Photo Jonathan Blair

Monday, August 10, 2009

A "Fragile States" Centre in Canada?

Roland Paris and Jim Ron have an op-ed in today's Globe and Mail calling for Canada's government to create a "G8 Centre On Fragile States."

I hope nobody in government or elsewhere listens to them.

Roland and Jim are well-meaning. They want Canada and the G8 to better help the Afghanistans, Congos, Sudans and Somalias of the world. The way to go would be to "bring together [in Canada] the world's leading experts on security, governance and development to find better ways of promoting peace, order and good governance in such countries. Experts would include not just researchers but government officials from G8 countries and the Global South, especially Africa, where most fragile states are located."

I can't see how this would help a iota. Fragile states experts have been brought together an awful lot in recent years, with not much to show for it. The Democratic Republic of Congo is still in disarray, as are Somalia and Afghanistan. It is not clear at all that the problem lies in the lack of funding or the absence of a meeting place. In fact, I know few fragile state experts who do not have a full agenda and thick frequent flyers accounts. If they are any good, research funding is no problem either. Moreover, Canada already has well-funded research programs on human security, around Andrew Mack at Simon Fraser University, and on state fragility, under David Carment, at Norman Paterson, in addition to specific initiatives at Ottawa U's Centre for International Policy Studies, led by Roland Paris himself. This, obviously, in addition to the work Paris and Ron mention in Scandinavian countries, as well as in the US, in the UK around Paul Collier, and so on.

The problem lies elsewhere and is especially acute in Canada. Fragile states research is based on very thin knowledge. Much of the work is based on datasets that are inherently flawed: failed states have failed statistics, which means that we should rely on thick, intimate knowledge of the societies we want to redress and this is precisely what we do not have.Most failed states experts have no deep understanding of the countries they talk about. Aside from Afghans themselves, the vast majority of participants to the typical Afghanistan conference speak neither Dari nor Pashto or Tadjik. Don't even think of DRC or Somalia fragile state "experts" speaking any of these countries' indigenous languages. A few Barnett Rubins aside -and there are no Barnett Rubin in Canada--, "field" experience is much closer to episodic adventure tourism, or longer-term "compound" life than to serious immersion in these countries.

What we need is not more money for generalist experts but resources to develop a thick knowledge of the countries we pretend to help. Not more conferences, but more language courses, in situ preferably, for researchers and grad students, more long-term field work for academics, and more scholarship for developing country students in our high schools, colleges and universities. Intimacy with these countries and their people is what we should be seeking, not more travelling around and nice meetings for the same old crowd.

One last note on the op-ed: Paris and Ron's pitch ends with the usual bromides about how "Canadians' belief in decent, effective government and the rule of law is bred in the bone" and our "long history of finding ways to govern our multiethnic society, and a proud tradition of contributing to international development, peace and security." Come on: "the rule of law bred in the bone" of Canadians? How about we stay problem-oriented?