Book on the Social Divisions that Plague Fragile States

Social Divisions Fragile StatesA new book edited by Jeffrey Herbst, Terence McNamee, and Greg Mills discusses the most important problem in fragile states: weak social cohesion. It looks at “fragmented and weak states, made up of many nations and cutting across geographical, racial and religious boundaries” and explores why some countries with potential “fault lines” produce conflict while others are better at managing them.

More than a dozen authors contribute case studies on a broad range of countries including South Africa, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, India and even Canada and seek solutions that can be transferred elsewhere.

Over and over again, they learn that “the nature of the fault lines was far more complicated than the simple headline assigned to a country.” In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, Pierre Englebert finds an extraordinarily complicated picture, with “multiple and overlapping local fissures, widely distributed across the country, which contribute to a fragmentation of identities and networks at the local level and increased polarization of social life.” Christopher Clapham writes that Ethiopia is “riven by conflicts along almost every fault line–ethnic, religious, ecological, class, ideological, political–many of which are broadly aligned . . . Conflicts within Ethiopia itself spread across state frontiers–especially those with its three most important neighbors.”

An interesting thread that runs throughout the book is that though elections are important and can be effective in countries with established democratic institutions, when countries lack these they can exacerbate and perpetuate fault lines, leading to a wide range of problems. “The construction of other democratic institutions, including federalism, the appropriate set of voting rules, free media, control of the military and, above all, rule of law (and unfettered access to it), is often more important than the act of holding elections.”

Conflict can be prevented by ensuring that the “constituency of losers,” what Joel D. Barkan refers to as “the ‘smalls’ and the ‘have nots,'” does not become too large. Good governance and the fair distribution of resources can dramatically diffuse the threat of societal violence.

“The international community’s response to fault-line violence has generally not become more effective over time. External actors can rarely successfully re-engineer societies. . . .  There is a real need for . . . greater flexibility in developing responses to fault lines.” What works in one state will not work in another.

For more information, see On the Fault Line: Managing Tensions and Divisions within Societies.

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Seth Kaplan

About Seth Kaplan

Seth Kaplan is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. He teaches, writes, and consults on issues related to fragile states, governance, and development. He is the author of Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development (Praeger Security International, 2008) and Betrayed: Politics, Power, and Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). A Wharton MBA and Palmer scholar, Seth has worked for several large multinationals and founded four companies. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.