Cityscapes from Fragile States

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, is still struggling to rebuild after a massive earthquake in January 2010. The residential areas in this photo are representative of the low-rise, crowded neighborhoods of many cities in fragile states. Photo credit: Siri B.L. (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Urban growth in developing regions has been rapid for many decades. In some cases, major cities are doubling in population in less than a generation. It is in these places that key challenges of weak and failed states are focused. Cities like Lagos and Karachi are now among the biggest in the world. These two are among the candidates to overtake Tokyo and Mexico City as the largest on Earth.

Lagos, Nigeria Traffic

Lagos, Nigeria is infamous for its clogged roadways. One outgrowth of “go slows” is street hawkers (pictured) who weave among slow-moving vehicles. Photo credit: dolapo (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Lagos, Nigeria Trash Dump

The “informal sector” in developing countries includes many workers who recycle materials from trash dumps and other places. Pictured is a scene from Lagos, Nigeria. Photo credit: boellstiftung (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Karachi, Pakistan School Children

Cities of fragile states are youthful, which is a key cause of their rapid population growth. Above is a school group in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo credit: Photogeraphar 0345-3333888 (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).



Personal Encounters with State Failure

Note to readers: This post is Chapter One from the forthcoming book (late September 2012) Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses by Brennan Kraxberger. The full book sample is available here.


It was the middle of January in Middle America. The anticipation had been building for months, and our six-month adventure was about to begin. My wife and I had sub-leased our modest two-bedroom apartment in Iowa City, we had been subjugated to all available vaccines, and our key possessions were crammed into four suitcases. We were bound for Lagos and points onward. I was finishing a doctorate in geography, and my wife was taking a leave of absence from work to support my fieldwork.

In 2002, you could not fly directly from the United States to Nigeria. The FAA had de-certified the West African state’s civil aviation authority. So we took the circuitous route through Europe, enjoying a few hours in Amsterdam. We strolled along the canals and enjoyed danishes, as we prepared for our arrival in Nigeria.

By the time we landed at Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, we had been en route for about 40 hours. Yes there are itineraries that are longer – try reaching some of the remote South Pacific islands – but this detail gives a bit of context for our arrival in Nigeria, a country I had visited twice before.

Exhausted and filled with too much KLM processed food, we filed off the jumbo liner at dusk. After a mildly chaotic scramble for our luggage, and only a small “landing fee,” we moved on to meet our escort from a local university. After we exited immigration and customs, we were greeted with a familiar scene of escorts holding signs for those they were meeting. We quickly noticed a twentysomething man holding a handwritten sign saying “Kraxberger.” After our long journey, it was a relief to finally connect with our host.

As I approached the man, I sensed that something was amiss. One question confirmed this hunch. “How is Professor Okafor?” The man gave me a blank stare and offered no discernible reply. I turned to my wife and said that we needed to move on; the man was what Nigerians call a “tout.” In this case, he was most likely just after our money and luggage. Had he not been exposed, he would have continued with his confidence trick until we were in some remote place where he would likely just abandon us. Or, less likely, he may have roughed us up a bit, too.

Thankfully, we kept our luggage and cash and no one was injured that January night in Lagos. Our true escort could not get inside access to the airport terminal, unlike the con man. The tout had employed a well-worn tactic in his bid to rob us. He had simply – and discretely – copied our name from our escort’s sign.  And the criminal made sure that he could greet us before our real escort.

Another day – about halfway through our fieldwork period – we experienced a similarly harrowing experience. On this occasion, we were far from the bustle and mania of Lagos, in the more sedate and orderly city of Kaduna. As the former colonial capital of northern Nigeria, Kaduna retains its status as a key cultural and economic center of the Muslim majority North.

We were in Kaduna trying to track down some primary documents from a private collection. While on a break near the central mosque, we were taking in some pickup football (soccer) matches. On this occasion, a few pictures were the pretext for a difficult encounter. At that time, it was highly advisable to seek permission before photographing government buildings. We were only taking pictures of some young boys playing soccer. Soon an imposing man walked up and began questioning us. He quickly flashed his government ID badge, and a one-hour discussion ensued.

At first the “security officer” was somewhat friendly, or at least not threatening. He informed us that we were taking unauthorized pictures, though that was not the case. He insisted that we leave our camera with him, though we were not about to do that. And he insisted that we produce our passports, though we were not carrying them on our persons. As the discussion wore on, it was clear that we were at an impasse. We refused to leave the soccer fields for his “office,” and he refused to let us walk away. Towards the end of that harrowing hour, he convincingly indicated that he had enforcers with him in an unmarked van.

As with the airport encounter, the soccer fields incident also had a happy ending. Some of the teenage footballers – perhaps knowing the true identity of the “security official” – courageously and kindly surrounded the man and gave us a chance to make a calm escape.

Was the “security official” a tout as well? Was he just a rogue intelligence officer looking for some easy money? As young, white Americans we were easy targets, as we found out on other occasions. My best guess is that he was a criminal, too. We never learned his true identity.

These two episodes from Nigeria are provided here only as illustrations. Nigeria is just one of many developing countries that suffer basic challenges of governance that seriously disrupt the activities of travelers and locals alike. Though not all would agree that Nigeria is a “failed state,” the giant of West Africa has witnessed a myriad of post-independence challenges, including massive corruption, failure to establish the rule of law, lack of public investment in infrastructure, limited economic diversification, and broader challenges associated with lack of social trust.

