Rethinking Malawi’s ‘failed state’ debate

The article “Malawi a Failed State – Cama”, which appeared in the print media, deserves commentary and critical analysis. Two terms were used in the article: “Failed State” and “Collapsed State” and, it was the statement “government has collapsed and has completely abandoned management of the country”, attributed to John Kapito, that, in actual fact, prompted my immediate reaction, and hence, this interrogation.

The concept of ‘failed state’, like a related one, ‘collapsed state’, has remained a contested concept in social science discourse as it is understood in different ways by scholars with intellectual orientations. The use of these terminologies as if they mean the same thing is rather misleading and, I want to highlight the differences and further locate whether or not Malawi is indeed a failed/collapsed state as claimed by CAMA.

What constitutes a failed/collapsed state? Does Malawi fit in either of these categories?

Kapito: Malawi is a failed state

Resoundingly, Malawi is NOT a ‘collapsed state’. I am also inclined to say she is NOT a ‘failed state’. In the first instance the problem arises when there is no agreed definition of what a ‘successful’ state should look like. Labelling Malawi a failed state implies a final state rather than a temporary situation. Similarly, it further assumes that even the informal structures and non-state structures are non-functional which, by all means, is not the case at the moment.

It seems though that the theoretical basis upon which CAMA argues the case lacks deeper scrutiny. For example, in Africa, the legacy of colonialism; pure maladministration; interference by the international community into domestic affairs and their subsequent abandonment; and the ramifications of unfair international trade rules, contribute to state failure. Therefore, state failure, theoretically, is a performance-based concept which, broadly, refers to inability of a state and its custodians to adequately address the cultural, economic, political and social needs of its citizenry.

On the other hand, ‘state collapse’ is a sustenance-based concept which refers to a total breakdown of the entire political order, including the structure, legitimacy and authority of the state. Going by these definitions it would seem unrealistic to label Malawi a collapsed state. In fact, the most serious problem with the concept of failed state is that of definition, by ignoring the diversity of states and their problems. Even if we go by these clouded and misleading definitions, many of the countries in Europe (for example, Italy, Greece or Portugal) can actually be termed ‘failed states’ because they exhibit some of the characteristics of the definitions and yet, there is little critique about them.

It is important that we recognise that certain words and/or discourses are deployed to trigger action. The western-centric discourse of ‘failed/collapsed state’ has flooded the social sciences scholarship and, has been employed by the ideologically contaminated international donor institutions in order to legitimise their intervention into domestic affairs of sovereign states. Like the meta-concept of ‘development’ itself, the failed/collapsed state discourse creates binaries… the ‘us-them’; ‘north-south’ etc, which, when carefully unpacked, camouflages unequal power relationships. It is therefore rather sad that our own ‘civil society’ cannot delve deep into these seemingly innocent labels that privilege those that craft them.

That “Malawi has collapsed and has completely abandoned management of the country is an overstatement that fails to use appropriate analytical instruments to justify the claim. From a consumer perspective, indeed one would objectively agree that there are ‘failings’ in the state machinery which can be corrected without a complete reconstitution of the state. That if a state fails to meet standards set by, say, the World Bank or IMF or any other donor agencies, has failed, only shows how narrow we are in our analysis of global political economy. States can be internally strong but fail to be responsive to international instruments. But that does not mean that they are ‘failed states.

The most self-deficiency of the concept of state failure is not only the value-based notions of what a state is, but also the patronising to scoring states based on values. What is interesting is the ‘successful state’ of today is purely based on a dominant western state features.

So Malawi, according to the Consumer Association of Malawi (CAMA), may have failed because of the inability to meet some externally-defined test or scorecard based on values alien to indigenous understanding of what success is. Malawi cannot be called a collapsed state as if CAMA does not know where to register its cars; apply for passport; or lodge a legal complaint. These structures are never present in a collapsed state.

Let me reiterate one fundamental point. The scoring of states as ‘failing’, ‘weak’, ‘collapsed’, ‘fragile’ etc, omits the long history of colonialism and imperialism, exploitation in the impoverishment and poor governance of many societies currently labelled ‘failed states. The fallacy of ‘state failure’ should never ignore the role of the western colonial powers, international financial institutions, development agencies and the systems these actors have created in the historic evolution of ‘failed state’ discourse.

Malawi is just going through a very difficult economic phase that has not spared many global governance and financial institutions. The civil society community in Malawi should globalize and problematize it’s understanding of political critique and debate, rather than sensationalise unsubstantiated rhetoric that has roots in morally violent and imperial discourses of modernity and liberal democracy.

*Jonathan Makuwira PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in International Development at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, Melbourne, Australia.

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