What does a Hollow State look like?

by | Dec 6, 2008

According to John Robb a Hollow State has:

The trappings of a modern nation-state but it lacks any of the legitimacy, services, and control of its historical counter-part. It is merely a shell that has some influence over the spoils of the economy. The real power rests in the hands of corporations and criminal/guerrilla groups that vie with each other for control of sectors of wealth production. For the individual living within this state, life goes on, but it is debased in a myriad of ways.

A good example of a Hollow State is Zimbabwe where the Government under Mugabe no longer has legitimacy. Government systems are either in a state of collapse (witness the looting of food carried out by the Army) or are non existent (the health system). State infrastructure is broken (water) and the population has to rely on other sources, from charities or private citizens.

Zimbabwe has been spiralling out of control for years, and it’s only recently that the international community has had sufficient leverage over the Mugabe regime to bring about change, but the results have been limited. The failure by the international community to intervene both early on and with force (not necessarily hard power) has allowed Mugabe to operate with only a few (in some cases meaningless) constraints.

The widely reported cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe seems to have motivated the international community to speak out once again. Today Gordon Brown argued that:

“This is now an international rather than a national emergency. International because disease crosses borders. International because the systems of government in Zimbabwe are now broken. There is no state capable or willing of protecting its people. International because – not least in the week of the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights – we must stand together to defend human rights and democracy, to say firmly to Mugabe that enough is enough.”

But let’s be realistic. We can ramp up the rhetoric to the nth degree but without firm action, under a UN mandate, Mugabe and his horrifc regime isn’t going to disappear. Unless an individual or organisation takes the initiative this tragedy will continue to unfold.

Update: The arguments for not doing anything with Mugabe are numerous. Two arguments stand out: first the lack of an international mandate; second, a deficeincy in our collective moral responsibility. But I notice in today’s Observer online that the Archbishop of York is calling for President Robert Mugabe to be toppled from power and face trial for crimes against humanity. Could this be the moral outcry that creates the environment for a Chapter 7 intervention?


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    Charlie Edwards is Director of National Security and Resilience Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. Prior to RUSI he was a Research Leader at the RAND Corporation focusing on Defence and Security where he conducted research and analysis on a broad range of subject areas including: the evaluation and implementation of counter-violent extremism programmes in Europe and Africa, UK cyber strategy, European emergency management, and the role of the internet in the process of radicalisation. He has undertaken fieldwork in Iraq, Somalia, and the wider Horn of Africa region.

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