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July 12, 2017

When states fail


July 12, 2017

State failure is man-made and not predestined for some nations. States do not fail or fall primarily because they are poor in natural endowments or have no military prowess in terms of sophisticated arms and disciplined army to ensure their defence. 

They fail when the system of governance is so fragile and discriminatory that people lose faith in the government and start looking for alternative mechanisms to protect themselves and their properties from being thrown to the wolves. 

States owe their existence as integrated polities to what they do and how they do it. Strong states supposedly buffer or manipulate external influences and champion the aspirations of their adherents. In other words, they mediate between external challenges and local realities to promote the welfare of citizens. They develop institutions to prevent cross-border invasions on the one hand and provide an enabling internal environment for growth and development on the other.

A key aspect of such institutional development is the empowerment of citizens to participate fully and freely in the political process without the fear of being lynched or victimised by those who have different worldviews.

The social contract, which binds the state and society, loses meaning when citizens turn to sectarian, ethnic, and other social forces for protection and economic opportunities. A society that is sharply divided along linguistic, religious, and ethnic lines becomes the breeding ground for inter-group tensions and violence.

Vital state institutions, including the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary, then start reflecting this social polarisation. They compete for power and a tug of war ensues within the state polity, which ultimately leads to confrontation rather than cooperation in the absence of a shared vision.

Countries like Somalia, Angola, Burundi, and Sudan are examples of failed states that plunged into chaos within a decade after suffering from extreme social polarisation as a consequence of bad governance. Governments in these countries lost their legitimacy and credibility in the hearts and minds of their citizens owing to the prevalence of corruption and discrimination in delivering services. The legitimacy of rulers plummeted to the level of sectarian leaders and their personal interests took precedence over public interests. The loot and plunder of national resources continued unabated and institutions were subordinated to the whims of powerful individuals.

While Pakistan has yet to fall into the category of a failed state, it has all the symptoms of a weak state. We have yet to set our country’s direction right in terms of reconciling its ideological roots with the demands of globalisation, balancing various competing institutional forces and, most importantly, working on a new blueprint for social harmony. 

Cutting itself of its roots would be as pernicious for its wellbeing as living aloof from the outside world. Similarly, the constant tug of war among state institutions and the federating units would cause irreparable damage to the federation.  

The role of leaders is critical in making or breaking their countries. Leaders are dealers in hope as well as the architects of a new just order. They constantly remind their people of what they should aspire for and where they should channelise their energies. They transcend political expediencies and parochial partisan and sectarian interests. They are driven by a strong sense of justice, have faith in the people they lead and transform their vision into reality through a persistent struggle. They protect the state rather than their estate.


The writer teaches at the Sarhad University.

Email: [email protected]


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