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Dealing with Failed and Failing States

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Fragile states move in and out of world attention - forgotten and neglected until an al Qaeda operative emerges from a training camp or a natural disaster highlights a country's lack of capacity to help itself. Some go the whole hog, descending into total state failure, such as Somalia. Others, like Yemen, fester on the brink for years.

It would be wrong to assume that all fragile or failed states share the same characteristics. Their root causes, weaknesses and features are all different. Yet, as I travelled through Sudan and Somalia in particular I came to realise there are some general lessons that seem to apply to all. As we grapple with taming the Taliban in Afghanistan and look again at Yemen, these are my lessons:

  • Arm proxies at your peril: They don't stay proxies for ever and although it is easy to arm allies, they are much harder to disarm, eg the Janjaweed in Darfur or the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda
  • There are no good guys: It is tempting to side with the rebels. Don't. They may be up against an oppressive regime, but don't let that make you overlook their use of child soldiers or lack of respect for democracy (also known as Zenawi's Rule or Museveni's Term Limit Paradigm or the Kagame Mirror - each a special sub-set of the Clinton Great Hope Error)
  • The answer lies with the tribes: Outside interference will not work if it doesn't act in harmony with the will of grassroots leaders. This becomes more true in direct proportion to the fragility of the state. In failed states, step aside until a solution emerges. Then, and only then, be ready to spend development dollars
  • Analysts obey an inverse square law: their distance from the action correlates to a rapid diminution in their understanding. (However, their certainty increases with increasing distance from their geographical area of expertise.) Those closest to the action often ramble or give answers that begin with an apparently unrelated event in the Nineteenth Century - don't worry about that. Just listen harder

Fragile and failed states are the collateral damage of our imperfect world. Don't be surprised if perfect solutions are hard to come by.