What does it mean to be a ‘failed state’?
10 February 2016
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Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Old Mutual Live Business, my name is Chris Gibbons. From time to time we hear the expression, ‘failed state’, as in such and such a country is a ‘failed state’ or is about to become a ‘failed state’. What exactly do we mean by that?
What causes a country to head towards becoming a ‘failed state’? What are the warning signs and can a state ever recover? We’re joined now by Dr. Iraj Abedian, CEO of PanAfrican Investment and Research. Iraj, welcome to Old Mutual Live Business, thank you for joining us.
Iraj Abedian: Thank you Chris.
CG: Let’s start at the beginning, what do we mean by the phrase ‘‘failed state’?’
What do we mean by a ‘failed state’?
IA: Well, it’s a state where the government has lost its, or central government has lost its political moral legitimacy. The various forces within the society, be it tribal forces, regional forces, or other forces within the society, do not submit to the directives and/or authority of the national state. Therefore gradually it degenerates to a state where the nation becomes a victim of civil instability, war and disruption.
CG: Can you think of some immediate examples?
IA: Somalia is a good example, it’s a ‘failed state’ for the past 20 years. Many attempts have been made, but as we speak, the issue remains totally unresolved. Therefore the country has degenerated to a state of anarchy and continuous volatility and victimisation of various groups for different purposes and that’s a good example.
CG: Could we call Syria a ‘failed state’ or is that something different?
IA: Syria has still got some resemblance of central authority of the state, but it’s over the past three years, it has continuously degenerated towards a ‘failed state’. If the issue is not resolved, it will become a ‘failed state’, much like Somalia.
CG: Now, what causes a country to head towards becoming a ‘failed state’?
What causes a country to become a ‘failed state’?
IA: I think fundamentally it’s where different interests are not recognised. Some dominant grouping, again, be it on religious ground, on political ground, whatever ground, they grab hold of the power at the centre. They want to enforce their preferences, ignore the legitimate concern and interests of other groupings. Then as they insist on using the power, or the brute force of the state, the more they spread the discontent and ultimately it will erupt.
CG: The role played in all of this of a country or a nations institutions?
IA: Well, that’s the critical tank or leg of building a state. Over time states either they strengthen themselves, they become more legitimate, more consensual in the sense. That they get the predominant majority rallying around certain rules, certain principles. The channel, the portal for such process is the institutions that we call them the Institutions of Governance.
CG: If a country has strong institutions, a strong central bank, a strong constitution, a strong constitutional court, those are bulwarks or barriers against becoming a ‘failed state’?
What keeps a state from becoming a ‘failed state’?
IA: I think even before central bank, Chris, the most important of this is to have, as you said, the constitution. But the constitution that is binding, meaning from the constitution emanates a certain set of laws. Most importantly property laws and human rights laws.
Then there are institutions of judiciary, primarily, that enforces those laws without fear and favour. If those pieces are in place, then we have the foundation or the infrastructure to start building a functioning and prosperous estate. Over time in that process, then central banks become very important. Government policy becomes important etc.
CG: So, what are the warning signs that a country that has all of those things in place has taken a wrong turning and may be heading down the road towards becoming a ‘failed state’?
Signs that a stable state may be heading for trouble
IA: I think the minute that those basic principles are compromised. For example when, what is in literature, as the machine politicians, become above law, or the legal system is not strong enough to enforce the laws and the principles of the country.
Universally, irrespective of the position and other associations or affiliations, those are the early signs. Whether it’s in the business sense, the political sense or any religious sense, as soon as some group becomes visibly untouchable, then that’s the beginning of a process of degeneration.
CG: Can a state ever recover?
IA: Of course, we’ve had all democracies that today we hold up as examples. Be it in other states, UK, France and so on and so forth, they have had, in the course of the revolution, they’ve had wobbly periods. Some people have attempted to use or abuse the power of the central government to their own benefits. Then some groups within the society have stood up to it and at times have even caused disruptions and so on. Yet they have arrested the process of degeneration.
CG: It has been said Iraj that South Africa, if we continue down the rather precarious economic path we’re on at the moment, that we risk becoming a ‘failed state’. Is that really likely? What’s your view?
Is South Africa heading towards a ‘failed state’?
IA: Look, if, the operative word is ‘if’, if we don’t arrest it, if society does not stand up and object to certain patterns that have been emerging, of course, no country is immune to failure of the state and degeneration of the institutions of governance. Therefore societies always have to be alert, South Africa likewise, South Africa being a very young 20-year-old democracy, more than those who have been at it longer, is exposed to such abuses of power.
CG: But we do have strong institutions, we do have a strong constitution and by and large, the rule of law?
IA: Absolutely and we also have a very alert population, thanks to the years and decades of fighting colonialism and also apartheid, you have a very active society. The South African society is not a docile society that can be suppressed. That is possibly the most important force in favour of South Africa’s success, despite all the negative factors that have been highlighted in the recent years.
The fact is that the South African society is very alert to this danger and we can see that the community level, there are, every day on average, 3-4 social delivery plateaux, or service delivery protests against the institutions abusing extracted politicians and so at the local level there is ongoing resistance. At the national level there is a proliferation of NGO’s and various forces within the civil society, media included. The legal system, that’s openly and almost unstoppably objecting to such conducts.
CG: Dr Iraj Abedian, CEO of PanAfrican Investment and Research, thank you for being with us on Old Mutual Live Business.