Some time ago I disparaged a new approach to helping failed states called communitarianism, in which teams of sociologists and anthropologists study indigenous power structures and determine how to transfer authority to them, rather than trying to fight corruption or build institutions.
Despite my criticism, I've been thinking about the theory ever since. Today I went to a lecture by Dr. John Watson, currently a prof at the Munk Centre, U of T and formerly the long-time CEO of CARE, and although he didn't use the same terminology, I think I'm a convert.
Stripped of all jargon, it's a pretty simple idea: Societies like Afghanistan have power structures that are different from ours, but they work, and if we try to "fix" them we will make things worse.
At a fundamental, personal level we in the west don't understand oral traditions. When we intervene in a country like Afghanistan we are more likely to destabilize the country than help. We apply our perspectives on the situation when we should be applying the perspective of local people.
Our policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not working. We are creating a civil war in Afghanistan - which we will lose - and we are serioulsy destabilizing Pakistan.
The view of Aghans is very different from ours. We think that Al Qaeda attacked us so we have the right to go after them in Afghanistan. They think that Al Qaeda are the heroes who drove the Russians out of their country, and many of them see us as just another military occupation that they will have to repel. But it goes further than that.
The Pashtun people in Afghanistan and Pakistan live by the Pashtunwali code, two tenets of which are Melmastia (that hospitality must be granted when requested, even to enemies) and Nanawateh (that asylum must be granted when requested, and even fought to protect). This code evolved because it is required for survival in the harsh mountain environment. The code is not an anachronism and it will not disappear. The code also contains a strong fealty to nation (Hewad), which is why the Pashtuns have historically joined armies to help protect their country.
When the US tries to force the Pashtuns to abandon the asylum they give to Al Qaeda, the US is trying to break their code - and if they do, the part of the code that makes them loyal to the state may break too. This US policy is currently threatening the stability of Pakistan. (It is destabilizing the state in other ways, too, because in forcing Pakistan into its war against the Taliban the US is making Pakistan act against its national interests.)
The Afghan state is not a modern state with modern institutions, but it works. It might be described as more like a mafia systsem, with head men that enforce the rules, take rents, and limit violence. Many states in the world work this way. It doesn't mean they are failed states, and they aren't the product of evil men. Powerful warlords and government corruption may be fundamental to how they work. Attacking those features could be very destabilizing. We need to leave them alone to the messy process of figuring out the transition to a modern state.
A chief in Afghanistan once said to Watson: I'm blamed for being corrupt and siphoning aid money. But when I build a school, it costs $50,000. When USAID builds a school, it costs $200,000. Who's the crook?
We need to base development policies on their popular perception of the world, not ours. Our policies are leading more states to the brink of failure.
Since World War II, only eight countries have transformed from underdeveloped to developed, and none of them were the focus of international donors. Of all the insurgencies since 1970, only 7% were ended by military force.
In the 1990s in Somalia, civil war caused the state to fall apart very quickly. That led to an international intervention, but after US soldiers were killed the US pulled out very quickly, leaving the country in chaos. However, there were still business people who wanted to make money, so they turned to local religious figures to lead. The religious leaders went to militias to help enforce their rule. That was the beginning of the Somali nation state. It would have evolved, but the US saw it as the growth of terrorism and so they got their friend Ethiopia to attack Somalia. In reality, the only way to stop terrorism is to stop asymmetrical military conflicts. Asymmetrical military conflicts always result in terrorism.