Devin Stewart Interviews Seth Kaplan on "Fixing Fragile States"

Dec 16, 2008

Seth Kaplan looks at how weak states can promote and leverage "social cohesion" to help build development from the bottom up.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm Devin Stewart from the Carnegie Council. I'm here with Seth Kaplan, who is author of Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development.

Seth is a business consultant who has run multinational firms and founded successful local corporations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Quarterly, The Wall Street Journal, and other famous publications, including our own Policy Innovations.

Seth, thank you very much for coming by the Carnegie Council. Tell me about Fixing Fragile States. What is the core argument here?

SETH KAPLAN: First, it's a great pleasure to be with you again, Devin, and your fine institution.

If you look at foreign policy challenges for the incoming administration or for the United States in general, many, many of the major issues around the world, whether it's in Pakistan, Afghanistan, whether it's in Iraq, Lebanon, whether it's in Yemen, Somalia, whether it's in Central Africa, Sudan, West Africa, elsewhere—these are all fragile states. So when I wrote this book, I was trying to touch upon a subject where you can generalize the topic to cover many, many areas that are all among our greatest foreign policy challenges today.

The core theme that I address in this book is this idea of social cohesion and this idea of what the most appropriate institutions are that might make states work better. I talk a lot about how, for a country to become stable and to develop strong governance and to move forward, it's very important that the country uses governing structures and state institutions that might best take advantage of that country's social-political conditions and promote and leverage social cohesion. If there is one term I would narrow my book down to, it would be this idea of "social cohesion."

DEVIN STEWART: Social cohesion in contrast to what? You are arguing that you are offering a new approach to development. Why do we need a new approach? What are you arguing against?

SETH KAPLAN: The development field is about a half-century old. We have spent hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars. There is today greater and greater emphasis on these countries because of the security risk. Yet everything we have tried hasn't worked—


SETH KAPLAN: The basic paradigm of how to fix these countries is very simple: We have elections, we rewrite the constitution, we send in peacekeeping troops, we put lots of aid money in, and we try to do macroeconomic reform, especially.

None of these things are wrong in themselves, but they are missing something—what I call the missing ingredient or missing ingredients. There is no attempt to analyze each individual country for its conditions, and for what local people's capacities and resources are, and how these local resources and capacities might be better used. So when I critique the existing paradigm, I'm not saying it's wrong, I'm saying it's incomplete.

DEVIN STEWART: How would you characterize these other paradigms?

SETH KAPLAN: I would argue that I have a very different paradigm than what the existing paradigm is. My paradigm is, how do you structure the state to best take advantage of local people's capacities? For me, people work together best when you have a certain pocket of cohesion, or you are promoting cohesion on a more national level, or you are taking pockets of cohesion within a state. The idea is, what types of governing bodies might be most effective to allow people to take control of their lives?

Right now the existing paradigm is, we just build a generic state and we try to introduce some reforms. We have a national election—a great example would be the Congo. The Congo international community spent $500 million—actually spent much more than that to have a constitution, an election, peacekeeping troops. Yet what happens after one or two years? You have violence. You have the opposition leader running out of the country in exile. You have violence in the east. You have the state not working. You have corruption. You have chaos again.

We basically bandaged the problem. We didn't solve the problem, because we did not attempt to understand the core issues at stake in the Congo.

Another example would be Somalia. Somalia is in the news almost every day right now because of the piracy.

But the real issue is, we have spent $8 billion and we have tried 14 times to build a national government in Somalia since 1991. There is no government in Somalia. Yet within the country there are pockets of clan-based or traditional-based governance. Parts of the country are chaotic, but parts of the country are working relatively well, like in the northeast, Somaliland, more over to the east, Puntland and some other areas.

Why don't we try to create a different idea of how this state might work, to leverage those pockets of traditional institutions and pockets of cohesion, as I would call it—people that have experience working together—and try to form a bottom-up state model, not a top-down state model?

There is very little creativity in how we build states. Therefore, we repeat the mistakes over and over again.

DEVIN STEWART: And you have seen this approach work?

SETH KAPLAN: If you look around the world and you look at the developing countries that are most successful, they have one thing in common: They are usually based upon cohesion and a consensus on what the institutions of the state might be. That could be because it's like Chile and Costa Rica, for example, in Central and South America, and Turkey. It's like the very fast, rapidly developing nation-states of East Asia. It could be like Botswana. It could be like the Gulf emirate states, as I call them. These are all countries that are based upon historical relationships and historical norms of how people work together. They have a common identity and common institutions.

