In an interesting article in Foreign Affairs, Professor Michael Harsch, a German scholar teaching and studying in Abu Dhabi, suggests that “liberal state building’s wider failure as the dominant strategy for remaking war-torn countries” [is obvious.] “Championed by the United States and its allies and typically implemented by the United Nations, the policy aims to transform fragile states into stable democracies by strengthening and expanding the central government’s authority. Yet the approach ignores that central governments frequently lack even the most basic capacity (not to mention legitimacy) to rule their countries. It’s no surprise, then, that most major state-building interventions from Afghanistan to Iraq and Somalia have failed spectacularly.“
Better, Dr Harsch suggests, to find and then strengthen an ““island of stability,” a major region that defies the greater country’s generally negative trajectory: Afghanistan’s northern province of Balkh, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Somalia’s northwest region of Somaliland. In these areas, local rulers provide their populations with surprisingly high levels of security and public services. Some have even established democratic institutions. As strong and relatively autonomous entities, they function as anchors of national stability for states threatened by radical groups such as the Taliban, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and al Shabab. Creating conducive conditions for islands of stability would be a more feasible and sustainable approach to aiding fragile countries than either liberal state building or disengagement.” He goes on to say that “Islands of stability in fragile states demonstrate that local rule can result in relative security and prosperity. According to the nonprofit Fund for Peace, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia all ranked in 2016 among the most fragile states in the world, with Somalia topping the list. Yet Afghanistan’s Balkh Province has experienced a remarkable recovery and remains one of the last pockets of relative peace in the country. Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region has become the most stable and economically thriving part of the country since the 2003 U.S. invasion. And in the northwest of Somalia, Somaliland has developed into a relatively peaceful and democratically governed entity after its self-declared independence in 1991.“
He says that the evidence show that Leadership matters, he suggests, and “the most successful leaders are “locally bounded” by their ethnic, religious, or clan identity. They rise to power from within the community, and their identity uniquely qualifies them for effective leadership of their community. Crucially, their identity also disqualifies them from leading the country’s central government or other major regions. As a result, these rulers govern with a long time horizon. They tend to prefer taxation to looting their constituencies and, in return, provide the local population with security and public services … [and] … To be sure, local rulers should not be romanticized, but recall the economist Mancur Olson’s famous argument that people living under anarchy are better off if subject to a stationary rather than a roving bandit. Stationary rulers have a long time horizon and, as a result, tend to invest in local stability and institutions.“
So, what about, say, Mali, where, rumour has it, Canadian troops are destined to be peacekeepers? Is there an “island of stability” anywhere in that poor, blighted country? Mali was a French colony for too many years which means, I think, that it has weak political institutions. Can any of my readers comment on Mali? I really don’t know enough about the place.
But, despite my lack of local knowledge, I am taken with Professor Harsch’s notion of the value of “islands of stability” from which local people, with local leaders, might, with some outside support, expand their influence and bring real stability, security, peace and prosperity to their countries and regions.
Let’s assume there is not, right now, such an “island of stability,” but let’s also (probably safely) assume that there are some acceptable “leaders in waiting” in Mali. Can we identify that leader and then put a Canadian peacekeeping mission in his hometown or power base and help him to create the “island of stability,” that “major region that defies the greater country’s generally negative trajectory” that will allow him or her to expand his or her influence and extend the reach of needed programmes? Do we have the necessary strategic and political intelligence to make that call? I am pretty sure, about 99% sure that the UN secretariat does but cannot use it because to do so would be contrary to the policies of too many UN members.
My sense, based solely on guesswork, is that defeating the Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS, tribalist, separatist movements that bedevil Africa, in general, and Mali, in particular, cannot be done by us, in the US led West nor by the UN. It will be local people, working under local leaders who will have to do it. I think that each local leader needs one of Michael Harsch’s “islands of stability” as a base from which to exercise and expand his or her power and authority. Initially, at least, we may not seem to be sowing the seeds of democracy, as most of us might understand that concept, but, rather, we will seem to be empowering a warlord. That would be politically problematical but it might be the best way to do some good while still wearing the UN’s baby-blue beret and furthering our declared foreign policy objective of restoring Canada to a role as a UN peacekeeping nation. My takeaway from Professor Harsch’s writing is that local people can solve their own problems both:
- When the US led West and the UN are unable to do much good; and, in fact
- Despite the US led West and the United Nations.
Maybe the best or at least the least senseless way to really help to make and keep the peace in Africa is to pick an acceptable local leader and empower her or him, with our troops and our money and our diplomatic support, to do what needs doing in her or his own country in her or his own way.