Saturday, June 25, 2011

Nation building, from the bottom up

The Economist has a brief description of the state-building process in Somaliland, a de facto independent region within de jure jurisdiction of Somolia.

Aid and Somaliland: Mo money mo problems

The basic thesis is that in the absence of foreign support for the Somaliland state, the government was forced into developing a web of alliances and relationships with regional leaders, resulting in a government that is accountable to the people. Contrast this with the internationally recognized government of Somalia, a pathetic assemblage of warlords who have been constantly attempting to subdue the Somali people by force, backed by immense funding and direct military intervention from foreign states, including the USA.

I've been wondering for awhile if the USA's "nation building" activities have been fundamentally misguided, in that they are largely "state building" activities. This top-down approach assumes that foreigners can establish a functioning legal and political system, which will then create the conditions for the development of the economic and social relations that define a nation. This is the basic approach that Westerners have collectively used when dealing with their former colonies, and 50 years after decolonization, much of the territory assigned to these artificial states is still racked by warfare. I'm afraid of what will happen if the internationally recognized Somali government ever subdues Mogadishu, and then then seeks to assert its dominance over Somaliland.

This top-down approach ignores the fact that a legal and political system must be compatible with local culture, and even the most sensitive foreign intervention will probably fail to identify the appropriate structure for a given society. Even a native would often fail to establish a sustainable national system, simply because many of these societies lack the basic institutional framework on which a national government could be built .

The opposite approach would be "bottom up" nation-building: encouraging commercial relations and the development of dispute-settling frameworks. Once local institutions are developed, they can provide the framework for creating national institutions (for instance, when the USA was established, it was a relatively simple matter of getting 13 states with similar cultures to agree on a national constitution). This seems to be how the Islamic Courts Union got established in Somalia.

Of course, most "realists" would assert that a proper nation-building strategy would address the whole range of issues -- seeking synergies between the top-down and bottom-up approach. For instance, commercial relationships and a fair legal system help to support each other. However, when we allow the state to take the lead on nation-building programs, we will most likely see a bias towards state-building. In part, this is the consequence of perspective: the agents of the state think in terms of the state. But it also results from the ulterior motives of any outside participant in nation-building. They are not simply seeking security and prosperity (or even stability) for the people of the post-colonial territory in question, they are seeking their own economic and geo-political advantage. States have the ability to exploit their people, and by getting involved in the establishment of new nation-states, the ruling class of one nation essentially inserts itself into the ruling class of another nation.

This feature of state behavior is worth keeping in mind, lest we get fooled into once again bearing "the white man's burden".

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