For example, when you go to Somalia, you have the great contrast between the attempt to build Somalia versus Somaliland, which is, in some ways, the most effective state in the Horn of Africa, yet it's not recognized by anybody. But on their own, they have had free elections. You walk the streets of Hargeisa and you can see piles of money on the street, with the money exchange traders—piles and piles of money, and no one is worried about it being stolen. It's very economically dynamic. People are investing in private universities and private hospitals, a private telecom infrastructure, and everything. Very dynamic. It's all because it's based upon some traditional institutions that can keep security and keep governance.

If the international community tries to build a centralized thing in Somalia, it doesn't work.

So I'm often very confused about what people are thinking when they try to fix fragile states. They don't really look at what is on the ground. They only think about what they know from an academic concept of what a state should be. Reality is very different than theoretical ideas about what states are supposed to be. We need to leverage what the people can do, not what we think they should do. We try to build from the inside out, not from the outside in. Therefore, you build from the bottom up, not from the top down. That's a very different concept of how states are formed.

DEVIN STEWART: Seth, you have this chart here, Table 2.1, where you make a distinction between nation-states, state-nations, and fragile states. You mention rapidly developing nation-states. Do you want to give a quick comment on what you mean by this distinction?

SETH KAPLAN: For me, if you study history, there are two types of countries today that are progressing rapidly or progressing stably, promoting prosperity, taking care of their people. There are the traditional nation-states that are based upon a common identity. You have the European countries. A better example would be the Northeast Asian states. Everybody always says, "Why are all the Northeast Asian or East Asian countries successful," whether that's Korea, Japan, or China? What makes them unique?

Of course, they have a long history and very educated populations. They have good policy. But they are all cohesive nation-states, actually. Therefore, they are basing their government and their idea of the state upon the nation.

Europe is the same. Even the United States, which is an immigrant country, is really a nation-state. Immigrants come and they adopt our idea of our identity and our idea of our institutions.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you mean by "nation"? That is a bit of a controversial concept.

SETH KAPLAN: We talk about nation building. For me, that's a mistaken idea. For me, a nation is a group of people that have a common idea of who they are. That could be because they all speak French, they all speak German, they all speak Spanish, and they are Spanish, French, Germans. That's a simple idea of a nation-state. Of course, you have different people who speak French and German, and they may have a different idea of their identity. But that's a very simplistic idea. Of course, those states are not only nation-states; they have some complexity. But the basic idea works in most Western countries.

In the United States, people come to America and they give up their past and they adopt—in essence, we are actually a stronger nation-state than many European countries because people come here and lose their past and adopt the American identity as their new identity. Within two generations, they have no past.

That's opposed to Europe, where you still have some disagreements about what the nation is in some countries.

Back to your original question, there are very few state-nations. State-nations are countries like India, like South Africa, like Malaysia to some extent, that were basically colonized for a very long period of time (not a short colonial period, like most African and Middle Eastern countries), and the foreign power—in most cases, the British—invested an enormous amount in building a new identity, in building new institutions. They developed the capacity of the state.

When India became independent, the Indian government had an army, had a judicial system, had a functioning state, and it was all the diversity of the country. The elite were very, very content adopting the Indian identity. Most of the elite, actually, in both cases, were trained as lawyers, whether it was Nelson Mandela in South Africa, or Nehru or other leaders in India. Actually, they were all trained as British lawyers, often in England itself. So the elite of these countries all came to independence willing and desiring of taking on a new identity and new institutions, and the state was strong enough.

Fragile states, on the other hand, were generally colonized for a very short period of time. The foreign power spent very little time building the state, building the idea of the state.

Some of these countries graduate very few graduate students. The Congo, which is the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, basically had, at most, a handful— some people say two college graduates—when they became independent.

The local people were not given the chance to manage any of the higher functions of government. So you had basically a state with very little government capacity, very little control over its territory, very little preparation for independence, and there was very little consensus on what the idea of the Congo was.

Therefore, you have what I call the "fragile state nexus," a fractured society and a weak or very, very incompetent, incapable government.

