Saturday, February 03, 2007

How to rescue a failed state

I came across this Economist article almost two years ago, but it was lost in my unpublished drafts. It deserves a bit of attention, so I'll resurrect it today. Emphases mine. Note the role of the UN and the Bangladeshi soldiers.
Rebuilding failed states

ONE and a half years ago, Liberia was a failed state. Two separate groups of drug-emboldened teenage rebels controlled most of the country. A gangsterish president, Charles Taylor, was losing control even over Monrovia, the capital, where all sides were firing heavy artillery into office blocks and looting strategic spots such as the brewery. In August 2003 (see article), The Economist reported from that unhappy city that “famished townsfolk have already eaten their neighbours' dogs and are reduced to scrounging for snails.”

Today, thanks to the world's largest UN peacekeeping force, Liberia is calm. Some 15,000 blue helmets are keeping the streets more or less safe. There are still road blocks, but not the old sort, where militiamen stretched human intestines across the road as a signal to motorists to stop and be robbed. The UN road blocks are typically manned by disciplined Bangladeshis, of whom the locals vocally approve.

.... This article is concerned with the toughest cases: states that have lost control over most of their territory and stopped providing even the most basic services to their people. Only Somalia unambiguously fits this definition. A larger group of countries, mostly in Africa, are close to failure (see chart). Some, such as Zimbabwe, are cantering towards a cliff-edge. Others, having recently failed, appear to be recovering, if fitfully: Afghanistan, Haiti, Sierra Leone and Liberia all fall into this category.

States can fail because of external shocks, or they can decay from within, or both. Afghanistan and Angola collapsed when their colonial overlords suddenly withdrew. In Sierra Leone and Congo, the state was looted into putrescence, thus inviting rebellion and ultimately, collapse.

It is tough to mend a failed state, but the fact that some formerly failed states are now doing quite well—eg, Mozambique and East Timor—shows that it is not impossible. And although treatment is costly—the UN mission in Liberia costs $800m a year—the cost of doing nothing is often higher. When governments collapse, it is not only bad for citizens who thereby lose the law's protection. It can also cause regional or even global repercussions.

Lawlessness, it is often argued, creates space for terrorists to operate. This is sometimes true: there are almost certainly al-Qaeda operatives lurking in Somalia and the wilder parts of Pakistan. But the most-cited example, Afghanistan, does not really support this argument. Osama bin Laden used Afghanistan as a base not because it was a failed state, but because its government invited him to.

... The chief reason why the world should worry about state failure is that it is contagious. Liberia's civil war, for example, infected all three of its neighbours, thus destabilising a broad slice of West Africa. Congo's did the same for Central Africa.

... Looking only at war-torn states, Mr Collier and Anke Hoeffler, also of Oxford, found that three types of intervention were highly cost-effective, even before one considers the value of saving lives.

One good idea is to try to restrict the sales of commodities that fuel war. Extractable minerals often provide both the means to fight and an incentive to do so: rebels in Sierra Leone, for example, dug diamonds to pay for arms, and fought to seize power so they could grab all the mines...

Another worthwhile tactic is to offer generous aid to war-flattened countries, once they have stabilised a bit, so that they can rebuild their buildings and institutions. Mr Collier and Ms Hoeffler estimated that increasing aid to post-conflict countries by the equivalent of 2% of GDP per year for five years, starting half a decade after the war ended, would cost $13 billion but yield $31.5 billion in benefits.

By far the most cost-effective way of stabilising a failed state, however, is to send peacekeepers. Mr Collier and Ms Hoeffler calculated that $4.8 billion of peacekeeping yields nearly $400 billion in benefits. This figure should be treated with caution, since it is extrapolated from one successful example. In 2000, a small contingent of British troops smashed a vicious rebel army in Sierra Leone, secured the capital and rescued a UN peacekeeping mission from disaster.

Not all interventions go so well. But a study by the RAND Corporation, a think-tank, suggests that the UN, despite its well-publicised blunders, is quite good at peacekeeping. Of the eight UN-led missions it examined, seven brought sustained peace (Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mozambique, Eastern Slavonia, Sierra Leone and East Timor), while one (in Congo) did not. An earlier RAND study had looked at eight American-led missions and found that only four of the nations involved (Germany, Japan, Bosnia and Kosovo), were now at peace, while the other four (Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq) were not, or at any rate, not yet.

The comparison is not entirely fair. The Americans took on tougher targets: Iraq has more suicide-bombers than East Timor. On the other hand, the UN had punier forces and budgets at its disposal. The annual cost of all 11 UN peacekeeping operations today is less than America spends in a month in Iraq.

... The UN secretary-general's “special representative” in Liberia, a forceful American called Jacques Klein, is the most powerful man in the country. He may lack an “executive mandate”, including the power to arrest people, such as the UN had in East Timor, but his budget is roughly ten times larger than the Liberian government's. A UN embargo on Liberia's main exports (timber and diamonds) remains in force, pending proof that the money is not falling into the wrong pockets.

Mr Klein put 48 Liberian “generals” (with noms de guerre such as “General Peanut Butter” and “General Fuck-Me-Quick”) on the UN payroll, so that they would help him disarm their men (and boys and girls). The ex-fighters were offered incentives to surrender their guns: $300 and help with school fees or vocational training. About 100,000 handed in weapons or ammunition, which is encouraging...

.... But pacification is only the first step. To ensure that a recovering failed state does not fail again, it needs a government that is legitimate and competent enough not to invite another rebellion. And nation-building is the hardest task of all.

... Practically nothing works in Liberia. There is no piped water, no functioning justice system and the closest approximation to a middle class is 60,000 civil servants who have hardly been paid in 14 years. There are 450,000 prosperous and well-educated Liberians, but they live in America and show no sign of returning. Liberia is not even ranked on the UNDP's annual “human development index”, for lack of data. “We're fighting to get to the bottom of the list,” says the UN's Mr Klein.

The only large organisation that functions adequately in Liberia is the UN. Besides keeping the peace, it helps refugees return home, inoculates babies, feeds a fifth of the population and trains local teachers, policemen, judges, army officers and so forth. This is helpful, but it is hard to support such a weak government without supplanting it. Because the UN offers the best salaries in town, and actually pays them, it often ends up poaching the most able public servants...

... If the UN were suddenly to pull out, Liberia would collapse again. But it won't pull out suddenly or soon. Sierra Leone, Liberia's neighbour, which collapsed just as bloodily in the late 1990s, offers a heartening example. Three years ago, it was in roughly the same situation as Liberia is today, held together only by 17,000 blue helmets. The peacekeepers have pulled out gradually, as the Sierra Leonean army has grown stronger with British training. After the last peacekeepers leave, Sierra Leone's elected government will still be shielded by a British promise to send back its troops if rebels attack it. The country is still poor and ill-governed, but it is no longer a charnel house, so it has a chance...
I wonder these days if Iraq was truly lost when the UN's Baghdad office was destroyed, taking with it some extraordinary people ...

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