A polio vaccinator gives a Somali girl drops of polio vaccine in Somaliland during a round of emergency polio vaccinations in November 2013 (UNICEF/A. Makundi)
A woman gives a Somali girl drops of polio vaccine in Somaliland during a round of emergency vaccinations in November 2013 (A. Makundi/UNICEF)

The rise of yet another transnational terrorist organization – the Islamic State – has once again put failing and failed states into the limelight. We usually connect failed states with utter governance breakdown. Failed states are supposed to be safe havens for terrorists, where anarchy, violence and chaos reign. This is the conventional wisdom.

However, we argue in a special issue of the journal Governance that the conventional wisdom got it wrong.

First, failed states, where the writ of whatever central governmental authorities exist does not extend beyond parts of the capital city, are still extremely rare in the contemporary international system. Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are exceptional cases. Much more common are countries with areas of limited statehood, that is, parts of the territory or of policy areas where central authorities lack the capacity to implement and enforce the law. This is what Washington, D.C., Berlin, Brasilia, Delhi and Nairobi have in common. These capitals all govern countries that contain areas of limited statehood. Limited statehood is the default condition in the contemporary international system. Denmark is the exception, and most countries are unlikely to ever reach consolidated statehood.

Second, we find no linear relationship between service provision and governance, on the one hand, and degrees of statehood and government capacity, on the other. Some areas of limited statehood, including parts of failed states such as provinces of Somalia, are actually well-governed, while others are not. We look at the conditions under which the provision of services, including security, health and water, are likely to be most effective. We focus on external actors such as foreign governments, international organizations and foreign aid providers, but also multinational corporations and transnational public-private partnerships.

We and our colleagues identify three factors that determine whether or not external actors are likely to be successful in state-building and service provision: legitimacy, task complexity and institutionalization, including the provision of adequate resources.

  1. Legitimacy: There are many different legitimacy dynamics.  For our concerns, the most important involve empirical legitimacy, that is, the extent to which capacity-building or service-provision efforts by external actors are seen as being normatively appropriate by domestic elites and/or the target populations. Legitimacy may be derived from the involvement of domestic actors in the governance decisions and from the outputs provided by the external actor. Fritz Scharpf has referred to these two dynamics as input and output legitimacy.  The activities pursued by external actors might or might not be regarded as legitimate by actors in target states.  Acceptance by politically relevant audiences in the target state is a necessary condition for effectiveness: no legitimacy, no success.  This explains why wholesale state-building efforts and military interventions rarely achieve their goals, while governance delegation agreements and more modest contributions by external actors to improve governance are often more successful. With legitimacy, simple tasks, which require a limited number of interventions by a single actor, can be accomplished even with modestly institutionalized and funded governance structures.
  2. Task Properties: Tasks can be distinguished along two dimensions: The number of interventions that must be undertaken to successfully enhance state capacity or deliver a service, and the number of organizations or entities that must be coordinated. The simplest task is one requiring a single intervention by one organization.  Smallpox immunization would be an example.  The simpler the task, the more likely it is to be provided.  More complex tasks, all tasks associated with state-building (enhancing the ability of authority structures in target states to provide key services), and some associated with service provision are more difficult to provide, especially in failed states, where indigenous state capacity hardly exists, as opposed to polities with areas of limited statehood. Thus, it was possible to distribute anti-malaria bednets (a rather simple task) all over Somalia, including in war-torn areas, while fighting HIV/AIDS (a highly complex task)  could only be accomplished in provinces with some minimal state capacity.
  3. Institutional Design: The institutional arrangement linking external and national/local actors matters for the effectiveness of either enhancing state capacity or providing collective goods and services. Institutional design features include the degrees of legalization, formal institutionalization and level of resources. Appropriate resourcing and higher legalization increase the prospects for effective state-building and service provision.  Institutional structures can be provided by the external actors or by the host state. For instance, our project finds that the more highly institutionalized transnational public private partnerships, the more successful they were even when dealing with rather complex tasks.

The figure below summarizes our basic findings:

Without legitimacy, without the support of key members of the local elite, it is impossible for external actors to accomplish anything, even the provision of simple services, much less complex state building tasks designed to enhance the capacity of local actors.   With local legitimacy, simple tasks can be accomplished.  The most vivid illustration are various successes in the area of health.  In almost all countries around the world, even those with very limited state capacity, life expectancy has increased dramatically in the past 60 years.   For more complex tasks, it is essential to have a sophisticated and well-developed institutional design as well as local buy-in.

These findings should give our political leaders pause.  State-building, much less democratization, is an extremely complex task that can only be successful if there are local political elites that are powerful and that share the vision of external interveners.   The West, its governments, NGOs and corporations have improved health in many areas of the world where interventions are often relatively simple and where they have strong local support.   The West has, however, almost always failed to enhance state capacity, something that would require local elites to support Weberian bureaucracies, which they could not control and which would deny them rent-seeking opportunities.

Stephen D. Krasner is a professor of international politics at Stanford University and a former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department. Thomas Risse is a professor of international politics at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, and a principal investigator of Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood.