The last issue of The Economist has a feature on “middle-income fragile and failed states” (MIFFs). It compares the World Bank list of countries by development level (high, middle, and low) to the OECD list of “fragile and failed states,” finding that fragile and failed states are by no means exclusively low-income:
[S]ome 15 of the 56 countries on the bank’s lower-middle income list (ie, over a quarter) also appear on the list of fragile and failed states. . . They range from Côte d’Ivoire to Yemen; the most important of them are Pakistan and Nigeria. State failure, it appears, does not necessarily go hand in hand with other human woes, such as poverty.
The article then bemoans the fact that because of their lack of absolute destitution, MIFFs often do not qualify for as much foreign aid. The unstated premise, of course, is that more foreign aid would do them good – but where is the evidence for such a claim? The article notes that the list of fragile and failed states includes both countries in “total collapse (Somalia, Chad) and those which merely contain large ungoverned spaces.”
Should governments and international institutions be aiming at making these fragile states stronger? The Economist assumes so. But might the phenomenon of middle-income fragile states instead tell us something about the comparative irrelevance of state strength, as such, for bringing people out of poverty? Admittedly, the list of MIFFs includes some countries that are non-poor purely by virtue of large mineral deposits (Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea), and these countries often feature yawning income gaps between the rent-seeking rich and the powerless destitute. But when it comes to MIFFs like Cameroon, Djibouti, Kiribati, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands – would they really be better off if their states were more empowered? Or have the “large ungoverned spaces” served them well? As Ben Powell and Peter Leeson stress in their work on Somalia, the only way to answer those questions is by considering the alternatives that are realistically available. Liberal constitutionalism is not coming to Pakistan. So the real question is – do we want Pakistan to have a dysfunctional, powerful state or a dysfunctional, weak one? It’s not an easy question to answer, and I wish complacent journalists and aid agencies would acknowledge that.