How does state failure come about, and how can donors help to prevent it? This article from Conflict Management and Peace Science identifies five pathways to state failure: escalating ethnic conflicts, state predation, regional guerrilla rebellion, democratic collapse, and succession/reform crises in authoritarian states. Each involves changes in the legitimacy and effectiveness of regimes; state failure happens when a state loses both effectiveness and legitimacy. Donors should keep both factors in mind to avoid the problems that arise when states focus on one to the exclusion of the other.
To remain stable, a state must possess both effectiveness and legitimacy. Effectiveness relates to the state’s ability to perform functions while legitimacy reflects whether its actions are accepted as reasonable by its population. A state that possesses high levels of one characteristic or the other can survive for years but is inherently unstable.
State failure is often analysed using an institutional approach in which long-standing characteristics and conditions provide insight into the specific failings of the present context. These institutions, however, are not easily changed. Therefore it is necessary to analyse failing states to identify those institutions that contribute most significantly toward promoting or undermining state stability. Such an analysis yields several common pathways to institutional failure that, while not comprehensive, can enable earlier recognition of state failure as it unfolds:
- Escalation of communal group conflicts: A breakdown occurs because ethnic groups no longer have sufficient incentives to accept the authority of the state, either because of exclusionary practices or state ineffectiveness. Examples include Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
- State predation: When a regime is perceived to be enriching itself to the detriment of elites and institutions alike, a coalition of interests can form to break down state authority. Examples include Nicaragua and Philippines.
- Regional or guerrilla rebellion: The breakdown occurs when a regional group or economic class perceives itself to be excluded by the state and succeeds in recruiting further supporters through continued state ineffectiveness. Examples include Colombia and Vietnam.
- Democratic collapse: Newly democratised states, while initially benefiting from popular support, can suffer from factionalism that reduces their effectiveness. Continued ineffectiveness invites military intervention and undermines legitimacy. Examples include Nigeria and Nepal.
- Succession or reform crises in authoritarian states: A government whose legitimacy depends on the skill or popularity of one leader can lose its control on power when a succession crisis removes or undermines that authority. Examples include Indonesia and Soviet Union.
Responding to state failure is difficult because of the myriad variables and interests involved. Nevertheless, by focusing on state effectiveness and legitimacy the analysis above provides some general guidelines for interventions:
- Determine whether the state is low on effectiveness, legitimacy, or both.
- If low on legitimacy but high on effectiveness, seek out ways to re-establish legitimacy such as previous popular leaders or, if the conditions are right, elections. Democracy, however, is not a panacea.
- If high on legitimacy but low on effectiveness, long-term aid and technical support is needed to help build the state’s capacity to govern. Short-term fixes and over-promising will only undermine legitimacy and hasten failure.
- Interventions must incorporate both factors to ensure state stability.
- If state collapse is imminent, security and political legitimacy must take precedence, as without them no further progress can be made.