Should the West have governed South Sudan?

The solution to these problems is not to send in more peacekeepers to Juba and Bor, or hammer out a power-sharing agreement between the warring parties. Or rather, not only to do these things. The response to South Sudan’s turmoil should be crafted with a set of policy tools that were popular in the 1950s but have been used only selectively in recent years. I am referring to the process known as “trusteeship,” whereby a newly independent nation is granted special forms of assistance and special constraints on sovereignty. In some cases, the former colonial power sought to administer the trusteeship, and in other cases an international coalition or the United Nations did so for a defined period of time.

That is Gregg Zachary writing in the Atlantic. He points to Ghana in 1957 as a quasi example.

My reactions, in order of appearance:

  1. Paternalistic, suspect, and distasteful
  2. Actually, reminiscent of the economist Rudi Dornbusch, who half-seriously suggested that the solution to Argentina’s financial woes was to hand over all financial governance to the most responsible archetype he could imagine: a Finnish woman. Perhaps temporary trusteeship is in the same spirit as independent Central Bank governors: tie your hands.
  3. Actually, on even further thought, what Zachary proposes is exactly what was done in Liberia 2003-13 and the transition has been remarkably smooth, with little distastefulness. I think it was a good idea.
  4. Maybe the deeper problem is that international norms dictate nations can have only one of two forms of government: Subjugation to a larger state dictated before 1948, or complete independence. But not every political situation fits stably into one of those two categories, and inevitably turns to violence. A third and fourth norm might not hurt, ones that provided stability and a transition to full autonomy.

I am not sure yet what my fifth or final reaction is, but I think Zachary is on to something. I think there is something to my initial discomfort, but there may be no perfect solution. Possibly his is the best of a set of bad alternatives. Is there any scholarly work here?

Update: I am told Bosnia, Kosovo and Timor Leste might also be examples. Perhaps the world had more interest and understanding of the situation there, and so were less susceptible to irrational optimism.

Update 2: A rebuttal by @kopalo drawing on this classic Fearon and Laitin article I’d forgotten (ungated)

14 thoughts on “Should the West have governed South Sudan?

  1. My reaction: trusteeship is just a technical approach that will not work either – deeper conflict analysis and focusing priorities to prevent marginalization (regardless of the state structure) are what is important.

    When this conflict erupted, I was reminded of the multi-donor evaluation of conflict-prevention and peacebuilding activities in South Sudan. A sentence from that evaluation has stayed with me since I read it in 2011:
    “Too much focus on Juba, and specific elements within Juba, may cause a real sense of marginalisation in other areas. Donors could play a role in preventing the Khartoum-South relationship – which led to war – being duplicated in Juba-State-County relationships, but have not yet done so.” (Page xix)

    In the context of this suggestion, a couple of paragraphs from the executive summary are relevant:

    “The transition from war to peace is not a technical exercise but a highly political process. A sophisticated and nuanced analysis of power relations, causes of vulnerability, and drivers of conflict and resilience indicators was largely missing from the design and execution of many aid programmes. In dynamic conflict settings, an analysis of the political economy of the transition must also be continuously revised to be useful. This was not done, as donors have instead tended to focus on administrative delivery and implementation. The relevance of many activities with regard to CPPB is thus questionable.

    In part, the problem lies in the conceptual vacuum around ‘statehood’, as well as unclear identification of critical conditions that lead to peace, or to conflict, or the lack of sustained attention to them. Neither GoSS nor donors produced a convincing and consensual model of what Southern Sudan as a ‘state’ would look like in say, ten years. From the donors, the reticence to produce such a model may have been because of their commitment to the CPA and ‘unity’. However it also reflected the tendency to approach the challenge purely as a technical exercise in capacity building and service delivery.”

  2. Pierre Englebert proposes something akin to this for Somalia and other poorly governed spaces in the concluding chapter of his 2009 book.

  3. Examples of ‘not-colonies-but-less-than-independent’ would include (recent) Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzogovina as well as a raft of British dependent territories (just in the Caribbean, Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Island, Montserrat, Turks & Caicos) which are domestically self-governed but under British foreign policy, plus Newfoundland pre-1948 (under trusteeship for indebtedness) and, arguably, Australia, Canada, New Zealand & South Africa pre-WWII (at the start of WWII they all refused to be automatically at war when Britain declared war, and put the question to their own parliaments).

    I think BiH raises some interesting questions, such as what recourse does a quasi-independent country have when its trustees make horrible decisions like setting the local currency at par with the German mark, immediately making all production in BiH uncompetitive, arguably delaying economic recovery for over a decade and complicating an already fiendishly difficult political reconciliation?

  4. Haiti in 2004 is another example of a failed international stabilization. In addition to having peace keeping troops, the Prime Minister was named by the international community. Their pick, Gerald Latortue was a former UNDP official. With the UN providing security through the peacekeeping troops, the government being led by a UN official picked by the international community, and the investment budget coming from international donors, Haiti was very close to being an international protectorate. Unfortunately this arrangement proved to be no more capeable of governing Haiti than the governments that preceding and followed it.

