Mainstreaming Involuntary Migration in Development Policies

John W. Harbeson
Professor Emeritus of Political Science
City College and the Graduate Center
City University of New York

Credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

Mainstreaming Involuntary Migration in Development Policies

This essay addresses the issue of how best to insert migration concerns into development planning, as a part of a process of thinking more broadly about US migration policies and interests. In particular, it explores the interplay between state fragility and involuntary migration, which is a pressing challenge for the United States and (particularly) for European states and one that cannot be addressed exclusively by refugee and migration admission policies. It argues for a greater commitment to processes that engage citizens of fragile states in addressing the indicia of state fragility and that, in turn, can create stronger states and reduce involuntary migration.

The essay defines involuntary migrants as persons who leave their home countries not just for economic advantage but because they believe their physical survival to be at serious risk, or because their most basic human rights have been effectively extinguished, or both. Long-lasting civil wars that resisted mediation have been one major cause of involuntary migration, as in the cases of Syria and Afghanistan. These civil wars have been both cause and consequence of aggressively abusive authoritarian regimes.

A much deeper cause of involuntary migration has been state fragility — states so weakened and tenuously held together that the very possibility of there being effective government within them is at risk. Degrees of fragility vary, of course, but the top 11 countries of origin of people seeking asylum in Europe in 2015 and 2016 are all manifestly countries of state fragility. They include — in addition to Syria and Afghanistan — Iraq, Kosovo, Albania, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Iran, Ukraine, and Russia. The problem of state fragility, however, is far more widespread than this list suggests and the potential for large numbers of involuntary migrants seeking survival correspondingly greater. An important symptom of state fragility and insecurity in Africa, for example, is the continent’s estimated 18.5 million displaced persons, a figure that includes internally displaced persons as well as those crossing national borders.

Clear-eyed perception of state fragility has been blurred by the term’s murky association with related terms like state failure, state collapse, and state weakness. State fragility has also remained hidden in plain sight by a long-standing and pervasive tendency in academic and policy circles to assume that states are synonymous with governments rather than the overarching political frameworks within which governments function and which they are charged to sustain. Many causes of state fragility have been suggested, though how they relate to one another and their relative importance varies from case to case. In sub-Saharan Africa, the phenomenon is pervasive throughout the region and has been attributed, inter alia, to the flawed colonial origins of now independent states, malevolent external economic influences, consequences of Cold War alignments, seriously errant development policies and practices, authoritarian rule, and civil wars resulting from these and other factors.

Ethiopia, by superficial appearances, is widely considered a strong “developmental state” because of its imaginative constitution that embraces ethnically organized federalism and because of a run of very strong gross domestic product growth rates. However, it has recently been proven a weak state notwithstanding its well-established authoritarian governing regime. By imposing comprehensively centralized rule, including unilaterally disregarding key provisions of the federal constitution it imposed in 1995, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government has re-opened the basic question, unanswered since the fall of its last emperor in 1974, concerning on what terms, if any, the ethnic communities included in this ancient empire can agree to establish and live together in a post-imperial state. Exacerbating the situation have been 280,000 Ethiopian citizens displaced by drought, internal conflict, and forced removals occasioned by two major dam building projects, and an even larger number of involuntary migrants accepted from its collapsed neighboring state, Somalia.

The United States has recently returned its attention to the problem of state fragility with the formation of a high-level Fragility Study Group led by former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, and Nancy Lindborg, former US Agency for International Development (USAID) assistant administrator and current president of the United States Institute of Peace. Their report issued in September, 2016 recognizes state fragility as a problem for those leading US development policy efforts. My contention, however, is that the report, US Leadership and the Challenge of State Fragility,[1] fails to address the essence of the problem, thereby effectively leaving unaddressed the problem of involuntary migration and how to confront this challenge within the framework of development policy. The report focuses on how the US government should organize to address fragility, stressing what it termed the “Four ‘S’ Framework”: concentrating strategic efforts where America’s interests are greatest; tackling systemically the inter-related security, political, and economic challenges in concert rather than in isolation; addressing these challenges selectively where US interests and leverage are greatest and the goals attainable; and seeking sustained domestic political support for these efforts, presumably both in the focal countries and within the United States itself.