You can form cohesion because the population is cohesive—the nation-state—or because the state is strong enough that it can enforce cohesion. In most cases you actually have both reinforcing each other. You have the state able to promote cohesion because it's competent and able to enforce the law and able to act equitably, and people therefore can look to it as an arbitrator of the system, or you have a society that has traditional norms and traditional capacity to monitor the population and enforce, again, security and enforce norms.

When you have neither, you have chaos. You have people falling back on their traditional identities and competing to control the state and take advantage of the state for their own clique or traditional group. Therefore, you have a fractured society and you basically have a fragile state.

That's the key difference between successful states and fragile, or eventually failing, states.

DEVIN STEWART: That's very clear, Seth. This idea of social cohesion—where did you come up with this approach? Was it sort of a gradual thing that you noticed after all this research? You have an incredible amount of research and data in your book. Or was it something that you discovered in a sort of "Aha!" moment? Was it something to do with your background in China and Japan? Where did this social cohesion idea come from?

SETH KAPLAN: The key difference between me and other people—as you mentioned at the beginning, I'm a businessperson. I'm most used to running companies or talking about profits and talking about marketing strategies. Most people in this field went the academic route or they went the diplomatic route. I, on the other hand, spent a lot of time on the ground wandering around the world, basically. I spent time in Africa. I spent time in the Middle East. I spent time in Japan and China, for 11 years.

Everything I write about is something I personally felt, that I personally had to fight with, literally, every day. When you are in a developing country doing business, it's fighting the system and fighting with the people. You cooperate with the people, but, in essence, you are fighting the system, whether it's on the level of individuals—who am I going to hire that I can trust? It's not a question of whether this is the best person. It's the least likely person to cause me trouble, often. You are actually fighting the system. How am I going to get the government to help me? Usually I'm fighting the government to get permission or a license, and not to have them take advantage of me.

In essence, every day is a very different experience for me, over almost 15 years and many countries. My book is really the outgrowth of a great wandering and a great level of experience in many countries, and also a great curiosity about the world and a great faith. Even though I had these struggles and even though I see these problems in many countries, I'm a very optimistic person. People around the world have great capacities. They have great resources. What they don't have are states that allow them to use their capacities, use their resources. As an optimistic person, I'm looking for ways to do that.

Often, I would be comparing countries for what country to invest in, whether it was for myself or some other country. Therefore, I'm looking at the dynamics of the country and why one country would be more effective long term as opposed to another country.

Then I guess the final level is—I spent 11 years in Northeast Asia. I spent all those years learning Japanese, learning Chinese, working these countries. When we talk about social cohesion, we are really talking about—Northeast Asians, when they think about state building, the idea of social cohesion is always on the mind of the government and it's a very big driver of many policies and how they perceive the national development strategy of their countries. It's something that we don't talk about in Western countries. We talk about democracy, elections, and everything. We have the Western model of state building. Northeast Asians have a very different idea of the state.

I think learning that and absorbing that—in all my experiences around the world, the combination, really, has given me this perception.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think that has something to do with Confucian traditions in Northeast Asia?

SETH KAPLAN: I wish I could make it that sexy. A hundred years ago, the idea of the nation-state was a much stronger concept in the West. Then we had a lot of wars. Since all these wars and all the killing of the 20th century, people have tended to play down the nation-state, because there was a great fear of what that would mean. Then the European Union was promoted and things like that. So many Western people try to play it down.

The Northeast Asians, however, are actually much older nation-states than the Western countries. China has been unified for 2,200 years, to some degree, off and on. Japan has had very little immigration for 1,400, 1,500 years. It depends upon whose record you look at. Korea, although not to the same degree, also has a very, very long history, going back 1,500 years. They had more much immigration, I'm sure. So you have these histories and you have these countries. These are also countries that were late developers. Their idea of their history and their idea of the competitiveness between states and their idea of how to advance their countries is somewhat different than our idea. We have the Enlightenment history.

So I really can't say it's because of Confucianism. Confucianism, I think, promotes some of the structure of the state in terms of the strength of bureaucracy and the idea of how people might interact with their government. I just think it's a very natural outgrowth of their history and also an outgrowth of when they developed and the rivalries between each other, the rivalries with the West.

If you speak these languages, there are many, many sayings—even today, but more early in the development phase—for example, the Japanese would say, "Let's use the Western technology in the Japanese spirit." That's a very famous four-character phrase in that country. They all think this way. How to build a strong state is a very, very important concept in all these countries historically, actually.

