Introducing Daniel Lambach

Daniel LambachDaniel Lambach currently is an Interim Professor of International Relations at the University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany).

He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cologne (2006) after obtaining a Diplom in Political Science and Economics from the University in Marburg.

His research interests are fragile and collapsed states, norms of territoriality and sovereignty and the stability of authoritarian regimes.

This is part 1 of the interview with Professor Lambach. Part 2 is Daniel Lambach: Failed States – Institutionalization, democratisation, intervention


Failed states: Features, Definition, Causes

Which features have been most often assigned to failed states?

Failed states are generally associated with a lack of formal state governance in a variety of fields, such as the provision of security, justice and basic welfare. These states are often afflicted with pervasive violence, whether as part of a large-scale civil war or more localized forms of warlordism.

Failed states are usually very poor, with worse development outcomes than other developing countries. However, failed states are not sites of chaos and anarchy, as they are sometimes portrayed – in fact, societies usually turn to alternative providers of governance in the absence of the state, such as traditional or charismatic authorities.

The scientific community has only recently begun to explore these sources of order in failed states, so we know little about them beyond descriptions at the single-case level.

Why has it been impossible to a find a widely accepted definition?

There are two issues of contention: first, how do we define a state, and second, whether it is worthwhile to approach the topic in terms of formal statehood. The first conflict centers around different conceptions of the state, from Weberian institutionalism via a Lockean public goods perspective to political economy approaches inspired by Marx and Gramsci.

While the differences between the Weberian and the Lockean approach are minor, these have nonetheless obstructed the emergence of a widely accepted definition. The second, and more basic issue is whether state failure is an appropriate lens through which to view complex socio-political realities. This inevitably entails the comparison of a real situation with an ideal-type that Weber formulated based on his familiarity with European history.

In a comparative research design, this is a useful and valid research approach, but to label particular states as ‘failed’ is reductionist. The kind of ‘deficit-oriented’ perspective tells us more about what we expect (i.e., the state) rather than about political realities on the ground.

What are the most common causes of state failure?

To some degree, state failure is a widespread phenomenon, affecting almost every state in the world. And the reasons for these diverse instances of failure are manifold. However, if we focus on those cases that exhibit the clearest symptoms – the collapsed states – we can discern at least two basic models of failure.

The first is the ‘privatization’ model where state authority and state resources are slowly appropriated by regime insiders for private gain, leaving behind only the shell of the formal state apparatus. These situations can persist for a long time before the rent-fuelled patronage system falls apart. This occurs either when the revenue stream dries up or when a core leadership figure dies or retires.

The second is the ‘fragmentation’ model when power struggles escalate into violence but where no party is able to defeat its opponents. This usually occurs in polarized societies with a high level of militarization during periods of political uncertainty, such as in Lebanon during the mid-1970s.

In practice, both of these models may play out concurrently, but either one is sufficient to lead to state collapse.

Failed States: Concepts, Governance and Sovereignty

What are the disadvantages of using the concept ‘failed state’?

The concept has several weaknesses that we need to to consider. The first is that state failure describes an average assessment at the national level. In practice, state capacity varies geographically, i.e. from locality to locality, temporally, such as from day to night or from season to season, and functionally, i.e. from one policy field to another.

For instance, states faced with separatist movements often display a sharp territorial differentiation: the government functions reasonably well in some or most parts of the country, in others, it is barely present at all. To reduce this to a single index value does not describe empirical reality in either of these areas.

The second weakness is that it is a negative concept – it focuses on what is not there. But it tells us very little about how politics in a failed state actually works. This leads some outside commentators to make strong and unfounded inferences about the risks of ‘anarchy’ which are usually not borne out in practice. The final disadvantage is the danger of political instrumentalization.

‘Failed state’ has become a convenient label to justify military, political and economic intervention in poor and conflict-affected countries. By securitising state fragility in this manner, the external response shifts as well – from ways to safeguard human security in the country to the protection of Western interests from putative terrorists and organized crime syndicates.

Why has fragility been so rigorously applied on the state level, while it may also be worthwhile to apply it on other scales (e.g. local)? In other words, wouldn’t it be more helpful to introduce alternative forms of sovereignty in the failed states debate?

The local level has long been overlooked, although there have been recent efforts to make the concept more flexible.

Some of the geographically more nuanced concepts include ‘areas of limited statehood’ or ‘ungoverned territories’. Particularly promising are attempts which also aim to analyze governance in more positive terms such as ‘hybrid political orders’, ‘social orders’, ‘twilight institutions’ or ‘negotiated statehood’. These approaches offers various frameworks to understand how sovereignty and statehood are produced and contested in various locales.

However, I would caution against introducing alternative forms of sovereignty into the debate. We’ve been there, particularly during the 1990s, and the discussion quickly devolved into a debate on the merits of international trusteeship.

Bearing in mind the political impact of academic debates, we should be wary of valorizing what is in essence a return to a colonial-era regime of differentiated sovereignty. From a political point of view, it is better to think about locally embedded systems of authority and governance and of ways to integrate these into overall frameworks of state-building and peace-building.

Daniel Lambach: Failed States – Definitions, Causes, Concepts, Local Governance
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