Archive for category Development

“Stop Treating Mama Africa Like a Vagina”

One of my projects this year is a series of lectures as part of the “World in Your Library” series sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council.  Saturday I traveled to beautiful Southwest Harbor, Maine, a delightful community on Mt. Desert Island.   The island, home to Acadia National Park and the tourist destination Bar Harbor, is stunningly gorgeous and I never knew what a gem Southwest Harbor was.   In the next two months I have talks in Bangor and two in Kennebunk.

The topic of today’s talk was “Children and War.”   The topic is important to me thanks to a course I co-teach with Dr. Mellisa Clawson, a professor of Early Childhood Education.   She and I started teaching that course in 2004, and over the years thinking about how war affects children world wide has changed my view on how we in political science think about conflict.   “Children and War” is a subject that elicits emotion and pain.   One woman said after the talk that her stomach hurt, and she had a hard time taking in the information, even though she was glad she came.   She gave me a hug and thanked me.  After the talk the Q and A ran almost an hour, perhaps the most flattering response one can receive!

I ended the talk with the video above – “Vagina” by Emmanual Jal.  Jal is a former child soldier from the Sudan, whose musical ability and creativity helped him escape and recover from the trauma of being a child soldier witness to and participant in atrocities and horrors.  The video is crude in some ways – “stop treating Mama Africa like a vagina, she’s not your whore, not any more….”  One woman, a feminist, was at first put off by what she saw as the derogatory use of the term “vagina.”  But others pointed out that the video was saying the beauty of Africa – and the vagina – was being misplaced by violence and rape; in this case, rape of Africa’s natural resources, leaving the people poor and subject to horrific violence.

Massive oil wealth is produced in the Niger Delta, where people live in abject poverty

Massive oil wealth is produced in the Niger Delta, where people live in abject poverty

And Jal is, sadly, correct.  Our lust for diamonds, oil and gold have lead us in the industrialized West to be complicit in horrific crimes in Africa.  We provide the demand for demands, gold and of course oil, and big corporations in collusion with African governments (read: organized criminal gangs aka mafia) provide it.  The people who live and work there are left poor, and wars to try to control the resources leave thousands dead and provide the fodder for the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

There are many organizations now that try to “rescue” and rehabilitate former child soldiers — children who have perpetrated atrocities that here would yield the death penalty.   Former child soldiers recall how they would feel proud of the terror they’d instill going into a community and killing indiscriminately.   Sometimes their leaders would scratch their skin open and rub cocaine into their blood to create a sense of power.   They’d tell them they were invincible; the LRA in Uganda would have the children rub palm oil over their body, saying it would protect them, if they believed the Lord was true.  If comrades died, they lacked belief.

As many as 40% of child soldiers are female; rape is a constant

As many as 40% of child soldiers are female; rape is a constant

Up to 40% of child soldiers were girls, all of whom were raped and used as sex slaves, home keepers, and soldiers.  If they have children from the rapes, those children would be raised to fight.  They often avoid rehabilitation in order to avoid the stigma of having been part of the militias – the stigma of having been raped and used, making them “undesirable” by men in that culture.

But as Jal’s video shows, we are complicit.  Our big corporations work with their corrupt governments to cheaply mine diamonds, gold, oil and other minerals.  We don’t know or care of the social impact.  We pretend it’s just “the market,” and that any problems in Africa are endemic to those countries.   We are blameless.

Yet we are not – we make those atrocities possible, and our forefathers through colonialism and greed destroyed the old functioning culture on the African continent to bring them “civilization” – Christianity, government and science.   Thus they went from being self-sustaining and balanced to impoverished, unstable and dependent.   Crudely, we (in the West overall) raped the continent saying “it’s good for them and they like it.”  Yeah, Jal’s metaphor is discomforting, but accurate.

One problem is cheap weapons; yet when efforts are made to control their flow, the US opposes as the NRA considers it "gun control."

One problem is cheap weapons; yet when efforts are made to control their flow, the US opposes as the NRA considers it “gun control.”

