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What Can the International Community Do About Collapsed States?


Marina Ottaway notes that, during the 1990s, 'state reconstruction' has become a major industry. Billions have been spent on funding large international and UN interventions in Bosnia and Cambodia, as well as many smaller operations. How good is the international community at 'putting states on their feet again'? Ottaway is sceptical, for several reasons.

First, the exercise is often intrinsically more difficult than we lead ourselves to believe when we use the labels 'reconstruction' or 'rebuilding' of states. We are often talking of building states virtually from new. This is true when little remains of the previous state except the legalistic view that it still exists, or when, as in Bosnia, there was no 'original' state to reconstruct.

Second, the international community tends to adopt an unreasonably short time scale and a very ambitious set of targets for an operation for which we have virtually no historical precedents. When in the past states failed, their territories and resources were simply swallowed up by other states, normally through warfare. Effective states were created over long periods of time through trial, error and conflict. The ambition of the contemporary enterprise is matched by the enormous range of duties that the international community assigns to nascent state authorities. They are required, in short order, to: re-establish authority and security; demobilise combatants and reintegrate them into society; move rapidly toward democracy; reconstruct - and liberalise - national economies; create new fiscal systems; reduce public expenditure but increase social spending, etc. In Ottaway's words:
"In an attempt to remedy early mistakes and avoid future failures, the international community has developed a set of prescriptions for state reconstruction that is so exhaustive that it cannot possibly be followed in practice. The prescriptions in essence list the institutions and processes that need to be in place for a modern, Weberian democratic state, but fail to outline a feasible process for getting there".

Third, Ottaway suggests that what she terms 'donor-directed reconstruction' frequently is hampered because the international community will not support the 'normal' process of state-reconstruction. This begins when an internal group emerges as the winner in military terms, takes effective control of state, population and territory, and exercises, initially at least, 'raw power'. This is the essence of the three significant cases of effective reconstruction of collapsed states in the 1990s - Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea. As Ottaway notes, none has yet turned into a democracy. This 'internal' route has two advantages over donor-directed reconstruction. It is much cheaper, and is focused on the real problem of re-establishing state power, while the international community tends to focus on building formal - sometimes merely decorative - institutions.

Ottaway suggests that there is no simple solution to these problems. She offers some very practical-sounding advice to the international community. It includes: focus on restoring government authority, not formal institutions; start this process early on; do not be too ambitious; and do not be enamoured by ideas of 'international best practice' in building governance institutions. The unasked question is whether the 'international community', constrained as it is by so many factors, and often very much at odds with itself, genuinely is capable of doing much better.

Source: Marina Ottaway, "Rebuilding State Institutions in Collapsed States," Development and Change, Vol. 33 No. 5, (2002), pp. 1001-23. Development and Change is published quarterly by Blackwell Publishers (

Keywords: civil war, conflict, institutions.

Commentator: Mick Moore, IDS, (May 2003)

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