Rory Stewart on how not to fix failed states

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

On April 9, the MacMillan Center hosted Rory Stewart, OBE, as the speaker for the annual George Herbert Walker, Jr. Lecture in International Studies. A diplomat and a writer, Stewart currently serves as a Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border, the largest geographical constituency in England. He previously served as Minister of State for Africa, Minister of State at the Department for International Development, and Minister of the Environment and Rural Affairs. Prior to that, he made his career in the Foreign Service with a particular focus on military intervention and international development. Titled “Failed States—and How Not to Fix Them,” his lecture challenged the audience to imagine the difficulties of state-building. (view video)

He began by reflecting on his experience as Minister of International Development. While in the position, he was tasked with allocating roughly 7.5 billion dollars to foreign aid projects. The money was set aside by the government due to an “inspirational vision” about “the role that wealthy countries can play in the developing world.”

Stewart noted that the focus of foreign aid has narrowed. “Whereas in the 1970s we were very concerned with countries like China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, now increasingly, we are preoccupied with fragile states and particularly failed states.”

He then named countries that are currently the focus of international aid and asked the audience to brainstorm some difficulties these countries face. After a back and forth with many audience members, he listed poor infrastructure, corrupt and inefficient government, low employment rates, and lack of healthcare and education on the board. Stewart noted that even though many resources have gone into overcoming these struggles, these projects have not achieved much long term success.

Stewart then turned to the question of why people care about foreign aid, other than moral or humanitarian concerns. He explained that foreign aid is a topic of great interest because developing countries could play a role in future national security. He pointed out that by 2051, one in ten children born in the world will be Nigerian and that by the end of the century, half the world’s population will be from Sub-Saharan Africa. While the population grows, economic opportunities stay stagnant, resulting in possible humanitarian crises. “If you were trying to guess… where the failed, fragile states are likely to be, they are likely to come from Africa.” Stewart added that failed or fragile states may pose future migration threats to Europe or become the site of epidemics. On the plus side, future markets are also likely to be in Africa, especially when considering Europe’s decreasing labor force.

In other words, fragile and failed states have a “significance for us in terms of security and humanitarian obligations and [is] a potential opportunity for us. For all those reasons, we would feel that we would want to fix these failed states.”

Next, Stewart guided the audience through a mapping of an international development approach characterized by first understanding internal and external state actors. He contrasted this with the traditional approach in international development, which first decides on a solution and attempts to convince and apply the solution in the developing country. Stewart said, “contained in this approach is an insult… you’re basically saying that they are ignorant, unskilled, and idle.” He noted that the lack of success of the traditional approach is not due to the “lack of political will,” as many people claim, but is, in fact, a failure to understand power relationships.

In addition to the ignorance of the international development approach, another problem is the lack of linguistic knowledge and cultural understanding of those working on foreign aid projects. Stewart described “a conceit in the international community that you don’t need to speak the local language… there’s some idea that the people that matter speak English.” He said, “this is simply not true.”

“The scale of the problem is inconceivable,” Stewart declared. For example, during the surge in Afghanistan, only about 100 out of 220,000 foreigners on the ground could speak an Afghan language fluently. The lack of linguistic understanding “is also a deep, deep lack of cultural understanding.”

Stewart then took questions from the audience. When asked about China’s role in Africa, he noted that China’s involvement was “deep.” There are some African leaders who “are very keen that the United States or Britain behave more like China.” These leaders prefer aid in building infrastructure to talking about human rights and democratization. At the same time, other African leaders feel that China has “exploited them.”

In conclusion, when interacting with developing countries, “we have overemphasized us and we have underemphasized them,” Stewart said. “We’ve tended to assume we are heroic, brilliant interveners… and that they are a little bit foolish.” He noted that in places where interventions have worked, such as Bosnia, they have worked precisely for the reasons that many people thought they would fail. “It’s them that’s going to be able to solve this stuff out, and it’s us that should try to focus on things we can do.”

Written by Julia Ding, Yale College Class of 2019.