To solve these problems it’s not enough just to try to help former child soldiers.  We need to work to build communities with a sense of purpose and identity.  Military intervention can’t work without a lot of effort to help rebuild social structures, providing education, basic necessities, and stability to allow community building.  But those efforts work against the desire of big corporations of the West – joined now by groups from China also wanting cheap resources – to maximize profit, while keeping Africans poor and divided.

If the people of Africa are kept down, treated as worthless as powerful states and corporations use “the market” to rationalize the plunder their wealth, the people may strike back.   In an era of terrorism, new media and easy to obtain WMD, that anger could be given substance.   The anger implicit in this video could magnify.  It’s in our interests to work together now, rather than close our eyes and simply enjoy the lifestyle we receive by tolerating the violence and abuse by corporations and governments worried more about the bottom line than humanity.


99% vs 1%

What treasures lie in our pre-history -- are there more Machu Picchus?

No, this isn’t a post about economics or Occupy Wall Street.  It’s a post about human history.  I’ve begun to read the book At Home by Bill Bryson, which is a history of “private life,” going through the development of homes, kitchens, food, etc.

He makes a point in the book that gives me pause.   The history that we know as recorded history — starting with the early development of agriculture and cities — is less than 1% of human history.   The first homo sapiens appeared 250,000 years ago, our history is at best 6000 years, though only the last 2500 has reasonably reliable records (albeit only from parts of the planet).    That means that 99% of history is hidden from us.   Humans with the same cognitive abilities have been inhabiting the earth for a long time, but we have few clues as to how they lived.   Humanoids with high levels of intelligence have been around millions of years.

That raises two contradictory puzzles.  First, what the heck happened during that “pre-history”?   Were we simply hunter-gatherers eeking out survival in a world buffeted by ice ages and difficult conditions?  Or were there civilizations and relatively advanced societies that rose and fell?  Second, why did we develop so quickly so fast in the last 5000 years?

There are other oddities.   Apparently the foodstuffs we’ve inherited from those past civilizations, such as corn, required a tremendous amount of genetic engineering.   Not in the lab like the stuff Mansanto does, but through trial and error, cross breeding, and who knows what else.   Corn is not natural, it was a human creation.  This means that past civilizations must have been very good at dealing with crops and foodstuffs.   The fact we cannot “recreate” their processes (Bryson informs that a conference designed to determine the origin of corn disintegrated into acrimony and disagreement) shows that at least in those cases our knowledge may fall short of theirs.

We currently define development and civilization in terms of materialism and consumption.   We’re “civilized” because we have a lot of stuff.  We have high definition TV’s, XBox’s, cars, highways, airplanes, computers, and grocery stores loaded with everything one could possibly imagine eating.   We eat animals, but not in the way of our ancestors.   Rather, we turn animals into objects we construct — genetically engineered and fed a particular way solely to get them to market quicker and with more meat.  A product that just happens to be a biological life form.

We’re so immersed in this materialist/consumption oriented view of progress and civilization that it’s hard to imagine societal development along a different path.   We see 99% of human history as being a waste land where savages roamed the earth eeking out an existence with no meaning – mere animals (and don’t forget how we treat animals!)   Only the last 6000 years have had meaningful existence, and the first 5000 of those are iffy.

We live disconnected from nature and community

On it’s face that’s an absurd way to look at human existence and history, yet unless we take the time to shake ourselves out of the cultural fog that causes us to keep our eyes shut and simply reproduce the world we see around us, it seems natural to look at progress and development in purely material terms.  Once we recognize that our materialist/secular rational western point of view is a cultural construct that programs us to value certain things over others it’s like we’re sleep walking, oblivious to other ways to understand and appreciate life.   We may enjoy a walk through nature and feel a smidgen of something deeper — but how often to thoughts and stresses of the modern world even invade those moments?   As Rousseau once put it: “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”   We just don’t recognize the chains.

So to borrow from Plato, what if we were to wake up, to be led out of cave and see reality — in this case to view the expanse of the human history we do not know because it was not recorded?    The only way we can attempt that is through imagination.

