Doom and Gloom 101: Making Weak and Failed States Teachable

12 October 2011, 1912 EDT

Nothing risks inviting cynicism and despair like teaching and learning about failed states. For the second year I’m teaching an upper level International Relations course titled “Weak and Failed States” in the Poli Sci Department at UMass Amherst. Much to the confusion of my students, I introduce the course by explaining that “weak and failed states” is a highly contested concept, driven more by policy agendas than empirical consistencies, and analytical re-conceptualized so many times over that it’s almost entirely useless. In other words, welcome to Political Science! But, as a catch-all concept it does manage to frame different types of governance challenges and threats and introduces students to case studies, like Haiti and DRC, that tend to fall off the radar for issues that matter in traditional IR. And surprisingly, the course went very well last year and so far, so good, this semester.

You can visit the course site here, which details the structure, topics, and reading material under the various tabs. (You’ll notice this is a course blog – a favorite tool of mine – but the tricky pedagogy of class blogging is a subject for another post.)

I’m writing this post to solicit ideas and provoke some dialogue on strategies for teaching this topic. I really have no problem with the doom and gloom, and certainly most students joke that my courses should come with anti-depressants in lieu of sanitizing the study of violence and poverty. I also try to make a considerable effort to emphasize areas of progress, productive policy responses, and give exposure to examples of local resilience in the midst of state failure. But analytically this a tough course topic several respects…

It covers a ridiculous range of topics and case studies that, on the surface, have little in common other than the assumption that contemporary international security and development challenges are linked to “failed” “governance.” The topics range from poverty and repression, to civil wars, to transnational threats of terrorism. The case studies include, Haiti, Zimbabwe, DRC, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia.

The broad scope is not helped by the policy-scholarship divide on this concept. From a very critical perspective, the policy discourse is a “hypnotizing jargon” that disproportionately securitizes poverty and non-Western forms of governance. From a mainstream perspective, governance and economic indicators (like those in the Failed States Index) can be used to dissect and rank state failure and possibly reorient policy responses towards the worst of the worst. Many scholars, however, reject the securitizing discourse for its narrow focus on the nature of post-9/11 transnational threats and criticize conflated concepts and rankings for creating monolithic conflict prevention and state-building policies, citing numerous screw ups in Somalia, Afghanistan, Haiti, etc. They also rightly challenge the idea that “ungoverned spaces” exist, contending that the role of traditional authorities and governance structures should be seen as legitimate and incorporated into central state institutions. (Boege et al have a great analysis of “hybrid political orders” in this respect.)

Teaching and learning about failed states requires using analytical frameworks that are not exclusive to IR and/or Political Science. Ideally, this course would be a slick combination of IR, Comparative Politics, and a little non-Western Anthropology. For example, the first section on “Statehood and Causes of Collapse” draws on state-in-society approaches, the role of patrimonialism in pre- and post-colonial states, authoritarian leadership, etc. Explaining the dynamics of civil wars and warlordism requires frameworks and theories outside of IR as well. But terrorism, and especially the case studies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, certainly incorporates an IR perspective on causes of transnational threats and the final section on international responses helps situate weak and failed states within global security, development, and state-building agendas. Including a plurality of approaches and sub-fields is a must I’m not a jack of all trades.

I would welcome any comments, suggestions, and insights – particularly from those who have taught courses on similar topics or just want to tell me I’m a little nuts.