  5. I think that failed states could be managed by less than sovereign jurisdiction. For example, Haiti could be ruled by Quebec or South Sudan by Scotland. These jurisdictions without a standing army could provide their legal framework, process , policing,without being colonial powers.

  6. Doesn’t strike me as a useful idea, except to the extent that: 1) picking a neutral referee reduces tension in a truly multipolar political environment, where inter-ethnic identities are fixed and tensions are high, so various groups may be less motivated to hold ultimate power so long as they are guaranteed the other factions will also be denied ultimate power, and 2) a government lacking in any true legitimacy or even local knowledge may be less likely to impose all sorts of dumb rules, and take a laissez-faire approach to independence rather than trying to reshape society.

    However, the problem with the neutrality argument #1 is that government offices and duties will still have to be distributed between the factions, money will have distributed, and dialects may still receive preference. So the factions will still be competitive to some extent, and will start prepping immediately for the day the trustee leaves. Also, the trustee approach encourages a more guiding and controlling role, not a laissez-faire position like #2, so if anything foreign governments are more meddlesome but without the native understanding of the country and without the ability to build consensus within their social networks (to the extent that the trustee bureaucrats and governors are not natives, they will have more limited arrays of friends and contacts in-country).

    Most governments are not formed or designed for their popularity and effectiveness, but rather by being the least-unpopular option under their native elective (or non-elective) system. That’s hardly a qualification to govern a foreign country. Governments have less incentive to be effective or economical in a faraway place. And most countries have little or no staff experienced in the business of nation building, but are full of people used to the business of slowly modifying their internal regulatory systems – so no reason to expect innate competence abroad. Maybe a foreign government can import a tested legal system and a powerful police force, and thereby gain a more stable country than the locals, but this is a lengthy and expensive process that historically is mostly undertaken when it benefits nationals or large economic concerns of the trustee country (e.g. British colonialism).

  7. A similar, but less paternalistic approach would be for South Sudan to engage in significant outsourcing of important governmental functions, perhaps even to the point of having a “virtual government” like that of Centennial, Colorado when it first incorporated, and then promptly contracted to have government services provided to its citizens by other governmental and non-governmental entities. A number of municipal governments with city manager forms of government work pretty similarly.

    In South Sudan, as in Sudan at the time of its independence, a critical problem is that the human capital in terms of people with sufficient training and experience to run the Western style government that their constitution aspired to simply did not exist, nor are their people outside of government but critical to its functioning with sufficient training and experience. It takes a lot of moderately skilled and not too corrupt civilian bureaucrats, lawyers and technocrats, and a lot of people skilled at managing those managerial and professional employees to operate an autonomous national government that is even remotely functional. South Sudan’s ranks of able bodied adults capable of taking on leadership roles are mostly made up of former soldiers in informally organized rebel armies without the skill set to run large civilian government bureaucracies. Saudi Arabia imports workers to get this sort of thing done because it doesn’t have enough locals qualified to do many of these things, and South Sudan may need to do the same on a smaller scale. They could hire the equivalent of a city manager to supervise its government bureaucrats according to the direction of the elected officials but not contrary to South Sudanese law even if requested to do so by elected officials. This manager would hire bureaucrats where needed to get critical government functions done while training local successors for their jobs over time. Posts most subject to corruption or allegations of favoritism would be turned over last.

    Also, a very thin form of neutral brokering of important domestic disputes (the proximate cause of the civil war was a dispute over the validity of the firing of the Vice President) would be something akin to the United Kingdom’s Privy Counsel – a foreign country appellate court hearing appeals from decisions of the highest domestic court in the country in the manner of the U.S. Supreme Court for state decisions. This would help free key judicial decisions from taints of corruption or bias.

  8. I am not as bullish on Liberia as Professor Blattman. Having worked here for 9 months, I see dysfunctional institutions, lack of reconciliation, systemic corruption, abject poverty. Yes, the bullets have stopped flying. The president is a darling of the international community. But the talk and the hype are much different than reality on the ground.

  9. @R J Anderson. It sounds like we have a similar assessment. Unless you think war is around the corner. I suspect the risk is low, and I see this as a *huge* deal. A realistic timeframe for most countries to improve corruption or institutional dysfunction is decades, even if they improve at the fastest rates in human history. Which they won’t of course. I think we curse fragile states with high expectations, and don’t give enough credit tot he enormous difficulty of ending incentives for violence.

  10. There are a great many shades of grey between full sovereignty and trusteeship. Some examples have already been given in the comments. The Channel Islands and even Wales and Scotland could be seen as other examples, as could be the West Bank.

    There is nothing in international law which prevents two or more countries from entering into an agreement about their sovereignty, leading to a myriad of options.