What if a society developed with sophisticated knowledge of plants, animals and nature, but without using the same lens of science that we use?  Rather than breaking things down into chemicals and reducing knowledge to general processes, what if that knowledge was holistic, based on how things interact and what works in the world?    What if all of the world was taken as valuable and not subdivided and treated as disposable, or a means to an end?

Humans might be able to build sophisticated cities with plumbing, comfort and utility without having electricity or a major power source other than water and sun.   Animals would be part of the community.   People would still eat them, but in a way that respects the cycles of life and the animal’s role in nature.  The same with plants – they would be used fully seen as valuable life forms in and of themselves.  Knowledge about them would be prized and humans might know more about agriculture than we now know even with science.

A sense of oneness between humans and nature could have yielded strong civilizations that persisted millennia  without leaving a trace for us to find.   Sophisticated oral histories and other forms of communication may have been developed.   Perhaps they disintegrated, perhaps we don’t understand them.  Imagine if our civilization collapsed — most electronic information would dissipate as the grid went down, if someone happened on a CD or DVD in the future it would be a bizarre shinny metal object, certainly not something bearing knowledge!

In fact, if you think about it the idea that creatures as intelligent and sophisticated in thinking as we are roamed the planet for 247,000 years and then only recently discovered a path out of a primitive state is absurd.  Moreover, our current lifestyle works against who we are — our bodies, nervous system and psychology is not geared for the modern stresses and pressures of the consumption oriented competitive world we’ve created.   Our misguided approach to food is creating massive levels of obesity, diabetes and disease.   We have constructed a world out of synch with the kind of creatures we are, and one that disconnects us from both nature and each other.

Our lifestyle does us harm

Yet we are to believe that we are the pinnacle of civilization, that everything before us was primitive or savage.  I find it more likely to believe that humans have lived in meaningful advanced civilizations throughout much of human history.   As fallible humans in a changing world those civilizations have risen and fallen, and no doubt some were better and more successful than others.  Looked at this way, I can’t help but wonder if the path we’ve chosen in the last one or two thousand years might not be one of destruction and decay rather than progress and development.


Everything Is About to Change

A 20 year old northern California blogger named Kristen Wolfe had one of her posts noticed by the Huffington Post, which reposted it.  It was entitled “Dear Customer Who Stuck Up for His Little Brother,” and recounted an experience at her place of employment (video game sales) where an athletic elder brother stood up for his younger brother against an aggressive and mean father.   The younger brother wanted to buy a video game with a female character, along with a purple controller.   The father was incensed and tried to get the boy to get a game with guns and violence — something manly.   Anyway, click the link and read the story, it was touching and brought a tear to my eye.

But this blog entry isn’t about that, but how the story spread.   Once reposted on Huffington Post it quickly became one of their most popular stories.  I came about it via Facebook.   A facebook friend named Kristine posted the link.   I read it, was moved by the story and shared it on my facebook page.   Already a number of people have shared my link, and others have shared their links.   Whether its called ‘going viral’ or spreading like wildfire, that’s how a story that 20 years ago would maybe have been told to a few friends becomes a sensation.

This is an example of what is the biggest revolution in human history so far — an information and communications revolution wider in scope and power than even the industrial revolution of Europe or the invention of the printing press.   It is the reason protests arose in Egypt a year ago, why both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street rocked American politics, and why the world is about to change in profound and fundamental ways.   We are living in an era of history that is blessed or perhaps cursed to be one of the most dramatic and profound.    It’s only just beginning;  everything is about to change.

We’ve seen the first inklings of change as protests swept the Mideast and even Russia.   We’ve seen power shift from states and governments first to businesses and financial institutions and likely next to NGOs and citizen movements.   This will someday spawn a fundamental political restructuring whereby the bureaucratic sovereign state will be replaced by a new political order.   Civil society will be global and connected, sharing information and undercutting local corruption.