The report defines state fragility as the “absence or breakdown of a social contract between people and their government [where] states suffer from deficits of institutional capacity and political legitimacy that increase the risk of instability and violent conflict and sap the state of its resilience to disruptive shocks.” With this definition, the report pinpoints at least some of the very conditions that have caused waves of involuntary migration, especially in 2015 and 2016. The report links its definition of state fragility to a central objective to be sought in overcoming it, Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals, that calls for peace, justice, and accountable and inclusive institutions.

On the one hand, the report’s definition rightly identifies the heart of the problem of state fragility as the absence, loss, or breakdown of a social contract. On the other hand, it misses the mark by failing to recognize that the social contract at issue is much more than one “between people and government.” Competitive, multiparty, and democratic elections, conducted in accordance with the rule of law, are how social contracts between people and government are supposed to be refreshed, renewed, and restored. State fragility, by fundamental contrast, occurs when free and fair elections cannot even be conducted because the state — the overarching political framework within which governments function — is in such disarray, rent by civil war, or set aside by over-the-top authoritarian rule that makes such elections impossible. It is these profoundly unbearable circumstances that are responsible for much involuntary mass migration. Countries with bad elections, mismanaged and corrupted by authoritarian rules are plenty bad enough, but generally insufficient in and of themselves to spur mass involuntary migration — although admittedly the tipping point when this occurs varies from country to country and in the perceptions of the victims. More likely, however, in these circumstances, individuals might still have sufficient political space to be able to decide voluntarily for political or economic reasons to relocate abroad in other countries. Thousands of Ethiopians, for example, have relocated in the United States for just such reasons.

The fundamental flaw in the report’s definition is its failure to recognize that a viable state depends on the existence of two distinct contracts: a government contract that specifies the terms on which citizens establish a government to act on their behalf, one that free and fair democratic elections can address, and a social contract that establishes the terms of association among individuals and groups of citizens that must also be in place, achievable, or reparable if the overarching political framework — the state — is to exist and be viable. The report captures the government contract but not the social contract. Involuntary migration occurs when masses of citizens, voting with their feet, have determined that relations between citizens and their government have so broken down that acceptable terms for citizens to live together under one political roof have become unattainable.

This understanding of the state as sustained by accepted terms of association among individuals and groups for being governed together, as well as working relations between citizens and their government effected by democracy and the rule of law, harks back to the very foundations of the philosophy of liberalism. It originated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as articulated by John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and even Thomas Hobbes, considered the first liberal for pioneering the idea that the state is grounded in the interests and will of the people. The key point is that all three emphasized that the liberal state is to be grounded in not just one but two contracts, both solemnized by consent of the people. The state comes into being, first, when people consent with each other on terms for political association — the social contract — and to establish a state. The second contract, the government contract, built on the first, establishes the terms on which citizens of this newly formed state agree to be governed within it. Implicitly, the idea of political liberalism ever since has recognized these two contracts as ongoing covenants, modified as needed by times and circumstances, rather than as one-off deals. For Western democracies, part of the meaning of their maturity has been that these terms, both social and governmental, have been sufficiently framed by democratically established constitutions that they can and have been adequately modified and upheld, for the most part, through democratic electoral processes. For most (still) newly independent countries of the Global South that has been much less the case, hence their demonstrable fragility.

The report overlooks failure or decay of the primary social contract, because it fails to take into account the extent to which the state as we understand it has been a twentieth century import in most of the countries of the Global South rather than something that evolved domestically within each country. The colonial state — if that is not an oxymoron — was, during imperial times, superimposed on indigenous, often state-like entities. Since the mid-twentieth century, independent governments have inherited, worked with, and sought to legitimize the indigenous and the imported colonial varieties of states, as well as syntheses of both. That state fragility has been pervasive throughout the Global South demonstrates the inadequate progress in negotiating and renegotiating acceptable contracts, both government and social, in these complicated circumstances. Massive involuntary migration attests to the depth and extent of this failure. It follows that democracy alone, the governmental dimension, is not enough and is built on a house of sand where the primary social contract has been fatally abridged or is nonexistent.

