Sunday, 11 July 2010

Remove the Tribes

Someone writes a piece. It’s powerful and full of insight; this person knows their subject. Because of its depth it grasps the core issues, elucidates the central concerns of the topic, and thus the analysis reaches far wider, touching our own lives and understanding; its ideas have universal application.

This is Alex de Waal’s article in the LRB, which discusses the recent attempts by the UN, or more particularly the West, to create sustainable states in the Third World. He describes the worldview of the people inside these organisations:

International state-builders begin with a blueprint of what a modern country ought to look like… The economists and political scientists who advise international institutions argue that no country should follow its own unique rules, and human rights advocates insist there should be no second-best solutions for countries just because they are poor and war torn…

[They] ignore vernacular politics, to the detriment of the countries they leave at the end of their contracts. From within the UN compound or behind the embassy walls, forces such as kinship and patron-client networks are readily denigrated as ‘tribalism’ or ‘corruption’.


Real politics in countries like Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan operate much like village politics or even family politics, on the basis of personal affinity, loyalty and reward.

So why do these ‘State-builders’ continue with their views, even after their failure? The author suggests an answer:

Their formal state structures are not strong enough to resolve political disputes or manage national budgets, which makes them problematic interlocutors for Western governments and financial institutions.

The World Bank actually defines a ‘fragile state’

As one that cannot efficiently handle foreign assistance.

And another reason why the policy makers make not like this kind of social structure:

Often it was precisely the strength of its social fabric which allowed a country to withstand foreign invasions and colonial occupation with its social order intact.

De Waal looks in depth at Sudan, his particular area of expertise, showing how new technology and the money economy has changed but not erased the old autochthonous model; making it even harder to create stable states, as the social fabric is weakened through civil war and banditry.

Why is it getting worse? Once there was a limit to a state’s resources, many of which were relatively cheap – eg honours and status. Today, there is a global economy, vast and unpredictable, where rewards for loyalty must be in dollars; thus the ability of the state to pay off its opponents, or keep its friends, becomes increasingly hard, as the costs rise. Thus Civil Wars last longer, and affect more people destroying both the society and the state.

Unfortunately for a state-builder, the forces of globalisation have made patronage less affordable and political markets more volatile. There has been price inflation in loyalty and rulers nowadays are struggling to pay. In a good year rulers may be able to meet the demands of the elites. An economic crunch will not reduce those demands, merely his ability to pay. One response is to try and plunder resources (or license members of the elite to do so), divert aid, run up debts and sell off state assets at fire-sale prices to the elites. Another is to reduce the ambit of patronage, by shedding some of the beneficiaries, even if this generates grievance and conflict. A third alternative is to license one provincial elite to pillage its neighbour’s assets – the cheapest form of controlling a borderland and one that can ignite intractable ethnic conflicts. A classic case is the counterinsurgency in Darfur.

De Waal’s analysis also suggests why the West may benefit from these conflicts. The need for money, creates a demand for money, and thus for the Western banks to lend; while the elites may consider selling state assets at even lower prices to Western institutions (see David Harvey for his analysis on how American and European financial institutions have benefited from the global economic crises, by acquiring state assets very cheaply. He suggests this may be the main reason for them). Moreover, a leader dependent on foreign aid and support will be readily sympathetic to a British or American corporation exploiting his country’s mineral wealth. Nationalise the diamond industry? You may lose it to your rivals, when the dollars go to the freedom fighters or the Christians.

Of course, in an ideal world the West would like stable institutions which it could safely exploit – one reason why they liked Mobutu (de Waal comments on his particular skill in maintaining stability in Zaire); and for the World Bank definition, quoted above. However, where that stability does not exist, other means can be found for exploitation; even if that means longer wars and greater devastation; for the host population. And then the bureaucrats come…

With their own illusions and self interest – those contracts have to be paid for. Moreover, they are experts and believers in their country and the modern world. Thus they have to prove it works: their emotional attachment to America and their ideas, their way of life, cannot be undermined. Their technical knowledge reinforces their confidence, their refusal to see their mistakes – a hereditary monarch doesn’t’ have to worry over her competence; a technician does, for he can’t work the machine, he will lose his job. This can create irrationality, as mistakes are justified away – Chomsky is very good on this, when he describes the systematic errors, and their refusal to admit them, of the Power Intellectuals behind the Vietnam War.

What de Waal’s analysis suggests is that these institutional interventions skew the distribution of power towards the current ruler, the sitting tenant in government house. They fulfil this need for stability at the price of perpetual civil war – the ruler is never quite strong enough to defeat the provincial elites, but is not weak enough to settle an accord with them; for he is always assured of outside support and aid – think of Afghanistan under both Brezhnev and Obama, think of Mohammad Najibullah and Hamid Karzai.

De Waal notes that the World Bank doesn’t like the ‘fragile states’ with a strong social fabric, which, as we have seen, can withstand foreign invasion (Iraq appears a very good example of this – the state collapsed quickly, but the resistance has thwarted significantly America’s war aims). There is a terrible suggestion here… While the West would prefer stable states, given the chance it finds weak ‘failed states’ more attractive that ones with a strong social fabric, of interlocking self-supporting communities; even if these provide a better life for their populations. In certain areas of the world, that is, they may prefer war to peace – a reflex encouraged by the enormous military (what would happen to that if there were no conflict in the world?)

Is this all contrived, planned, or just a series of mistakes, based on limited knowledge and horizons? Like so many other political acts, the needs of the West, and the self-interest of the institutions, all push in the same direction. So even the good intentions of the idealistic get distorted and corrupted. And because we have the most power we will also have the most effect; and this will often be very detrimental indeed, even where, or especially where, there are strong forces of resistance, which allows the people and their communities to resist effectively.

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