Developing countries will be able to redefine development away from the unsustainable neo-liberal dream of constant industrial growth and materialism towards a bottom up sustainable future, connected with the world not as a periphery pawn in the global economic structure but as autonomous citizens and communities.     Markets and big money will be forced to democratize and become transparent, and the current economic crisis will demand a rethinking of the idea that consumption should be ones’ primary life goal even in the industrialized West.

States, companies and even intelligence agencies will find it ever harder to keep anything ‘top secret,’ or any operation truly covert.   The cure to global warming and our environmental crises will be a mix of technology and a new way of thinking.   Once economic growth at all costs is rejected as the primary goal in life, a sustainable future can be imagined and built.

Yes, I know.  That all sounds very utopian.   Historians out there  might point out that every major systemic change breeds war and crisis, in part because people don’t know what change is bringing and thus try desperately to hold on to the anachronistic system they’ve inherited.    I have no doubt that will happen to some extent, this is an era of both crisis and transformation – the world is in motion!

Yet a positive trend is that attitudes are changing at a scope and pace that matches technological change.   I bet if you described that scene in Kristen Wolfe’s blog to a large number of people, you’d find many siding with the father and thinking the sons were out of line.   I also bet that almost everyone who would think that is over 45 years old.    The Facebook generation is more tolerant, open minded and willing to share ideas and information.     How often do parents warn kids about posting on Facebook and decry the idea of having 300 friends and sharing life details?   The fetish for privacy of the older generation is giving way to a new openness.

Whereas my generation – the older one – tends to want a stable protected home and life-space, the younger generation is wired, connected and involved.   My generation had yuppies cocooning in the suburbs, the new generation can’t imagine going a full day without their smart phones.   It’s a new attitude which, combined with the new technology is putting us on the precipice of major cultural, global and technological change.   Enjoy the ride!


A New Bretton Woods?

Thanks to government policies we’re unlikely to have bread lines and unemployment reaching over 30%, the current “recession” is looking more and more like the kind of economic event that heralds the end of a particular economic era.  We will get through it and a new era will begin, but things will have to get a lot worse before they get better.   The reason is politics:  people interpret the world through their political lenses and so far have not yet been convinced that real change is needed.

The boom of 1948 to 2008, sixty years of prosperity and growth, can be divided into two parts.  The recession of 1979-83 marks the break between the two.   In the first part the industrialized West produced as much if not more than it consumed, budgets were for the most part in balance, debt accrued in the war was being paid down, and income disparities were narrowing.   The standard of living went up, political stability grew.   However, since the great recession ending in 1983 the industrialized West has gone further into debt than had ever been imaginable, production has shifted to the third world and a series of bubble economies have created the illusion of sustainable prosperity.  In those three decades imbalances were being built that would ultimately ignite a global economic crisis.   It’s far worse than 1980 because debt is massively higher, infrastructure much more out of date, and globalization has altered the nature of the global economy.

Globalization is a mix of the internationalization of global capital and the growth of information technology.   Before 1980 it was difficult to merge companies across borders, invest in foreign markets, and go anywhere on the planet to find the best return on investment.    Now capital has been unleashed from its national borders meaning that business and capital no longer had national loyalties.   Whether this is good or bad is hotly debated.   What is clear is that the global institutional structure that worked so well up through the 80s is no longer adequate.  It was a state-centric approach now serving a world where state sovereignty is weakening.   Current institutions were created when the dominant economies were in the West, closely linked, and relied on the US as the global hegemon to assure defense, provide the global reserve currency (the dollar) and promote free trade.

That old order began with a meeting of economists at the New Hampshire resort of Bretton Woods in July 1944.  They were determined to completely reorganize the entire global economic system.   Their goal was simple: save capitalism.   Capitalism had been thought to have led to the great depression, fascism and systemic collapse.   They believed that with US leadership and the proper institutional infrastructure capitalism could lead to true prosperity.   The resulting “Bretton Woods system,” including fixed exchange rates (through 1971), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT – now the World Trade Organization), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.   Together these institutions formed the foundation of this new system.   Free trade was the lynchpin and the key to igniting the most impressive economic expansion in world history.

