Rethinking state capacity in the face of crisis

By Lama Mourad

By Mstyslav Chernov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons; Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015.

The current migrant crisis,[1] primarily fuelled by the ongoing civil war in Syria and parts of Iraq, has been the subject of much writing over the last few weeks. The vast majority of the focus has been on how this crisis is affected by, and affects, politics in Europe (and to a lesser extent Canada and the USA). While for Europe, it appears that this “crisis” is a recent one – with this summer seeing a remarkable increase in numbers of asylum claimants and refugees attempting to come into Europe – for neighbouring countries, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, it has been a reality for years now.

Contrast, for example, the most generous commitment of any European country by far, Germany’s decision to take in 800 000 refugees by year’s end, with the more than 1.1 million refugees[2] already in Lebanon, a country with a population twenty times smaller and with a fifth of Germany’s per capita GDP. Jordan and Turkey host, by the most conservative estimates, over 600 000 and 1.9 million refugees respectively.

Therefore, as we look for lasting solutions and responses to the migrant crisis, we should be aware not to reproduce the general emphasis on South-North (as opposed to South-South) migration by focusing on refugees and asylum seekers who aim to settle in Europe. Rather, we should remember that the vast majority of migrants remain in the Middle East, either displaced within their country or in neighbouring countries — a trend that holds true in other regions and major cases of displacement. Therefore, we would be well served — both as a discipline and as citizens — to look at learning from these cases and to ensure that they do not slip out of the limelight when they do not directly impact on politics of Western states.

While the issues of concern for political scientists in this crisis are many, including the importance of what we teach in our syllabi, there has been little discussion of how this crisis should force us to rethink some of our most basic assumptions regarding state capacity and strength — critical concepts in the field.

State strength is generally understood as a function of two main factors: capacity and sovereignty. Based on the Weberian definition, strong states are those who hold the monopoly of power over their territory, and provide a core set of political goods to their citizens, not least of which is security. In contrast, weak states are understood to either lack the capacity to provide a set of core goods, and/or are unable to do so independently. This broad definition has a number of scholarly and policy implications, namely an emphasis on ‘state-building’ through a focus on the central institutions of the state, such as strengthening the capacity of security institutions, legislatures, and judiciaries.

Based on these notions, international rankings of state strength, such as the Fragile State Index (FSI) (formerly the Failed States Index) serve to tell scholars and policy makers which states are most likely to buckle under pressure or to experience greater instability. Under this rubric Lebanon – which now hosts the largest refugee population per capita in the world – has consistently ranked among countries with a high or very high warning on the FSI. This, along with its history of civil war, has led many to warn of its (imminent) collapse or, at the very least, of the reemergence of civil conflict.

In light of this, it’s rather remarkable how resilient the Lebanese state appears in the face of the most recent crisis. While “strong”, prosperous states in Europe and North America frequently speak of a limit to their absorptive capacity, despite the relatively low numbers of refugees most of these countries anticipate hosting, otherwise “weak” states such as Lebanon bear an exponentially larger burden and continue to function, admittedly not without problems.

It is with this in mind that I suggest that we look beyond the emphasis on state-level (macro) indicators when trying to understand a country’s capacity to cope with crisis. In doing so, it may be fruitful to look from the bottom-up to see how the communities most affected by the crisis are adapting and coping with the major changes of the last few years. For instance, as has been noted, one village in Lebanon is currently hosting more Syrian refugees than the entire United States. In the absence of a central policy to deal with the refugee crisis – with the exception of the major decision to not build refugee camps – local communities and municipalities, with the participation of local and international NGOs and actors, are creating and implementing initiatives and policies that most directly affect the lives of both citizens and refugees.

Considering these cases should cause us to rethink some of the taken-for-granted assumptions about what makes states otherwise “weak” or “strong,” and help us move away from this entrenched dichotomy. In this regard, local-level resilience and adaptability may have important effects on macro-level patterns and state strength.

Lama Mourad is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, where she researches migration and local governance in the Middle East. From 2012-2015, Lama was a CGS-Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) doctoral fellow, and is currently a fellow at the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict, and Justice. She will be returning to the Middle East as an affiliate of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut in the fall of 2015.

[1] Debate surrounding the terminology used to define the crisis has abounded over the last few weeks. I choose to retain the broader category of migrant to characterize the crisis, as many of those fleeing do not fit the overly-restrictive Convention definition of refugees, and denying this reality would serve to reinforce an extant hierarchy in the international migration regime. For more on this, please see a recent piece by Kelsey Norman and I in Muftah.

[2] By official estimates. Due to challenges in registering refugees, the unofficial numbers are higher, with some estimates as high as 2 million.

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