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Reality beyond the whiteboard

By Michael Wesley - posted Friday, 22 June 2007

As the plan for the Solomon Islands took shape in Canberra, it borrowed heavily from international blueprints for “state-building”, as applied in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“State-building” is a relatively new term which has largely displaced the older term “nationbuilding”. Nation-building was a task that confronted all post-colonial states: a big, complex and inter-linked project, it implied a shaping of economy, politics and society - often from haphazardly collected ethnic groups - into a cohesive sovereign unit.

By contrast, state-building confines itself to the institutions of the state - primarily, the bureaucracy - with a view to increasing their integrity and efficiency and shaping them in way that will have positive effects on the economy, society and politics.


State-building sends a strong signal that the project is strictly limited in scope and technical in nature. It advertises the intent that either the intervention will leave local political processes and elites intact, or replace them quickly through a transparent electoral process.

State-building denotes both a willingness of the international community to impose peace and oversee some form of conflict-resolution, and a desire to disengage as quickly as possible from political and social processes and focus on the technocratic task of reforming state institutions.

The concept of state-building carries within it assumptions of what a completed state looks like, that in the end all states are constituted and function in the same way. With minor variations in emphasis, state-building frameworks concentrate on what are argued to be the key themes of state function: security and the rule of law; transparent and efficient bureaucratic institutions; the provision of essential services to the population; the operation of democratic processes and norms; and the fostering of the conditions for market-led development.

Of course, the “completed” state looks remarkably like ours. There is more than a hint of what Michael Ignatieff calls imperial narcissism, a “desire to imprint our values, civilisation and achievements on the souls, bodies and institutions of other people”.

State-building rests on the beliefs that the state as a political form can be transferred across all cultures and contexts and, crucially, that the long and bloody process of state-building experienced in the West can be both truncated and sanitised by those who hold the blueprints of the final product.

The philosophy of state-building is that external actors will initially supply what are taken to be the crucial attributes of the state - coercion, capacity, legitimacy and capital - with the intention of transferring these attributes of “stateness” to an indigenous sovereign centre of political accountability over time.


A narrow focus on the technocratic tasks of reforming bureaucratic institutions has the benefit of avoiding, as much as is possible by an intervention, resonances of neo-colonialism. By demonstrating that it wishes to operate alongside an indigenous, representative government - either left intact by the intervention or rapidly constituted through a representative process sponsored by the intervention - the state-building mission sends a clear signal that it is there to render technical advice, not to meddle in the politics of the society.

The task of imparting efficient bureaucratic practices and redesigning institutions seems much more achievable than trying to reform the processes of political representation and power in many societies.

While planners in Canberra acknowledged that corruption within the Solomon Islands political system was a major problem, this was not an issue they wanted to tackle directly. It was hoped that if the intervention could deliver an effective and scrupulous bureaucracy, this would act as a buffer against the criminality of the elected officials.

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This is an edited extract from Griffith REVIEW 16: Unintended Consequences (ABC Books).

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About the Author

Professor Michael Wesley is the Director of the Griffith Asia Pacific Research Institute at Griffith University.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Michael Wesley

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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