Cases of state failure in Asia

EAST Asia, China and India are some examples that demonstrate the successful development of political institutions that created a functioning and effective state.

Without a reasonably efficient state, these three parts of Asia would not have written the narratives of economic success. But right next to these successful examples of statecraft are those of the failure or near-failure of the state.

The most glaring example of state failure is Afghanistan which has not been able to put together a political system that can help the state perform some of its basic functions. These include ensuring security of life and property, protecting territory from foreign intrusion and meeting the people’s basic needs. Some of those who have studied the country suggest that it was never really a functioning state but a collection of autonomous regions in which the central authority was allowed only a very limited amount of authority.

Some external powers tried to impose order on this highly fragmented political system. The Soviet Union attempted it in the 1980s but ended up suffering a major military defeat and withdrawing from the country. This was also the intention of the US after it invaded the country in 2001. However, President Barack Obama, after assuming the American presidency this year, indicated that his administration would follow a very limited agenda in Afghanistan. It would not attempt nation-building and only aim at the total defeat of Al Qaeda.

While the failure of the state is complete in Afghanistan, in a number of other places in South Asia the state is trying to find a firm footing. In Pakistan, both the nation and the state are still struggling to be born. Pakistan’s failure to create a nation based on religion has not worked. I explored this theme in some of my earlier writings. Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory on the basis of which Pakistan was created as a separate homeland for the Muslim community of British India was tested within a few years of the founding of the state.

Less than a quarter century after the birth of Pakistan, the country’s eastern wing parted company and became the independent state of Bangladesh. What was left of Pakistan was at least geographically contiguous but even then a nation and a state were not created. This was in part because the Pakistani people found it difficult to find a basis for nationhood. This is an interesting phenomenon deserving of both deep analysis and explanation.

If Pakistan was founded on the basis of an unworkable proposition it is not unique among the world’s 200 or so states. Many of them exist as a result of a colonial legacy; for them the colonial rulers simply drew lines on the map which cut across well-defined ethnic communities and cultures. One reason why Pakistan still cannot be declared a success is that having been created on the basis of an idea — that the people belonging to one religious identity should have their own political space — it was required to demonstrate that the idea was workable. Israel, the only other country created on a similar idea, is also going through a similar struggle.

A strong Pakistani state could have brought stability to the country. Pakistan could have followed the East Asian model of creating a nation on the basis of a fulfilled promise to deliver economic benefits to the citizenry. This was done not only in the miracle economies of East Asia but also in China. The Chinese leadership is always anxious to keep the economy expanding at a rapid rate so that the rewards of growth are available if not to all segments of the population then at least to most of them.

The pursuit of economic growth as a nation-building objective was followed explicitly by President Ayub Khan in the 1960s and by Pervez Musharraf implicitly in the early 2000s. In his autobiography, published after a decade of rule, Pakistan’s first military ruler indicated that his main reason for throwing out the civilians was their failure to adequately develop the economy. This conclusion was also reached by several prominent development economists of the day, in particular Gunnar Myrdal of Sweden.

In his seminal work, The Asian Drama, Myrdal developed the concept of the “soft state”. This, he thought, was the state that did not have the will or the political muscle to bring about structural changes in the economy and the society without which sustained economic development could not take place. The countries in South Asia had such soft states. They were under the influence of vested interests that did not permit the structural transformation of these countries. Ayub Khan drew comfort from such findings by prominent academicians. They gave him and his form of government — he called it “basic democracy” — legitimacy.

President Pervez Musharraf also wrote his biography when he was confident that his rule had brought economic growth and stability to the country. Both Ayub Khan and Musharraf lost power two years after the publication of their autobiographies. The obvious conclusion is not that military rulers should not write their memoirs. What their separate experiences demonstrate is that high rates of economic growth cannot be sustained unless two requirements are met.

One, the working of the state must draw strength from institutions that will remain in place over time. These institutions need not be based in democratic structures. They can be part of the semi-democratic (or semi-authoritarian) structures as was the case in all the four miracle economies of Asia or as is the case in China. But they must have a reasonable life span. Two, the system must permit the citizenry a voice in it. As the economist Albert O. Hirschman pointed out in one of his important works on development, not allowed a voice those who are unhappy will either exit the system or bring it down. Popular discontent brought down the two leaders, the first by street agitation, the second through the poll process.

Bangladesh is the third example of the weakness of the state and its consequences for sustainable economic progress. Although the country has done reasonably well, there is considerable uncertainty about the future. Some Bangladeshi analysts suggest that the country has still to come to terms with its identity: is it a state created on the basis of ethnicity and culture or on the basis of religion?

There are obvious problems with both suggestions. If the common element is ethnicity then there are a lot of Bengalis living outside the country, especially in the Indian state of West Bengal. If religion is the common element, then why did the country seek separation from Pakistan? The state in South Asia — India being an exception — is still in a formative stage. Much depends on its ability to develop if the region is going to be an economic success.

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