Those institutions are no longer adequate.   The gold standard and the fixed exchange rates were jettisoned when they’d served their purpose in the early seventies.   Once trust in currencies was strong enough so the market could handle currency valuation, there was no need for the gold standard.   The rest of the institutions were built on two principles: a)  state sovereignty; and b) American hegemony.

Hegemony is long gone.   The dominant role of the US had faded by the late 60s, and since then the rise of the EU, Japan, China and others has created a real counter balance to US economic strength.    With $14 trillion of foreign debt and a large current account deficit, the US no longer can snap it’s fingers and expect the world to comply with its wishes.   Sovereignty is vastly overstated.   True sovereignty never really took in much of the third world, while even the develop countries find that globalization vastly limits their capacity to develop national responses to problems.   If the problems are global, a national response is inadequate.   The US used to think that our size made us immune to this; the current crisis shows that is not the case.

The world needs a recasting of global economic institutions designed to function in a world of complex interdependence, powerful non-state actors, and the need for coordinated policy.

If we learned anything from the Great Depression, it’s that markets alone don’t magically fix a broken economy.   To address the current imbalances, there needs to be a global effort to stimulate the economy and adjust the structural imbalances.   This might include a new global reserve currency, acceptance of a weaker dollar, and a massive well orchestrated global intervention in the economy designed to stimulate growth and regenerate markets.   That won’t happen until the situation gets much worse than it currently is.

In the US a huge chunk of the political discourse is run by people who equate any kind of government activism with “socialism,” an absurd charge but one which so tinges the political atmosphere that President Obama can’t even propose higher taxes on the wealthiest without being charged with class warfare.     Right now the Republicans are waging class warfare on the poor, telling them to suffer unemployment and want while protecting the elite who are doing very well.   The Democrats have to make that case boldly, with no apologies.   They have to note that cutting spending stifles economic growth far more than tax increases on those wealthy who now pay historically low rates.

Despite the sloganeering, the goal is not to build socialism, but to correct imbalances that now prevent markets from functioning adequately.   Markets have always needed a regulatory structure of some sort to work — even Adam Smith realized that.   That structure could be a set of local customs and norms in a small setting, state laws and regulations in the post-war setting, and now transnational agreements and policy action.

At some point it will happen.   If President Obama were to lead a call to bring top world economists back to Bretton Woods to plan a new global order, and states had the will to make it happen, it might quickly be as successful as the original Bretton Woods system.   More successful, even, as now third world states would be part of the solution to global problems.   But it’s not going to happen any time soon, thanks to a political mindset that still thinks primarily in terms of independent states rather than an interdependent global system.   That mindset may be strongest in the US, but it exists across the planet — old ways of thinking resist change, even if the world is clearly in transition.

Last time it took a 10 year depression followed by a bloody six year war before the world embraced a new order.    The success of the original Bretton Woods system is clear — never before has so much wealth been created so quickly.   There is no reason to think this can’t be done again, this time involving the resources and dynamism of the entire international community, not just the West.    First there has to be the political will to make it happen.   Things will have to get a lot worse before that political will is evident.   How much worse?    Ten years of depression and six years of war like last time?  I hope not.


Poisoning our Children?

In the middle of the 20th century psychiatrists thought they may have found a solution to deviant and psychotic behavior: the lobotomy.   Easy to perform, patients often went from being violently insane into becoming docile and quiet.   However, the procedure left people a shell of what they used to be, or as the Soviet Union put it in abandoning the procedure in 1950 “people go from being insane to being idiots.”