DEVIN STEWART: How will the new Obama administration be able to benefit from your research?

SETH KAPLAN: Good question. I think the key point is, if we just increase aid and we just repeat the policies of the past, we're not going to see a significant change. More aid, actually, in my opinion, is not the answer.

We have lots of money allocated. Maybe we don't spend the money wisely; we give it to our consultants or we give it for political reasons. But I think, more importantly, the whole idea of aid as it is done right now in the world—of course, it is useful in some cases, to help fight diseases, promote agricultural reform, and things like that. But mostly aid is not spent the way that it should be spent for helping these countries.

The Obama administration, being Democratic, given President-elect Obama's background, will make a greater—Bush has done a good job with Africa, actually, expanding aid programs three times in his two terms.

But the Obama administration is going to make a much greater effort, I think, in terms of how to help fragile states and how to deal with the problems of social development in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa.

The real question that the Obama administration should be asking itself is, is it going to repeat the policies that have not worked in the past? Is it going to look for a different approach?

My book has seven case studies. My book promotes a framework. Every country is different. I don't want to pretend that I have any answers, actually. All I have is a framework of suggested policies. In every situation, we need to learn the situation on the ground and come up with a set of policies that are going to work. Right now we have generic policies that we apply everywhere. The World Bank plans in these countries are almost the same in every country. The paradigm when we go into almost every country is the same—more elections, more reform of economics. These are very simplistic—more peacekeeping troops. It's a very simplistic approach, a very generic approach.

My approach is very different. It's all about understanding local capacities, local institutions, even the geography, local human resources, and then trying to take the framework of my ten suggested general policies and trying to go case by case. I have seven examples. You could do 50 examples—there are about 50 or 60 fragile states—and apply these principles in every case differently.

I think the Obama administration, if it really wants to effect change and improve the well-being of hundreds of millions of people, and also improve the national security of the United States—because these countries are all indirectly a threat to us, because their instability affects their natural resources and affects the ability of terrorists to strike at us—they need to adopt a very different approach, as I recommend in this book.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like a lot of fragile states are still around. Now we also have the financial crisis, a lot of chaos. The emergence of a new international financial system is a possibility. Do you see more or less of this problem, fewer or more in number of the fragile states emerging in the future? What do you see for fragile states in the future?

SETH KAPLAN: Fragile states are a problem that is going to be with us for a very long time. If anything, the financial crisis, because it has weakened the international environment, is going to slow growth. It's going to lower the price of natural resources, minerals that are being exported. It's probably going to create more chaos in many places. It's going to undermine governments more.

I would say the current environment is very negative for fragile states. The longer the situation continues, the more detrimental it is for fragile states. Pakistan is having major economic problems now. Many African countries are seeing their export prices decline.

For all these reasons, fragile states are going to be a greater and greater problem—but even longer term, because the improvement of technology and greater globalization make fragile states a greater and greater threat to us as well. They can take advantage of the fragility to generate money and to use those bases to strike at us in more creative ways.

This is a problem that will be with us for decades. Whether it's the Pakistan-Afghanistan nexus, whether it's the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon nexus, whether it's the Horn of Africa, which is in the news every day, whether it's the Congo, whether it's West Africa, whether it's the Caucasus, with their own fragile states, in Central Asia—literally, we have large pockets—even to such a degree that from Central Asia all the way through to Africa, including Pakistan, we have a whole swath of fragile states.

These countries are going to be a serious problem for us. The financial crisis is going to limit our resources, which means that we should not play down these problems with these countries, but we need to think smarter, more creatively.

This is why the need for the new approach is even more important and why the Obama administration should be buying hundreds of my books and sending them around to everyone. They should be rethinking what the paradigm is that we should be approaching these countries with. I think it can only benefit us, for security and well-being, and help the world. And there is a very big need for this in the years ahead.

DEVIN STEWART: The book is Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development. Seth Kaplan, thank you very much for coming.

SETH KAPLAN: Thank you very much. That was a very good interview, as all your interviews are.

DEVIN STEWART: Thanks, Seth.

SETH KAPLAN: Thank you very much. A great pleasure.

Recent Articles by this Author:
Saving the Congo, Policy Innovations
Genuine Power Sharing, Policy Innovations
A West African Union, Policy Innovations

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