The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Problem of State Capacity

July 29, 2009

The question of state capacity might be one of, if not the, most important question that academics and policy makers can tackle. When we talk about local, regional, and international stability, failed states, etc, often times the major problem is a lack of capacity by a state to control what goes on within its borders. State capacity is the product of numerous variables, including legitimacy, material resources, government coherence, coercive capacity, and autonomy vis-a-vis international actors. And while state capacity is seemingly a critical issue in global politics, policy makers and academics alike have found it one of the most intractable problems to solve. How do you build capacity? What are the proven techniques? Are techniques portable or replicable in other states and regions?

I think the short answer is: we don’t really know

The Financial Times ran a story this morning chronicling the continuing degeneration of the Nigerian state’s ability to maintain control over the oil rich Niger Delta. While conflict with rebels in the region is nothing new, militants have expanded and refined (no pun intended) their activities over the past decade to include the tapping of oil pipelines for sale on the black market. However, the militants have recently began refining the crude being siphoned for local sale.

The article goes on to discuss how the state is struggling to determine a course of action that will reestablish it’s authority and control in the region. (John Robb over at Global Guerrillas has commented for some time on the role of super-empowered individuals and their ability to disrupt states, in particular rebels in Nigeria). For the state, control over crude is key for capacity, as it provides economic resources with which to exert control and influence. By slowly losing control over that key resource (along with refinement and its distribution) the state suffers in at least two ways:

1) It further depletes its fiscal resources through which it maintains stability within society and has less funds to distribute to key players in exchange for political support;

2) It reveals that the state doesn’t have the capacity to control key parts of its territory. As some have argued, this kind of signaling can potentially lead other separatists/militants/rebels in other parts of the country to determine that they too can encroach on the state.

There are many ideas about how to build state capacity–charismatic leadership, leveraging large fiscal reserves and/or natural resources, increase public goods and social welfare programs, etc.

The question I have is whether we truly know how to build state capacity (i.e. have we fully developed a science of state capacity) or whether the problem is simply one of implementation (i.e. conditions on the ground rarely allow for known, effective policies to be implemented).

Interested to hear readers thoughts.

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"Randy Waterhouse" is a pseudonym.