By: Franz Essig
What is the first thing that comes to mind when asked what Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have in common? Did you think of Ebola? How about if asked the same question about the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan? Was your answer “civil war”? Or did you think about child hunger or lack of access to clean water?
Disease, war, poverty and other related challenges have plagued sub-Saharan Africa for decades. However, over the past half-century globalization and the rise of international institutions and non-profit organizations have very publicly shed light on Africa’s human welfare issues. Television and the Internet overwhelm western consumers with images of conflict and poverty to the extent that it is hard not to associate African underdevelopment with feelings of empathy and a desire to act. Justifiably or not, many international organizations play on these emotions to inspire potential donors. To that end, the image of a starving child performs the same function for poverty relief organizations that a polar bear on an ice float does for anti-climate change groups.
There are several problems with the ubiquity of these images and their association with sub-Saharan Africa. These images can dehumanize their objects and present inaccurate or incomplete portrayals of the people they are intended to depict. This is an important cultural issue which can be discussed elsewhere. A problem that more immediately impacts policy is that this imagery draws attention away from the truth that all of these issues are rooted in a single, common characteristic: low state capacity.
State capacity is a fluid concept that is comprised of a number of functions government institutions perform. For this article, I am referring to two primary functions: security and public service delivery. Security refers to the state’s ability to minimize violence. Public service delivery has to do with providing public goods to people—not just roads, medicine and water, but also more intangible services such as financial relief and access to information channels like radio or the Internet. Generally, a state that lacks security and public service delivery capacity is much more likely to fail. These issues are also highly correlated—citizens of insecure states are less likely to have access to public services, and states that fail to provide public services tend to be less secure.
All of the countries mentioned above have one thing in common: their governments are consistently measured to be among the least capable in the world. The Fund for Peace compiles an annual Failed States Index, which ranks every country in the world on their risk of becoming a failed state using a number of indicators. In 2013’s Index, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Guinea and Nigeria are in the bottom 20 (meaning most closely resembling a failed state), and Liberia and Sierra Leone are in the bottom 35. The index also provides data by indicator, and all of the above states fall in the bottom 15 on the “Public Services” indicator, and all except Liberia and Sierra Leone are in the bottom 15 on the “Security apparatus” metric. The World Bank publishes a similar metric called the World Governance Indicators (WGI). On the WGI’s “Political Stability and Absence of Violence and Terrorism” indicator, all except Liberia and Sierra Leone again fall within the bottom 11th percentile. On “Government Effectiveness,” all fall below the 16th percentiles. This trend is consistent across virtually every sub-Saharan African country facing issues related to civil war, low human development and public health emergencies.
While these metrics may not be completely accurate, they are consistent with the realities on the ground. For example, in the Central African Republic, the initial rebellion that set off the current civil and political crisis was started by combatants in response to weak public administration and a concentration of power among certain militant groups to the exclusion of others. The conflict between the Nigerian government and the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the northeast region can be described similarly. Guinea, among the poorest countries in public administration, has lost more than 800 people to the Ebola outbreak already, and the virus is spreading rapidly with government officials unable to institute any major prevention policy due to a lack of resources and misplaced priorities. It is inaccurate for the World Health Organization to claim that Ebola could “create failed states.” State failures created the context from which the health crisis emerged.
Six months ago, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama posted an Instagram photo holding a sign reading “#Bringbackourgirls.” The photo was re-posted by millions, and shed light on the abduction of 200 female students from a school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria by Boko Haram militants. Obama did this in an effort to bring attention to a terrible tragedy and pressure the U.S. government to mobilize resources to help rescue the girls. But by directing attention only on recovering the schoolgirls, the social media campaign obscured underlying issues. In addressing only the publicly captivating kidnapping narrative, U.S. officials elected to bolster rescue efforts by aiding the Nigerian military, thereby enabling an institution whose corruption and inefficacy have been widely documented. Though the recently announced agreement with Boko Haram should be cause for optimism that the schoolgirls might finally return to their homes, there remains little reason to believe that the military will reform or be able to protect Nigerians in the future.
I should be clear that each of these states confronts unique issues, and policy fixes have to be carefully tailored to realities on the ground. Furthermore, the fact that state capacity failure is common throughout the major problems found in sub-Saharan Africa does not mean that there are easy solutions. Building strong political institutions requires not just massive financial resources, but also time and dedicated forward-thinking leaders. In other words, it’s really hard to make incapable states capable.
Nevertheless, if we do not acknowledge the consistency of state capacity shortcomings across the issues facing sub-Saharan Africa, we cannot begin to seriously combat them. When we think only of the most conspicuous issues—Ebola as a health emergency, the CAR crisis as a sectarian conflict, Boko Haram as another Islamist terrorist group—we are not only missing the core issue from which these arise, but also diverting resources from institutional reforms that could create concrete and lasting impact. As it stands now, we are letting African governments, as well as our own aid-providing governments, off the hook.