Even more people are affected by a new psychiatric effort to take the anti-psychotic drugs that replaced the lobotomy and prescribe them to children who have behavioral problems.   Children often end up on a mix of medications, all designed to alter behavior in some way, usually to counter act side effects of other drugs being taken.  The result can be seen by considering this story in the New York Times, or watching this episode of Frontline.   Quite literally children are being treated with drugs whose efficacy has not been tested, and which can alter the children so much that they cannot live normal lives.   Since they were diagnosed as mentally ill in the first place, parents (and Doctors) often see mental illness as the reason for their difficulties, when in many  (perhaps most?)  severe cases it’s the “medications” that cause the problem

In some ways, this is a result of the inhumane way health care has been provided in the US.   Insurance companies, loathe to pay more than have to, have determined that a child psychiatrist usually needs at most 15 minutes to evaluate and assess a child.  That’s all they’ll pay.   Hospitals and clinics push doctors to see as many patients as possible so that they can pay their costs (including, of course, doctors’ salaries).   This is also a result of our culture.  We’ve been conditioned to think that medicines can cure anything.  Any ache, pain, or abnormality needs to be treated — and the pharmaceutical companies promise they can give us a “better life.”

Doctors, of course, complain that parents come in at wits end about their child’s behavior, often demanding something be given to make the child ‘normal.’   Therapy takes too long to work, after all.  Moreover, children develop at such different rates and in different ways that behaviors exhibited can be interpreted as being mental illness.   A hyperactive child or one with attention deficit disorder — conditions that often need no treatment or can be treated with non-psychotic drugs — can show behaviors that might be labeled bipolar disorder, autism, or some other malady thought to benefit from anti-psychotic medication.

So doctors under pressure from parents and insurance companies dash off a prescription, and the parent leaves hoping they now have the magic potion to make their child “normal.”   If it works, but the child has trouble sleeping, then the doctor prescribes something for that.   Soon there is weight gain, so medications are changed again.  The child then may seem anxious, so a new medication might be added.    Children might be on a regimen of ten drugs or so for their entire childhood, usually making them different from the rest, often thinking they have some deep down problem that would consume them should they go off their medication.  And, of course such powerful drugs can’t be dropped cold turkey, children need to be weaned off of them, and as they are the side effects of ending a medication may make it seem like it actually was needed.   For some, a diagnosis at 2 years old may mean a lifetime of possibly dangerous and unnecessary drugs.

Because studies are so rare and vague, we have no way of knowing how many children have their lives altered or even destroyed by such practices, nor do we know in how many cases the medications do some good.   We’re experimenting on our children, and we don’t know the impact of these powerful drugs on the long term psychological and physical development of the child.   But because smart doctors prescribe, and our culture sees medication as the cure to any problem, people go along with it.

Two things need to be accepted:  first, children need to learn to live with themselves as themselves.   If a child has a temper, is wired to react quickly and perhaps be anxious, that might just be who he or she is.    Young and unable to really understand or control behaviors, a child of this sort might violently misbehave, or have times of uncontrollable rage.   Now, in some cases mild medications may be necessary to help the child through this, but ultimately the child has to learn to control his or her temper, and deal with the fact that he or she has this kind of personality.  If a child is overly medicated so that his or her true self isn’t experienced, then medications may continue for life — the person will never discover who he or she really is.  Or, if the medications end when the child becomes an adult it’ll be much harder for the individual to handle his or her own personality — the lessons weren’t learned gradually while growing up, but would need to be learned all at once, with expectations higher.

Second, it takes all kinds to make up a world.   Normalcy is simply an average.    Each person brings a unique perspective to life, and contributes in his or her own way to a community.  Most importantly, though, children need to be shown patience.   The uncertainties of human and psychological development make it dangerous to see ‘abnormal’ behavior as an illness so early in life.   It could just be a quirk of that person’s development.

Yet, there are children who have serious chemical imbalances and really benefit from even strong anti-psychotic drugs.  How do you know when to make that call?   Well, last year my son, then age 6, had a series of difficult episodes at school.   We took him to a doctor to assess what the problem is.    She came in on a day she’d otherwise have partially off, and spent almost two hours talking with us and our son.   She listened.   She made a diagnosis (Tourettes, with ADHD symptoms), and recognized that we were very skeptical of medications.   She not only respected that, but praised our concern.   Ultimately we did choose a mild medication – Intuniv (guanfacine), which is usually used to fight high blood pressure.

