiences, South East Asia’s per capita GDP has risen to USD13,000 while across sub-Saharan Africa the figure has virtually flat-lined since the 1960s at less than USD1,000 per annum.

Mills suggests that a combination of factors rather than any one issue have sown the seeds of failure in Africa. A lack of a critical mass of skilled people able to participate in development across much of sub-Saharan Africa is one reason. The inheritance of imperial borders—making local government less competitive and unable to raise taxes to enable territory-wide government—is another.

Mills challenges conventional wisdom about the importance of aid. He cites the tendency towards less reliance on domestic sources of tax revenue as both an effect of and a reason for increasing inflows of foreign aid. He argues that a feeling of insecurity towards outsiders may help explain why the tendency of many weak states in Africa has been to look to outsiders for salvation, most notably through aid.

Mills makes a strong case for a clear link between democratic and economic performance, citing the UN Human Development Index which classifies 41 of the top 47 countries as ‘free’. He says the great asset of democracy is that it makes policies and politics more competitive in the marketplace of ideas.

But it’s also vitally important to recognise that fragile and failed states can recover only if fixing the mess is owned by local leadership. Mills contends that establishing a virtuous circle of state recovery requires not only higher levels of efficiency in government, the imposition of the rule of law and ending of monopolies, but the establishment of an environment that spurs an innovative and transformational culture.

In terms of the first-order priority of security, Mills argues that outsiders can, in the right circumstance, play a useful role. But he makes the point that, as Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate, there’s no such thing as a ‘security solution’ to a country’s problems: it’s the political and economic solution which is crucial for medium-term stability.

Mills cautions the donor community not to overwhelm the limited capacity of governments and the people they’re trying to help. Transferring ownership of imported ideas to local politicians is necessary for good ideas to take root. That requires building the capacity among the technocrats and the politicians.

Mills argues that donor agencies don’t appreciate that sustainable salvation isn’t going to happen as a result of welfare from foreign taxpayers. Locals themselves must take on that responsibility. Mills poses a disturbing question: if we know the policies that lead to growth, and we know the policies that will kill it, then why aren’t the correct solutions implemented? His answer: short-term political or personal financial self-interest stops politicians from having the will to act in a different way.

The book is relevant for those interested in global security, foreign and economic policy and development with insights into countries of strategic interest, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Myanmar and the continent of Africa. Most importantly, the book provides reasons to have optimism about the future, something often in short supply when discussing state failure.

Billy Williams is a former Australian diplomat who served in south and west Africa between 2002 and 2013. He continues to be engaged in the development issues of the continent. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.