Revolution and State Failure

By Sudarsan Kant

Among the many discoveries awaiting State prosecutors and investigators in the post-Mubarak era is the billions of dollars that were whittled away by the regime during their three decades in power. The revolutions in the Middle East underscored the rage of ordinary people who were justifiably fed up after decades of abuse and neglect by governments and demanded change from the status quo. The State had simply failed on a comprehensive scale to deliver basic goods and services to its citizens, while enriching venal and brutal elite with largesse bordering on the obscene. 

 
It was difficult to sustain the disconnect between the millions who struggled daily to eke out an existence in Cairo and Tunis while the rich and powerful socialized at their residences in the capitals of Europe and North America. For decades the elite propagated the fiction that the deprivation and want in the Arab street was a consequence of a wicked collusion between the West, colonialism or laughably, Zionism rather than the predatory State and its failed policies. However in the era of global communications, that fictitious narrative was exposed for what it had always been; a fairy tale that attempted to absolve the State from being responsible for the needs of its people.

While the revolutions have been fairly interpreted as a radical changing of the guard and the first step towards democracy, it should not obscure the simple grievances of ordinary people who want to have access to basic goods and services such as decent jobs, health, education, a home and food on the table. The State in the Middle East has failed for a vast majority of its citizens on this fundamental level and the ability to redress this failure will determine the pace and limits of political reform. 
 
These events should properly be interpreted as cases of state failure rather than examples of failed states. Failed States are generally incapable of functioning at a minimal level for everyone, as evident during the earthquake crisis in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan. The State in these examples was fundamentally weak at the center and lacked the power and resources to execute its responsibilities beyond its immediate environs. State failure however is when the State functions very well for the few, i.e. the elite, the connected, ruling families, chiefs and the wealthy, while excluding the rest from having access to resources and opportunities. In the South Pacific, we have had a long history of the State being co-opted by powerful elites with a developed sense of entitlement at the expense of the rest of society. The resiliency of colonial stratifications only exacerbated State failure and thwarted sincere efforts at constructing a more just and equitable society. These events in the Middle East serve as a cautionary tale for the Pacific of the consequences of failure by governments to adequately meet the basic needs of all its citizens, especially during difficult economic times. 
 
State failure however, has a much deeper effect on the lives of ordinary people than is often acknowledged during the hype and noise of protest and revolutions. Citizens living under a predatory State develop over time an acute distrust towards formal institutions and governments. A healthy skepticism towards an overweening bureaucracy and state apparatus devolves into an outright contempt for rational structures of governance. What often emerges is a form of functional anarchy; people go about their lives with an abiding loss of faith against all forms of state authority. This erosion of trust makes governance difficult during transitional periods when greater reciprocity and flexibility is demanded between citizens and the State. Non-cooperation as the default position makes for great revolution but it is a poor substitute for effective governance. Sooner rather then later, the basic needs of the people must be met at the point where they need the State most. Beyond the political deprivation and economic immiseration brought on by the predatory State in is the creation of a distrustful populace with minimal efficacy in the idea of a fair and just State.

The consequences of State failure are profound and distressing; it often results in the normalization of extra-legal and informal activities by otherwise decent and good people. The failure of the State to secure the basic needs of people often forced ordinary citizens to step outside the law to get what they need in order to survive as they must. It was often onerous for average citizens to acquire permits, approvals or resources through legal and formal means to build, trade or own without the requisite connections or resources. The only way ordinary people could often receive basic goods and services was through informal and extra-legal channels. Tragically, a troubling feature in developing societies is the pervasiveness of low-level corruption that is often met with a shrug and a nod to the annoyance of many Westerners. However, it doesn’t mean that individuals in the developing world are less virtuous than the citizens of Australia or Switzerland, but that securing basic goods through formal mechanisms is often a non-starter. The predatory State has failed in numerous and sundry ways to fairly and equitably deliver basic goods and services to people that need it most. State failure forced decent people to act extra-legally and thus create a culture of non-compliance for formal rules and State institutions. The habits of being borne out of necessity are a more serious obstacle to political reform than is often acknowledged by political analysts. 
 
The current struggles by the peoples of the Middle East to redress the deficit in democracy are laudable and sorely needed, but the damage to the moral ecology of Arab society cannot be easily rectified. State failure everywhere has damaged more than the lack of infrastructure and opportunities, it has destroyed people’s trust in institutions and authority and often made them law-breakers for merely wanting to survive.
University of Missouri

Comments

And And the band played on..........! said…
"Enriching a brutal and venal elite" has a ring of familiarity about it. While Sudarsan Kant appears eager to let developed Western Nations off the hook, he should be reminded that the West armed Libya, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries to their own considerable benefit. This sent a message: that the 'brutal and venal' elites were there to do business with. Meanwhile, the poor and disadvantaged Arabs were to make do with scrounging around on less than $2 per day. Not unlike the two-tier water provision in Fiji whereby rural poor and urban low paid workers were to pay for water meters with a deposit of F$20and then wait years for their installation. Thus allowing the residents of Denarau, Fantasy Island and Naisoso to be fast-tracked to receive water within two weeks of a $350 or $450 payment. No means of explaining the difference in sums paid? No transparency either about the means of treated water delivery. Yet the Qarase Band played on? And all the cronies within this band played their allotted instruments. What a cacophony they raised? We may still hear the echoes of it now. Self indulgent to a fault, they fell ultimately on the petard of their own self indulgence. Failing state delivery will always determine its recompense. This recompense may often be very precisely targeted. So, who is surprised now?

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