We researched this decision intently (I check now and then for anything new — it seems a very safe drug, with few side effects and is neither an anti-psychotic nor a stimulant), have kept the dosage low.    He did show improvement, and most importantly our son’s personality has not changed.  He’ll still get angry, he’ll still be intense — he is definitely himself.  But problem behavior has become rare, he’s learned to control his actions most of the time, and he remains active, creative, inquisitive and academically well ahead of the second grade average.

So I’m not completely anti-medication, I don’t mean this as an extremist tirade.  But with children it’s really important parents and doctors take TIME to assess, and do what we can to cope with behaviors that are difficult.  Children do grow and learn, and sometimes maturity is what it takes for an especially intense child to learn how to operate effectively with his or her personality.  Also, from what I’ve read, I think parents should be VERY skeptical of anti-psychotics for children, or a regimen of any more than one drug at a time.     Children should be given every opportunity to be themselves, even if it’s sometimes hard on the adults.


Colonialism and Failed States

Today in my course “War and Peace” we talked about failed or failing states.   In looking at states like Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, we directly confronted the question: would Africa be better off it were still run by the Europeans?  Are the Africans simply too primitive to run their own affairs?

It’s important to remember that colonialism was one of the most destructive forces in history.  It wiped out indigenous civilizations in North and South America, low tech holocausts where Europeans literally replaced the original inhabitants.  In Africa the entire political and social structure of society was obliterated, as the Europeans drew up borders and exploited their colonies for whatever they could find.  When they left, they imposed their political organization, the modern state, on the local populations.  These states often mixed up a variety of different ethnic groups, or cut whole tribes into pieces, with some of each group on different sides of various borders.

In the West, we often forget that the modern state was very hard to construct.  It emerged ‘naturally’ in Europe, over centuries, through bloodshed and violence.  Early states were more like organized crime syndicates than what we would call governance.  Monarchies emerged from large scale shake down operations and protection rackets, as the ‘bosses’ moved towards legitimating their rule as being of divine right or blue blood.  Even then it was centuries of violence, technological innovation and conflict that led to the first modern nation states.  After that it was centuries more of struggle to develop functioning democracy, get rid of slavery, and finally give women their rights.   The West did not have this imposed from the outside, but developed it along the lines of its own culture and civilization.

Looked at that way, the idea that former colonies could simply take western governmental structures and suddenly be functioning states is absurd on its face.   Democracy and functioning territorial states are very difficult to create and maintain, even European democracies usually failed on their first attempts.  In Asia states fit a bit better to the local traditions, most of which managed to survive European conquest (unlike in Africa).   The Americas not only got early independence, but thanks to the genocides committed there, they essentially replaced the indigenous population and culture with a new European one.   But in Africa, it was the worst of all words — the old culture totally destroyed, the population in tact, and a foreign political organization imposed with little regard to ethnic populations and natural borders.

Failed states were to be expected.  The Europeans modeled the behavior that those in power should control the population and exploit resources to their own ends.  Governments quickly became corrupt, and ethnic groups vied for power in order to control the resources and hand out government favors.   Despite that many governments were unable to penetrate their entire state, leaving vast swathes of Africa as essentially anarchies, run by local tribes or often war lords.

The lack of a stable culture not only meant that rule of law was not achieved, but when war and violence does break out, nothing seems to mitigate its affect.  Child soldiers are abundant in the various conflicts, often having cocaine directly rubbed into their bloodstream and told they are invincible.  Drugged up, they are taught to kill and mutilate, so that 14 year olds end up doing things so horrific they are beyond our imagination.  Groups fight for resources, compete for political power, and neglect the needs of the masses, caught up in chronic malnutrition (nearly half the population of the African continent) and lack of opportunity.