Symptomatic of the prevalent elision of the concepts of state and government is a pervasive, if routinely implicit neglect in both the academic and policy literatures, to recognize citizen acquiescence on terms of political association as having anything to do with the building of a viable state except insofar as they are entitled democratically to elect and make demands of government. A key source of this blindness has been a universally routine, if nearly always tacit, reliance on Max Weber’s definition of the state as a territorially-based compulsory association possessing a monopoly of the legitimate use of coercion. The definition commits this elision of government and state and allows little room for citizens, by their mutual acquiescence on terms, to be founders and sustainers of the state.

And yet, mass migration within and between states of the Global South as well as toward Europe and industrialized countries has dramatically attested the extent to which, without citizen engagement, the state itself, not just government, has been rendered significantly if not seriously fragile. Mass migration has been a consequence and also a cause of deeper state fragility of this kind. A compelling example is the case of Kenya. Land consolidation and registration initiated just before independence, along with programs to resettle landless, unemployed Africans on subdivided estates of departing European settlers, have been profoundly corrupted by successive independent governments. The result has been layers of injustice piled upon layers of injustice to the point that they are probably beyond the capacity of any government of the day to address. In 2008, failure to make a serious effort to address this problem nearly resulted in civil war, sparked by a much-less-than free and fair election. Those land issues remain largely unaddressed today, testimony to enduring state weakness and a train wreck in waiting.

What will it take to gain citizen participation and at least their acquiescence on terms of association with each other such that state strengthening can be accomplished and, as one signal benefit, involuntary mass migration as well as internal displacement can be substantially reduced? A key is to understand that both recognition and an effective response to sociocultural, economic, and political distress at grassroots levels are indispensable building blocks of stronger states and antidotes for mass migration.

Remarkably, the Fragile State Group authors paid scant attention in their report to the work of a prominent Washington, DC-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that has done important work attributing state fragility to insufficiently addressed sources of great grassroots distress. For a decade and more, the Fund for Peace has monitored 12 categories of socioeconomic, cultural, and political distress at grassroots as well as national levels that it has found to be responsible for state fragility. It has scored 175 countries annually on the extent of their state fragility. Implicitly, the annual Fund for Peace reports have called not just for addressing these ills but for establishing processes for formulating terms on which they can be addressed satisfactorily and effectively. For example:

  • terms for allocation of essential collective albeit divisible natural resources (e.g., land, water, and forest patrimonies);
  • terms for effecting tolerance in local as well as national settings for residential ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity;
  • establishing or resurrecting trusted informal and semiformal processes for dispute resolution;
  • terms of instituting legitimate and effective governance at very local levels;
  • terms for apportioning access to, and the benefits of, scarce developmental resources (e.g., education, health, transportation, and humanitarian assistance);
  • terms for managing possession and use of small arms; and
  • terms and processes for inclusive development advocacy, including mitigation of persistent extreme poverty.

In summary, involuntary mass migration has manifestly been driven by pervasive state fragility, key sources of which are endemic grassroots-level social, cultural, economic, and political distress. To obviate the necessity of migration, the United States should establish processes to address these causes of state fragility and distress, and, by extension, should lay the groundwork for building stronger, more durable states. Western NGOs have long been in a position to collaborate effectively with those in developing countries for these purposes even as they have done so in support of humanitarian relief and socioeconomic development objectives.  Recent initiatives by some governments in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere to limit significantly the freedom of NGOs to work with their Western counterparts have been counterproductive for strengthening fragile states and, by extension, to diminishing involuntary migration.

Electoral democracy alone is insufficient, indeed a house built upon sand, absent citizen engagement at the grassroots in formulating terms on which these ills can be legitimately and effectively addressed. To meet this challenge implies larger and more interdependent conceptions of both the state and democracy than as they have been understood and conventionally practiced. Democracy entails not just electoral competition but consensual problem solving. Especially in the contemporary Global South, viable states must be built on foundations not just of coerced association but of citizen acquiescence.

[1] See

Author Names

John W. Harbeson

Date of Publication December 7, 2016
DOI 10.14240/cmsesy120716