Can weak states build social order from the top down?

Throughout history, governments have relied on strong militaries to combat attacks from internal and external forces. But what’s the most effective way for weak states that lack a monopoly of violence in their own society to build sufficient authority to stem violence and build state institutions? To answer this question, James Robinson and his coauthors examined the state-building efforts in Colombia in the decade following Álvaro Uribe’s election as president in 2002. President Uribe formulated a classic top-down state-building project, focusing on combating non-state armed actors—and particularly left-wing guerillas—by expanding the size of the military and increasing the incentives to military officers and soldiers to fight the guerrillas. According to Human Rights Watch (2015), the government “rewarded combat killings with vacation time, promotions, medals, training courses, and congratulations from superiors, among other prizes.”

Incentives and “false positives”

To test the efficacy of this top-down strategy, Robinson and his coauthors used leaked data about the introduction of the incentive schemes on the extent of extrajudicial murders of civilians by the army from the Colombian nonprofit Centre for Investigation and Popular Education/Programme for Peace. When they overlaid and charted this data, they saw a clear relationship between incentive programs and “false positives,” defined as killing civilians and pretending they are combatants. What’s more, they found a higher number of false positives in municipalities where judicial systems were initially weaker, and the actual weakening of local judicial systems during the incentive period. Even worse, in these very same places guerrillas subsequently became stronger, probably because the “false positives” helped to delegitimize the state. 

Troops of the 14th Battalion move the town population under threat of daytime curfew following the killing of Colonel Rogerio Correa and the death of 9 peasants in what is called the Lana Caliente massacre.


Photo by Susan Meiselas

Unintended consequences

These results reveal the unintended consequences of traditional “top-down” approaches to state building. These findings also help explain why similar attempts in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq all appear to have backfired in recent decades. They suggest that governments must pay close attention to other factors that contribute to strong states, including building accompanying institutions and building support from the local population.  

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FARC Attacks Police.

ARGELIA, COLOMBIA - June 26, 2015: A girl runs inside a house destroyed in the past by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in attacks against the police in El Mango, a rural area in the municipality of Argelia, department of Cauca, Colombia. Earlier that week, residents of El Mango forced the police to leave the area for fear of new attacks by the FARC, though a day later the commander of the National Police, generalRodolfo Palomino, informed that the police were back in the village.



GETTY IMAGES / Luis Robayov