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The Problem of “Artificial States”

May 28, 2011

There is now quite a body of literature that points to the problem of so-called “artificial states” which lack  “legitimacy”, due to the fact that they were arbitrarily and haphazardly drawn up by European colonizers in the latter part of the 19th century (in Africa’s case), with very little regard for preexisting human and political geography. Crawford Young, in his book “The African Colonial State in Historical Perspective”describes the impact that African colonialism had in a relatively short period of time in embedding either distorted or completely foreign political structures:

The colonial state in Africa lasted in most instances less than a century-a mere moment in historical time. Yet it totally reordered political space, societal hierarchies and cleavages, and modes of economic production. Its territorial grid-whose final contours congealed only in the dynamics of decolonization-determined the state units that gained sovereignty and came to form the present African polities. The logic of its persistence and reproduction was by the time of independence deeply embedded in its mechanism of internal guidance.

Pierre Englebert, in his book “State Legitimacy and Development in Africa”, explores the idea of “state legitimacy” in the context of Africa. His measure includes vertical legitimacy – the degree to which the state is responsive to the plurality of its citizens, and horizontal legitimacy – the degree to which the boundaries of the state relate to any coherent precolonial logic. He then correlates these measures to measures of good governance and development capacity. He begins his conclusion by saying:

“The historical endogeneity of the state, its congruence with underlying political institutions and norms of political authority-in a word, its legitimacy-is a crucial variable in understanding the choice of policies that rulers of developing countries adopt and the quality of the overall governance they provide. Both, in turn, are important factors contributing to economic development. Deficits of state legitimacy are therefore at the core of the development failure of many African states.


Recently, Bill Easterly (famous for his notorious skepticism to aid) and others performed a study titled “Artificial States” which arrives at a similar conclusion to Englebert for both African as well as other post-colonial states. Others have rightly pointed out (see a critical response to Easterlies study) that in reality, all states are artificial to some degree, and were only developed after thousands of years of war, colonialism, settlement, conquest, treaty, etc.

Clearly some states are more “artificial” than others; should anything be done about it? Should the international community support the reconfiguring of “artificial states” based upon pre-colonial claims to legitimacy? While it may seem just, it is a proposition fraught with peril. The recent referendum in Sudan, where close to 99 percent of Southerners have voted to split from the North, has only come about after many years of civil war and the deaths of over two million people. The overwhelming support from the international community for this split, including the U.S. offering to take the Khartoum government of Sudan off of its terror list, as well as promises of debt forgiveness (in the tens of billions) has drawn the praise of many and the ire of some. The skeptics point out that the new country of Southern Sudan will be one of the poorest and most fragile in the world, on the brink of being a failed state and in danger of being invaded by the North. Indeed just yesterday it was reported that dispute over the oil-rich border region of Abyei could lead to another civil war. In addition the break-up could spark other separatist movements which have in the past often lead to ethnically targeted war and terror (read: Lords Resistance Army, which turned children into soldiers and used rape as a strategy of war). Also, small and especially landlocked states have a hard enough time acquiring the resources they need for development unless the majority of the economy is based on trade. A reconfiguring of “artificial states” could likely lead to smaller, more impoverished states.

It seems to me that in limited circumstances it may be necessary for the international community to support, cautiously and judiciously, the reconfiguring of boundaries based upon legitimate claims of sovereignty from the local people themselves. Arguably the creation of Southern Sudan, despite the problems mentioned, is an example of this. With that said, I am more apt to support what Bryan laid out in his recent post “29 Nations of the Earth”, which advocates the creation of large regional federations (not just for “artificial states”) that make sense geographically, promote trade, migration, and economies of scale, and appeal to more expansive and cosmopolitan identities. This would require buy in not only from the states themselves (maybe them least of all), but also from the various ethnic, cultural, and civil groups within who might not be represented well by their government. Therefore if a state lacks legitimacy, or is just corrupt/incompetent in general, the success of a larger regional entity can fill in the void and help hold the government

accountable to its citizens. The proposed East African Federation as well as the many regional free trade agreements popping up through the African Economic Community (AEC) are all positive trends of this in Africa. These are baby steps towards the practical realization that “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens”.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2011 6:56 pm

    Great post. The issue of artificial states is definitely present here in Western Melanesia too. Although, at least in this part of the world, redrawing borders is unlikely to help (except maybe in one particular instance). The reason for this being that the only organic units of governance here remain for the most part village level or clan based . Somehow some sort of nation state needs to be created that can effectively sit across a world of village states…

  2. Jason permalink*
    May 28, 2011 8:27 pm

    Interesting, I wonder if trying to create a new inter-village nation state would even be desirable in that case. That is if they can administer themselves and maintain peaceful and mutually beneficial relations (like trade) with other villages.

  3. May 31, 2011 5:02 pm

    Hi Jason,

    At the end of the day some sort of larger scale state is needed. It’s just too inefficient to provide all public goods (including enforcement of trade rules) and services at a local level.

    That being said I reckon the one thing a lot of people get wrong here is that they assume that the division of state labour needs to be more or less the same as in NZ or Aus. With central govt doing this and provincial doing that. I reckon governance could be improved if people looked at what each level (central, provincial and community) did best and then devolved those tasks to that level. That being said, communities vary a lot in capacity here, so what might work in one might not in another, meaning things get complicated pretty quick…

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