A number of noteworthy reports on institutional change, development, and foreign aid have been published recently. There is much agreement between them, suggesting that we have reached a tipping point in knowledge in this area. I will briefly summarize the results here and provide links for those who want to explore the subject further. (more…)
Political theorists have for the most part focused on the state when thinking about how to make countries work better for their populations. This has naturally led to a concern with state-society relations, how governments are chosen and run, and institutions. There is wide consensus that social contracts play the central role in state building.
This thinking has heavily influenced how the international community approaches fragile states, post-conflict situations, and transitions as well as development in general. As the OECD/DAC explained in Concepts and Dilemmas of State Building in Fragile Situations:
Fragility arises primarily from weaknesses in the dynamic political process through which citizens’ expectations of the state and state expectations of citizens are reconciled and brought into equilibrium with the state’s capacity to deliver services. Reaching equilibrium in this negotiation over the social contract is the critical if not sole determinant of resilience, and disequilibrium the determinant of fragility. [page 7]
This focus on the state shapes responses to crises in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan, compelling the international community to prioritize the establishment of a transitional regime and fast track elections under the belief that this is the sole way to create legitimacy no matter the circumstances or the context.
But many of these countries have deeply-entrenched problems that a focus on the state cannot solve. Different religious, ethnic, and clan groups do not work together well, and see any competition for power as a zero sum game for exclusive control of the state. Government is weakly institutionalized, and unable to act as an independent, equitable arbitrator between different interests. Judges and officials are beholden to personal relationships, power politics, or money (and sometimes all three). In such places, winners of elections rarely see it as their duty to serve all their people, and often define their rights as whatever they can get away with—negating whatever social contract the process was supposed to establish. (more…)
Social and economic change—urbanization, increase in literacy and education, industrialization, mass media expansion—extend political consciousness, multiply political demands, broaden political participation. These changes undermine traditional sources of political authority and traditional political institutions; they enormously complicate the problems of creating new bases of political association and new political institutions combining legitimacy and effectiveness. The rates of social mobilization and the expansion of political organization are high; the rates of political organization and institutionalization are low. The result is political instability and disorder. The primary problem of politics is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social and economic change.
Richard Joseph, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Professor at Northwestern University, discusses a similar point in a recent article on Africa. In it, he introduces the very useful phrase “discordant development,” defining it as:
More than just “unequal development,” but rather how deepening inequalities and rapid progress juxtaposed with group distress can generate uncertainty and violent conflict.
This is a common problem in fragile states. One area moves forward while another area does not — or worse. And because countries are weakly unified, such development is highly discordant, increasing instability by how it increases the exclusion — and feelings of exclusion — of certain groups. (more…)
In 2006 RAND staged a wargame to think through the implications of a nuclear terorr incident. They created a specific scenario – a tactical nuclear device being detonated by a terrorist organization in the Long Beach harbor – and then staged a role-play to determine how key stakeholders would react and work together. The experience must have been incredible, because even the write-up is riveting. When I revisited this text today, however, what struck me with particular force was RAND’s assessment (this is in 2006, remember) of what the longer-term economic implications of such an event would be:
“The attack is likely to have dramatic economic consequences well beyond the Los Angeles area:
- Many loans and mortgages in Southern California might default.
- Some of the nation’s largest insurance companies might go bankrupt.
- Investors in some of the largest ﬁnancial markets might be unable to meet contract obligations for futures and derivatives.
“While exact outcomes are diﬃcult to predict, these hypothetical consequences suggest alarming vulnerabilities. Restoring normalcy to economic relations would be daunting, as would meeting the sweeping demands to compensate all of the losses.”
As some of you will no doubt observe, all of these consequences in fact did come to pass just two years after this report was issued – as a result of the Lehman Brothers default, the consequent collapse of AIG, and the cascade effects which are still creating malign reverberations throughout the global economy, above all in the Eurozone.
Usually when people say that something would be “like a nuclear bomb going off” they are exaggerating; but in the case of the Lehman default, it is accurate.
The unbelievable, incomprehensible, off-the-charts stupidity of imprisoning scientists for being wrong
Did this really just happen?
Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila. A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter. Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.
That is so obviously, totally and unbelievably stupid that I am for once lost for words. So I shall content myself with linking (again) to the literature on what makes for high-reliability organisations. Over to Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe in their classic book on the subject, Managing the Unexpected :
The best high reliability organisations increase their knowledge base by encouraging and rewarding error reporting, even going so far as to reward those who have committed them … researchers Martin Laundau and Donald Chisholm provide [the example of] a seaman on the nuclear carrier Carl Vinson who reported the loss of a tool on the deck. All aircraft aloft were redirected to land bases until the tool was found, and the seaman was commended for his action – recognizing a potential danger – the next day at a formal ceremony.
That is how you create a transparent organisational culture that displays what Weick and Sutcliffe call ”a preoccupation with failure”, that recognises that uncertainty and accidents are inherent parts of the real world, and that aims to learn from them when they happen.
If on the other hand your reaction to uncertainty and accidents is instead to imprison people for them, then you’re not only an idiot; you’re also contributing towards more of both. Judge Marco Billi, ladies and gentlemen. What an imbecile.