Home / Opinion / Broken Countries and Breaking Systems | Shahid Javed Burki
Broken Countries and Breaking Systems

Broken Countries and Breaking Systems | Shahid Javed Burki

Change is always hard to manage. That is the case when it happens quickly and unexpectedly. That is also the case when the institutions needed to direct it into the right channels are weak.  This is the situation we see at this time in many parts of the world. There are at least five countries that, for the want of a better word, can be described as broken. Four of these are in the Middle East — Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The fifth is in East Asia — North Korea.

Afghanistan could become the sixth broken state if its fractured society is not able to pull itself together to avoid a total collapse when foreign troops finally depart. In order to fully appreciate the chaos that exists in the country, we need only read Christina Lamb’s 2015 book, Farewell Kabul. This 600-page account based on personal observations tells the story of Afghanistan’s slow-moving collapse after the exit of the Soviet Union’s soldiers from the country. They left behind a huge vacuum that has yet to be filled.

The stories of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen are different but they have one thing in common. They all resulted from foreign intervention. It was hubris that led Moscow into Afghanistan, the United States into Iraq and Libya, Iran and Russia into Syria, and Saudi Arabia into Yemen. There was domestic discontent in all these places that was kept in check by authoritarian rulers. As economists, political scientists and sociologists have begun to tell us, these systems are not stable. They will collapse under the weight of discontent.

In a short book titled Exit, Voice and Loyalty, the economist Albert Hirschman told us decades ago that people unhappy with the systems in which they live or work will choose one of three options. They will opt for loyalty if they believe the system has the capacity to change by itself. They will raise their voice if some compulsion is needed to bring about a transformation in the system. In more extreme cases, they will exit as millions of people have done from Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. Later, social scientists such as Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson emphasised in their book Why Nations Fail that for change to be durable, it must come from within. It must not be imposed from outside. That was not understood either by the Soviet Union or the United States. But then Moscow and Washington were not undertaking nation-building; they were, in fact, protecting or projecting their strategic interests.

Broken countries can break systems if they are not fully evolved. The impact need not be local; it can go way beyond the territories of the broken states. We are witnessing this in the case of the pressure on the fragile systems of the European Union as they come under pressure from the migration of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, a region torn by a series of horrible wars. There are laws in existence accepted by all nations of the world that those who leave their homes because their lives are under threat must be accommodated by the countries to which they go. The United Nations created a body of its own — the United Nations High Commission for Refugees — to implement this provision of the 1951 law.

The initial reaction on the part of some European countries, especially those in the continent’s eastern part, was to ignore the legal structure that had been built over time to protect displaced people. Ultimately, Germany and Austria spread the welcoming mat and allowed tens of thousands of people to cross their borders. Once the dust raised by this particular episode settles down, Europeans will have a couple of percentage points of their total population made up of the refugees from the overwhelmingly Muslim Middle East. It was this realisation, once it dawned on the more welcoming European states that they too, brought the curtain down.

Racek Rostowski, a former Polish deputy prime minister, explained his country’s position. “The fact is that those refugees who want better future than the one that can be assured by asylum in Turkey want to have it in Germany, not in Hungary or Poland. If allocated to Eastern Europe, there can be no doubt that they will do their best to leave for Germany or Sweden.” He argued against the imposition of mandatory quotas: “Twenty-six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we must not accept the building of new walls in Europe. This is particularly apt in the context of mandatory quotas. The Berlin Wall was not built to stop people from the outside, but to stop them from leaving.”

It is appropriate to conclude this discourse on global change by a quote from Roger Cohen. The New York Times op-ed columnist wrote: “On the one hand, on the other: That’s life in any century. It’s lived in the gray zone of uncertainty. Delusional certainty tends to be the domain of those with ambitions to lead the muddled crowd. Politics depends on the promise of change. That’s its elixir.” But change is the substance of life. The more things change, say some French philosophers, more they stay the same. The hero in the Italian movie, The Leopard put this thought in memorable words: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” 

Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st,  2015.

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