Those who argue that colonialism would be better than this ignore one thing: colonialism caused this.  Unless one wants to posit a perpetual colonialism as viable, whereby one group exploits another and in exchange keeps order and stability, privileging small groups while keeping the masses poor and powerless, it was inevitable that colonialism end.  And, while one might think that exploitive imperialism is better than what much of Africa has now — and in some ways it was — it was a fundamentally unjust, immoral and destructive relationship.  The problem is not that colonialism ended, but the transition to something new has been disastrous.

The result is the creation of state governmental structures unable to operate effectively.  In places like Nigeria, hundreds of ethnic groups compete for power, and with control of oil resources at stake, authoritarianism and corruption became the norm.  Sierra Leone started with an early successful transition, only to see corruption (thanks in large part to diamond trade) turn it into a civil war where amputation, child soldiers and atrocities overtook the country in the 90s.   Lacking a coherent social structure and political culture to support a stable government, countries had to choose between chaos and strict authoritarianism.  Transitioning from either to something better has proven virtually impossible.

It’s hard to see how to solve this.  Places with no effective governments are the most dangerous while the most effective governments are corrupt and authoritarian.  Simply, the state is not an effective political organization, at least not as defined currently in Africa.  And changing state borders to fit ethnic realities creates more problems — who controls resources, how are borders between ethnic groups defined, etc.   States don’t work, but there is no viable replacement.

One lesson in this is to recognize that any intervention by outside powers into a region’s natural development, even if they bring more technology, medicine and short term benefits, can lead to long term disaster.  (Star Trek’s prime directive was right on!)  However, while up until now failed states could be ignored — the world that said “never again” to genocide turned a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide, despite Romeo Dallaire’s heroic efforts.  Most people didn’t notice.  Now, however, with terrorism, new technologies, and the spread of both images and ideas, failed states can be dangerous.  One can imagine a charismatic leader finding a way to channel discontent into a major movement, one seeing the West — the colonizing powers that tore everything apart — as the enemy.  That could lead to a dangerous confrontation with a new kind of war.

We need to find a way to turn around that dynamic, to allow states to succeed.   And, unfortunately, this will require some intervention.  But I don’t think exploitive intervention like colonialism, or armed violent intervention like in Iraq, can be the answer.  Look what it did in Iraq, after all!  Or what the Soviets and the US collectively did to Afghanistan.  Rather, in Africa (where the problem is worst) the African Union needs to work with the UN to develop a plan to stabilize states who wish to work towards a functioning government.  There should be incentives (trade preferences, aid, etc.), and there should be oversight of all spending and government actions by an outside group, with a plan to assure transition to full independent control by the state itself.

To work, this would require a massive commitment by the industrialized states to invest time, money and people in giving states where people live in abject poverty, abuse and often the worst atrocities a chance to move forward.  We’d have to work with the people there, learning the culture and help them find their own path, not trying to simply create large export industries or infrastructure investment.   The current economic crisis makes that seem unlikely, but it could also create a volunteer pool for people needing work or a chance to make a difference.  Ultimately, a prosperous growing third world — albeit one with sustainable development, not just mass consumption — could help transform the world economy and avoid future threats of terrorism and mass migrations from South to North.

Impossible?   Only if the industrialized world lacks the will, or third world state governments refuse to go along.  The latter is less a problem; some states would take longer than others to join, some would fear neo-colonialism.  But it’s really an effort to relaunch independence for these states, and this time in an effective transition process.  More problematic would be the cooperation of the rich north in a time of economic crisis.  They will look inward, and not see the interdependencies and real danger of having mass amounts of people in dire straights.   There is still hope, but hope can always be trounced by fear and anger.

So, no, one can’t just blame the Africans for the failure of European imposed political structures to work.  People like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe are products of these structures, the average people have little recourse (and in Zimbabwe they’ve been bravely trying to force change, risking a lot and so far being crushed).   We live the advanced lifestyle we have because our ancestors exploited and abused their colonies.  That helped put the West where it is now.  We not only have a responsibility to work to alter that, but it’s in our interest.    At some point these states will not only not be able to be ignored, but they’ll be able to do real damage to the world system.   We need transformational change, and the sooner the better.