Insights and Analysis

A Conversation with Author and Governance Expert Clare Lockhart

February 13, 2013

Clare LockhartNew Asia Foundation trustee Clare Lockhart, author of the acclaimed book, Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World and co-founder (with Dr. Ashraf Ghani) of the Institute for State Effectiveness (ISE), sat down with In Asia editor Alma Freeman to discuss state effectiveness, Afghanistan’s unsung progress, engaging youth for change, and why we are living on the cusp of a third industrial revolution.

A Foreign Affairs article on the 2012 Failed States Index claims that, “most countries that fall apart … do so not with a bang but with a whimper.” What are your thoughts on this statement?

There are examples of seemingly gradual deterioration: where a vicious cycle of state weakness generates a spiral of decline, with deepening corruption and reducing public service, leading to an increasing loss of trust from the population. We’ve seen this in countries including Haiti, Somalia, Liberia, and Zimbabwe.

Syria’s rapid collapse, however, appears to illustrate how suddenly a state can disintegrate – even one that appeared outwardly stable for several decades. Even states that appear to fall apart gradually, however, often pass through certain critical inflection points – in Haiti’s case, these include the 2004 coup and the 2010 earthquake – which exacerbate an already precarious situation.

Getting on the road to stability and prosperity has universally been a long process; most countries take at least two decades of sustained effort to see real and sustained gains. This means our collective time horizons and expectations need to adjust; turnarounds just cannot be expected in months or years.

You’ve spent a great deal of time working on the ground in Afghanistan. As the nation transitions, what are your biggest concerns and hopes?

My hopes and concerns relate to the same challenge: can Afghanistan overcome its internal divisions to give space for the energy and optimism of the next generation? There is a new generation that has taken advantage of the last decade – for many of them a respite in a three-decade long conflict – to gain education and skills. They are impressive and highly motivated to drive positive change, and represent our best hope that gains are sustained – and built upon. People tend to underestimate the extraordinary change in Afghanistan’s society that has already taken place.

Establishing internal consensus will be critical. National unity is a strong force in the country – especially among the young generation but also in the cadres that served in public service in previous era. Divisions between ethnic, geographic, and other groups naturally have the potential to undermine this. However, conversations with the younger generation give me tremendous hope that they view their place in history and their diverse ideas as tremendous assets.

The critical ingredient now for the country’s stability is confidence: mostly confidence within the country in its own future, but also of the continued partnership of countries to back its sovereignty and stability.

How has the development and aid landscape and approach to peace and state-building changed since you co-authored your book, Fixing Failed States, in 2008?

There have been significant changes to the development landscape over the last years. Leaders of governments and international organizations have publicly committed to improving development and peace-building approaches. Underlying these changes is a renewed appreciation of the foundational nature of state functions for addressing a range of challenges, from disease and poverty to insecurity and the impacts of climate change. They have admitted that mistakes were made in the past, pledged to make policies more responsive to the perspectives and priorities of citizens and leaders, and have begun to consider issues of cost-effectiveness and accountability.

The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report shows how the challenge of state-building has risen to the forefront of the global agenda and put the concurrent challenges of “security, justice, and jobs” squarely on the table. The challenge now is to adapt these insights to the reality of the policy process at the country level. Country leadership teams from Somalia to Nepal and Timor-Leste are demonstrating policy innovations that put the country’s goals firmly in the foreground. This is in turn forcing their development partners to adjust their own programs to this new reality. Some partners are finding innovations easier than others. When my colleagues and I first started working in Nepal a few years ago, Nepali policy analysts we spoke to said that every year or two, the language of development changes with a new fashion and they are forced to relearn it. The hope now is that the development world has arrived at a language of commitment to institution-building that will stay constant for some years, but also that the language and concerns of the country itself can drive the process.

What lessons can countries in the Middle East transitioning to democracies learn from Asia?

For several years now, people have looked to the lessons from the “Asian miracle,” such as Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, India, and China at both state and provincial levels. While the path of any country is unique, these remarkable stories of the creation of widespread prosperity have acted as an inspiration and point of learning for many, including in the Middle East.

Applying the lessons requires a careful craft; lessons cannot be transplanted in cookie-cutter fashion. The spectacular growth of South Korea, driven in large part by a focus on technology and export-led manufacturing, or the emergence and continued prosperity of Singapore, with its initial attraction of international firms, each rested on a particular gap in the global market at a moment in time and cannot easily be replicated. However, there are some key common lessons, including the centrality of accountability, the importance of investing in human capital, especially those technical skills relevant to the projected growth, and the importance of getting urban planning and housing right.

Many countries in Asia and the Middle East share similar challenges: expanding young populations, rapid urbanization, and the question of what type of social policy and welfare systems to develop that can use the countries’ wealth for much needed social purposes without creating unsupportable entitlements.

In many insecure nations in Asia, the youth represent an overwhelming majority.  What challenges and benefits to state-building does this present?

A striking statistic is that the population under age 14 represents 36.6 percent of Pakistan’s total. In Afghanistan it is even higher, at 45.9 percent.

A burgeoning young population has the potential to be a tremendous asset – if it is harnessed. The vitality, innovation, and economic growth that it can spur gives grounds for great hope. At the same time, a large, under-employed population, especially a young population, can lead to serious problems. For many countries trapped in conflict and poverty, their social services projects rested on a different demographic picture, so they do not have the teachers, nurses, doctors, and other service providers in place to provide for a larger population. Massive youth unemployment has the potential to catalyze social unrest and release destructive forces in society. The challenge will therefore be identifying pathways for this group to participate in society, public service, and a dynamic economy.

Pakistani children in Lahore

A burgeoning young population in places like Pakistan, where 36.6 percent of the total population are under 14, has the potential to be a tremendous asset. Photo/Sara Farid

Engagement will be closely linked to the acquisition of skills. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have the potential to lead young people along the steep learning curve that is now a requirement, and not just an option, for competitiveness in a global economy. The internet and new technologies must redress the deficiencies of current educational systems. The opportunity is there to nurture the next generation of leaders – who will engage in the economy, public service, and communities. The potential is there for today’s youth to embrace and advance a new definition of citizenship – at community, national, and global levels. Citizenship today requires a focus on responsibilities as much as rights. As many of this new generation will live in cities, managing the urban environment so that it is livable will also be critical.

What makes you optimistic about the future for countries that are insecure now?

The numerous success stories – individual and collective – that are often overlooked. According to a World Bank report on poverty levels in the developing world between 1981 and 2008, the percentage of the world living below poverty declined to 22 percent, from approximately 43 percent in 1990 and 52 percent in 1981. The percentage of East Asian residents living below that level fell to 14 percent in 2008 from 77 percent in 1981.

As noted earlier, the energy and drive of the next generation gives me cause for optimism. Young leaders everywhere seem to be seeking ways to move past current political stalemates and foster a new dialogue across boundaries.

Despite the financial crisis, there is now an unprecedented stock of capital, knowledge, technology, and innovative ideas that can be harnessed to help close the gap for countries whose citizens are still denied lives of dignity. We are living on the cusp of a third industrial revolution, a technology and information-driven transformation that has the potential to unleash a globally generalized economic boom. If the institutions of insecure countries become sufficiently robust to enable their citizens’ talents to flourish, and the world stays committed to their participation, there is every chance for them to participate in it and succeed.


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