John Robb on resilience

A few weeks back I interviewed John Robb, the military futurist and author of ‘Brave New War.’  We discussed the irruption of Latin American drug gangs into West Africa. Robb sees this as symptomatic of a broader push by “global guerrillas” – armed transnational criminal organisations – to take advantage of weaknesses in the global system:

We have a global market system that is subverting the nation state, so gaps where local control is lost are going to spring up all over the place, even in relatively developed states. There will be lapses where non-state groups like global guerrillas take control. If they’ve found a hole in West Africa, there are no barriers to their expansion.

Although they are drawn to “hollow states” like Guinea-Bissau, however, contrary to dire warnings of instability from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime the South Americans are unlikely to want to shake up the status quo too much. According to John Robb:

They don’t want warfare in West Africa – they want the maximum level of corruption and to be left alone, with bureaucratic apparatus geared towards helping them to do business. Almost across the board you’ll see that non-state groups are not trying to take over the national government. They don’t want that burden – it raises the profile, puts you on the international radar screen and leads to economic blockades. If there’s a nominal government in place they’ll keep the infrastructure up – they’re parasites off the infrastructure.

I asked Robb how Africa might deal with the problem, which got him talking about resilient communities:

We’ve been talking about African development for quite a while now and it’s pretty much all over the map. We tend to go from the top down, which minimises the long-term impact due to the level of corruption and the complexity of the problem. The better route to development in Africa and other developing societies where there is widespread instability is to go from the bottom up.

What I’m trying to do with the resilient community idea is to develop a community model in small communities – making them economically sustainable so they can power themselves forward. If you do that you can combat this external interference; if the national grid goes down or if there’s national instability, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of whatever progress you’ve made at the community level. You can continue to add and grow and if there’s a sufficient number of these organic groups, they can link up and form the basis of stability.

This sounds great, but when I asked how you could promote such communities in West Africa – where the old village and tribal groupings, which had evolved over millennia to resist an extremely harsh environment, were destroyed by slavery and colonialism and what is left has been raped by corrupt leaders or crippled by aid dependency – Robb admitted “we haven’t cracked it yet, even in the West where we’ve abdicated any kind of local production capacity to the global system.”

I wonder if leaving communities to develop their own resilience might be more effective (and cheaper) than trying to push them into it with the help of aid (see Jeffrey Sachs’ Millennium Villages project for an example of the latter – and see this Overseas Development Institute paper for a sceptical review of the project). In his book, John Robb predicts that it will take severe shocks to encourage communities in the West to become more resilient. West Africans have dealt with many shocks over the centuries, but Western intervention in their affairs proved too much for them and they buckled. Perhaps if we get out of the way (or “remove the barriers” as Richard Dowden puts it in his excellent new book), they might once again evolve their own mechanisms for coping with a challenging world.