Plan B 4.0 Book Byte: Rescuing Failing States

By Lester R. Brown

One of the leading challenges facing the international community is how to rescue failing states, those countries most at risk of collapse due to a combination of weak governance, internal violence, and social upheaval. Continuing with business as usual in international assistance programs is not working, as evidenced by the continuing deterioration of places like Haiti, Somalia, and Yemen. The stakes could not be higher. (See earlier discussion of failing states.)

If the number of failing states continues to increase, at some point this trend will translate into a failing global civilization. Somehow we must turn the tide of state decline.

Thus far the process of state failure has largely been a one-way street with few countries reversing the process. Among the few who have turned the tide are Liberia and Colombia.

Foreign Policy’s annual ranking of failing states showed Liberia ranking ninth on its 2005 list (based on data for 2004), with number one being the worst case. But after 14 years of cruel civil war that took 200,000 lives, things began to turn around in 2005 with the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an official at the World Bank, as president. A fierce effort to root out corruption and a multinational U.N. Peacekeeping Force of 15,000 troops who maintain the peace, repair roads, schools, and hospitals, and train police, have brought progress to this war-torn country. In 2009, Liberia had dropped to thirty-fourth on the list of failing states.

A US soldier with Liberian children
A US soldier with Liberian children

In Colombia, an improving economy—partly because of strong coffee prices and partly because the government is steadily gaining in legitimacy—has helped turn things around. Ranked fourteenth in 2005, Colombia in 2009 was forty-first on the Foreign Policy list. Neither Liberia nor Colombia are out of the woods yet, but both are moving in the right direction.

How can the US best assist failing states?

Failing states are a relatively new phenomenon, and they require a new response. The traditional project-based assistance program is no longer adequate. State failure is a systemic failure that requires a systemic response.

The United Kingdom and Norway have recognized that failing states need special attention and have each set up interagency funds to provide a response mechanism. Whether they are adequately addressing systemic state failure is not yet clear, but they do at least recognize the need to devise a specific institutional response.

In contrast, U.S. efforts to deal with weak and failing states are fragmented. Several U.S. government departments are involved, including State, Treasury, and Agriculture, to name a few. And within the State Department, several different offices are concerned with this issue. This lack of focus was recognized by the Hart-Rudman U.S. Commission on National Security in the Twenty-first Century:  “Responsibility today for crisis prevention and response is dispersed in multiple AID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and State bureaus, and among State’s Under Secretaries and the AID Administrator. In practice, therefore, no one is in charge.”

What is needed now is a new cabinet-level agency—a Department of Global Security (DGS)—that would fashion a coherent policy toward each weak and failing state. This recommendation, initially set forth in a report of the Commission on Weak States and U.S. National Security, recognizes that the threats to security are now coming less from military power and more from the trends that undermine states, such as rapid population growth, poverty, deteriorating environmental support systems, and spreading water shortages. The new agency would incorporate AID (now part of the State Department) and all the various foreign assistance programs that are currently in other government departments, thereby assuming responsibility for U.S. development assistance across the board. The State Department would provide diplomatic support for this new agency, helping in the overall effort to reverse the process of state failure.

The new Department of Global Security would be funded by shifting fiscal resources from the Department of Defense. In effect, the DGS budget would be the new defense budget. It would focus on the central sources of state failure by helping to stabilize population, restore environmental support systems, eradicate poverty, provide universal primary school education, and strengthen the rule of law through bolstering police forces, court systems, and, where needed, the military.

The DGS would deal with the production of and international trafficking in drugs. It would make such issues as debt relief and market access an integral part of U.S. policy. It would also provide a forum to coordinate domestic and foreign policy, ensuring that domestic policies, such as cotton export subsidies or subsidies to convert grain into fuel for cars, do not contribute to the failure of other countries. The department would provide a focus for the United States to help lead a growing international effort to reduce the number of failing states. This agency would also encourage private investment in failing states by providing loan guarantees to spur development.

As part of this effort the United States could rejuvenate the Peace Corps to assist with grassroots programs, including teaching in schools and helping to organize family planning, tree planting, and micro-lending programs. This program would involve young people while developing their sense of civic pride and social responsibility.

At a more senior level, the United States has a fast-growing reservoir of retired people who are highly skilled in such fields as management, accounting, law, education, and medicine and who are eager to be of use. Their talents could be mobilized through a voluntary Senior Service Corps. The enormous reservoir of management skills in this age group could be tapped to augment the skills so lacking in failing-state governments.

There are already, of course, a number of volunteer organizations that rely on the talents, energy, and enthusiasm of both U.S. young people and seniors, including the Peace Corps, Teach for America, and the Senior Corps. But conditions now require a more ambitious, systematic effort to tap this talent pool.

The world has quietly entered a new era, one where there is no national security without global security. We need to recognize this and to restructure and refocus our efforts to respond to this new reality.

For more information on addressing the root causes of state failure, such as stabilizing population and restoring the earth’s natural support systems, see the following excerpts from Plan B 4.0:Educating Everyone,” “Stabilizing Population,” “Toward a Healthy Future,” and “Protecting and Restoring Forests.

Adapted from Chapter 7, “Eradicating Poverty and Stabilizing Population” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), available on-line at www.earthpolicy.org/index.php?/books/pb4

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usarmyafrica/ / CC BY 2.0

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