On failing states, Somalia, New Macau and the War on Terror

The Economic Society in Queensland runs a series of televised presentations whereby they get economists to talk about topical issues they are working on. Following Quiggin, Bhagwati and McKibbin, it was my turn a few weeks ago to talk about the Christian-Islamic conflict, the general problems in handling nation states, and the various issues surrounding Somalia in particular. Click on the picture and enjoy!

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11 years ago

I watched this this morning, and it is was interesting. I had a few random thoughts (hopefully I’m not repeating things here as I didn’t manage to watch it uninterupted):

1) It would have been nice to have a slide or two at the start looking at some of your descriptors across failed states. It’s currently unclear to what extent they are specific to certain groups or not (e.g., The North Korean government has a monopoly on violence), and to what extent you are obliged to have them to fail. At present, just using one or two examples doesn’t capture any of that and it isn’t clear what might be a core property of being a failed state and what might just be something that is common (this is really just a problem of categorizing things in complex domains).
2) It would be nice to add some poor countries we don’t consider failed states on that slide too, so one could see the overlap in terms of descriptors.
3) It’s hard ot know to what extent some of the descriptors are really inherent properties of failed states versus predictors of likely failure. For example, I imagine having organized groups and co-operation between them is going to be much harder in a failed state than otherwise, but you can imagine that countries that are temporarily like this might not have this problem (i.e., they’ll be one of the first things to get fixed), so it might be some other property that leads to this, rather than this property leading to failure.
4) I imagine population pressures contribute a lot to failed states (and not just birth rate as you mentioned, but overall density), since in sparsely populated regions, there simply isn’t so much reason to fight and destroy yourself. Alternatively, in very densely populated regions, there is.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago
Reply to  conrad

Hi Conrad,

yes, all good points and many of them came up in the discussion.

1. As you say, this is about labels and I chose to define failing states via the lack of a monopoly of violence and the absence of a functioning public good provision. This means several countries were or are not yet failing states. Iraq pre invasion comes to mind. North Korea is surely a pest to its neighbours and as such is failing from their point of view, but it does not really match the notion of a region without a functioning state because, as you say, the center is very much in charge. So North Korea goes in another basket. Yet, a place like Pakistan does get close.
2. Yes, many poor places like Sri Lanka or Birma that one really should not see as failed states.
3. Sure, one could argue that, say, Turkey was a failed state just after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire but that it was never going to take long for them to reorganise and that it hence should not even in its collapsed state be termed a failed one. Still, its too hard and too ambitious to try and define states in terms of things they might or might not be moving towards. To some extent though, the term failing state is just a label of convenience to describe a particular set of countries we the West now have issues with. So it is really more that set (Mali, Afghanistan, Somalia, etc.) that determines what should be in the definition rather than the other way around.
4. Yes, many parts of the discussion were about your implicit proposition that several countries are in a Malthuisian trap wherein people are so poor due to population pressure that cooperation breaks down and it becomes a free-for-all. I am ambiguous on this point because a lot of the countries concerned are in fact very sparcely populated: Somalia has just 10 million people in a huge area. Surely they could feed several times that with better technology. Same holds for Afghanistan. Hence, whilst population pressure is surely in the mix I would primarily see the problems they have as an issue of human organisation rather than that they are at some hard technological constraint.