Introduction: The supply side of statebuilding

Patrice C. McMahon, Jon Western

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


In the past 20 years, statebuilding has emerged as a centerpiece of international efforts to stabilize violent conflicts. From the Balkans to Iraq to Afghanistan, it has become widely accepted that statebuilding - defined as the development of transparent and accountable political institutions, stable and sustainable economic structures, professional public administrations, and civilian-controlled security services - is essential to the long-term stability of post-conflict settlements.1 As we know, the state is the key mechanism able to deliver essential services across a wide range of functions, to satisfy societal and economic needs, and to militate against violent challenges to authority.2 Thus, more than anything else, long-term stabilization and peace depend on states that are legitimate, effective, and self-sustaining. The statebuilding project, however, is no easy task. The essential state functions and services that most of us take for granted are destroyed or heavily damaged during violent conflict. These include institutions such as parliaments, courts, police, financial and regulatory systems, public health delivery systems, state-owned enterprises, and numerous bureaucratic and administration agencies that regulate almost all facets of daily life from driver’s licenses to agricultural subsidies to pension payments. Conflict also weakens vital elements of the economy by destroying or damaging factories, equipment, and basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges, rail, and ports. Municipal services such as sanitation systems, garbage collection, water systems, electrical grids, and power stations often need to be repaired or totally reconstructed in the wake of conflict. In many instances, violence rips apart communities and neighborhoods, severely damaging social capital. Human resources, knowledge, and skill sets needed to rebuild are reduced since technicians, administrators, and skilled laborers are killed or wounded or have fled the country. Intra-state identity conflict further undermines trust and social capital as neighbors and even family members find themselves on opposite sides. In all, the material, financial, and human demands associated with statebuilding are enormous because physical reconstruction must be done within the context of political change, institution building, reconciliation, and social healing. It is in response to these enormous and complex needs that dozens of countries and international organizations (IOs), as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), have joined forces to rebuild post-conflict states, to reconstruct economies, and to reconcile war-torn communities. Unlike similar efforts in the past, statebuilding has truly become an international affair that - in spite of any one state’s parochial, self-interested objectives - requires both public and private actors with money and capacity who exercise rigor but also flexibility. This internationalization of statebuilding is tempered by the fact that this is inherently a domestic affair; it is, after all, the rebuilding, reconstruction, and reconciliation of a particular state and a society that possesses a unique culture and history. Put differently, each statebuilding exercise has its own set of needs as well as common challenges. It is this confluence with statebuilding, as simultaneously an international project and a domestic affair, that poses the greatest challenge to this effort. Our central concern in this volume is to analyze how international actors work to deliver these public goods, in light of realities, demands, and challenges that pull them in different directions.3 The literature on statebuilding has grown tremendously in recent years, and as impressive as it is in scope and depth, there is significant ambiguity over what international actors hope to achieve as well as what they leave behind.4 This is reflected in the proliferation of terms that include, but are not limited to, nation building, post-conflict reconstruction and development, stabilization, and peacebuilding. All act as ill-defined cognates for international statebuilding.5 Despite the existence of these and other terms, there is, nonetheless, broad agreement on two important points. First, there is a general emphasis in the literature that statebuilding is a broad international undertaking to construct a set of accountable and transparent governing political and economic institutions that are both competent in the provision of services and legitimate to the public; hence, we are talking about liberal statebuilding and about establishing a set of institutions that have core democratic features embedded in them. Second, not only is there is no clear blueprint for successful statebuilding, but we have not come far in developing theories or models that help the international community restore security, build new state institutions, and promote stable economic growth and social reconciliation in post-conflict transitions. To date, much of the existing literature outlines the needs of post-conflict states, what we think of as the “demand side�? of statebuilding.6 In fact, one of the authors in this volume, James Dobbins, has been involved in writing a series of books that examine the different needs or components of post-conflict statebuilding.7 These volumes carefully compare US-led, UN-led, and EU-led cases, providing information on how much time, troops, and money have been spent on these efforts. Given the numerous challenges of statebuilding and the somewhat paltry results, many writings also provide broad prescriptions for improving statebuilding efforts. Some, such as a recent volume by Roland Paris and Timothy Sisk, outline the difficult choices international actors face: reconciling short-term needs with long-terms strategic goals, identifying the right types of institutional arrangements and power-sharing features, and sequencing various forms of participation and development.8.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe International Community and Statebuilding
Subtitle of host publicationGetting Its Act Together?
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781136449420
ISBN (Print)9780415695398
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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