Whether we classify Nigeria as a “failed state” or a “critically weak state” is not that important. In my personal experience, that important country is where I first directly encountered the lived realities of ineffective governance and stark political dysfunction. Ever since my first trip to the country, in 1999, I have been preoccupied with problems of state decay. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and renewed attention for Afghanistan, world attention also shifted to the dilemmas of state failure.

Though some find the term “state failure” offensive or insulting, intellectual honesty requires that hard truths be told. This short work explores the complicated realities of state decay in the early twenty-first century. It seeks to avoid a simple narrative that blames the people of poor countries for all of their problems. We – as a world community – must recognize that international responses to state decay have also failed. Yes, certain states have been able to return to stability and at least a modest level of functioning. Even so, it is vital that we understand how international relationships – such as the basic system of statehood recognition, and foreign aid – have actually contributed to state failure.

The first main section of this book lays the foundation for discussion of policy. This section provides a much fuller discussion of the realities of state failure, from a global perspective. It explores the diverse origins and development trajectories of the world’s states, particularly focusing on the contrasting regional experiences of Europe and Africa. This discussion closes with a look at efforts to systematically compare and map differences in state functioning around the world.

We then turn to the risks associated with state failure. Yes, failed states may become havens for terrorist groups. Such an association is not a given, nor is it the norm. Even so, failed states should concern all of us for many other reasons. Piracy, security of international commerce, public health, human rights, and global economic growth are other key issues of worldwide relevance. Beyond global risks, failed states produce immense local and regional challenges. Humanitarian concerns are fairly well known. Less awareness exists of the cross-border problems that failed states can export to their neighbors. In most cases, economic decline and physical insecurity cannot be easily isolated.

The last section of the book addresses the urgent question of how best to help failed states. Beyond just lecturing dysfunctional states about needed reforms, this culminating discussion assumes the need for a new international framework. After a consideration of traditional responses to state decay, the discussion shifts to alternative measures, none of which will come about easily. Specifically, the international community needs to become much more patient in helping critically weak and failed states. The United Nations and other external actors need to emphasize support for contiguous, multi-state regions, and not just states in isolation. In some cases, dysfunctional states will need to be territorially reconstituted through partition or consolidation, even without all-around consensus. Other novel policy options include shared sovereignty arrangements and a revitalized use of the trusteeship provision of the UN Charter. Finally, the international community should more seriously consider local realities and weigh whether “stateless zones” could be a partial answer to the global phenomenon of state failure.

Whether the world forges consensus on new solutions to state failure, or not, the problems of weak and failed states cannot be easily ignored. In Nigeria, for example, a half-hearted democratization effort has not fundamentally transformed the state. Ten years after my field work in Nigeria, the country continues to suffer from most of the same core maladies. Although Nigerians have seen improvements in telecommunications and modest gains in the fight against corruption, new challenges have arisen, including new sources of physical insecurity. As the Nigerian case illustrates, basic questions of governance and political institutions are usually not resolved in just a few years. Real change requires a long time horizon and persistent attention.

Urban Futures and State Fragility

The twenty first century will be dominated by urban issues. The world as a whole has already surpassed the 50 percent level for urbanized population, and many developing countries already have two-thirds or more of their populations in cities. In many of the world’s fragile states – places like Yemen, Afghanistan, and key countries in Africa – these rates are much lower (i.e. 15-35 percent).

One of the key themes facing fragile states is the pace and character of urbanization. In some cases, rural-to-urban migration and structural economic changes may occur very slowly; there is nothing inevitable about urbanization. In more of these fragile states, though, substantial growth of cities will continue roughly in parallel with the global trend. How will this rapid urbanization affect fragile states? What themes will be particularly important in the coming decades?

The swelling of these cities will put a spotlight on local governance. Mundane issues like sanitation, transportation, and urban planning often do not get the attention that they deserve. Effective, accountable governance at the urban scale will be critically important in this century. And, even with capable, clean civil servants and leaders, urban planning in these contexts will be extraordinarily challenging.

In terms of culture, rapid urbanization will require the effective management of identity politics. The burgeoning mega-cities found in fragile states are often located in one sub-national group’s homeland. Newcomers will require adequate access to housing, social services, and the urban labor market. While this urbanization process can offer a true opportunity to forge a more unified nation, the compressed timelines of urban growth offer a serious constraint.

At the national scale, fragile states will need to pay close attention to two issues that have haunted other developing states: 1) urban bias and 2) over-concentration of growth in a single city (called a “primate city”).

Urban bias occurs when public resources and infrastructure are unduly focused in cities. Some urban bias is inevitable, but it should not lead to the neglect of agricultural development or rural communities. More balanced rural-urban development can be a key way to cultivate a more manageable pace of urbanization.

Finally, states with a single overwhelmingly dominant city need to facilitate the growth of other urban centers that can lead to more balanced development across regions and more livable cities. States like Ethiopia, the DRC, Afghanistan, and North Korea would do well to facilitate a more evenly distributed system of cities. Smaller, more manageable urban areas can ease pressures on local planners and help unify various regions of the state.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.