Nation building successes and failures matter to the EU and OECD 

By Dominic Rohner, Professor of Economics, Faculty of Business and Economics (HEC Lausanne), University of Lausanne, and Research Fellow, the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) 

From Syria to Libya, Somalia to Yemen, today more than 50 nations are categorised as fragile states. With a number sitting very close to the EU’s borders, it’s impossible to argue that these countries and the difficulties they face exist in a vacuum from the rest of the world. 

As conflict, extremism, and poverty increase due to states falling into “failed” or “failing” categories – the ripple effects are not only tragic for the domestic population but also felt way beyond their borders. 

It follows that, to help the EU achieve greater integration and assist its institutions bolster fragile neighbours and partner states, we need a greater understanding of what makes some states thrive, while others slide from fragility to outright collapse. 

What do we mean by nation building? 

The term “nation building,” in general terms, describes how different ethnic, social, or religious groups manage to live peacefully together and create a functioning state. The German, French, and Italian speaking populations of Switzerland and those from Wallonia and Flanders in Belgium are examples of nations that do this successfully. So, what key ingredients do they have that we can learn from? 

There’s no single answer or silver bullet. It’s why I’ve edited an open access e-book together with Ekaterina Zhuravskaya from the Paris School of Economics, drawing on contributions from a great number of leading scholars. Published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, it provides an array of evidence-based insights from around the world on the factors that contribute to a stable and prosperous nation.   

A focus on polarisation and segmentation 

We know that social cohesion is crucial for stability, security, and development, but this relies on members of a society having a common identity and a shared sense of responsibility for the well-being of all. This in turn depends on how segregated a country is — this is the extent to which different groups within a state live in separate areas. Then there is also the question of how polarised a nation is. This is driven by social comparisons, in which people in society divide themselves into ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ 

“Nation building” is different for countries that have low polarisation and low segmentation, such as Japan or Germany, often called unitary states. There, national cohesion is quite achievable, but there has historically been a looming risk of nationalism, against which democracy is the best rampart. Countries that have the opposite, both high polarisation and segregation, such as Afghanistan or Spain, require a different strategy, one of federalism and power-sharing. 

Then there are the melting pots, which have low segregation but high polarisation; think of the US and Brazil, where again a different approach is needed. Here, education is particularly important and can help foster a positive common identity. But it is also a double-edged sword since it can lead to nationalistic indoctrination and the promotion of propaganda. 

The e-book also looks at the ‘contact hypothesis’ in detail. Psychologists have found that if different social, ethnic, or politically aligned groups of people have regular contact with each other – without discrimination and in the context of fairness and non-exploitation – they will start trusting each other more. This in turn builds social capital over time. 

In a polarised world, interaction between such groups really matters, whether it is through the exchange of students on the Erasmus Programme or the collaboration of scientists via Horizon Europe. States can certainly help with this contact process. 

The research also shows that unilateral military interventions and military aid often backfire when it comes to building nations. Yet, at the same time, UN peacekeeping security guarantees can help to reduce conflict. 

Equal access matters 

There is no doubt that democracy is the backbone of sustainable and peaceful nation-building everywhere, not just the idea of one-person, one vote, but a state that fosters democratic and equal access to goods, services, wealth, and a healthy environment. 

Can these findings be used to foster a greater understanding of what deeper European Union integration looks like? Yes, they certain can. 

Education, information, and interaction are key. An example of this could be a pan-EU television channel, which guarantees access across Europe to high-quality news, even if a given national government is run by a populist. Greater mobility and social exchange through Horizon Europe or Erasmus could also play a vital role in fostering interaction and mutual understanding across Europe. Another key aspect for supporting cohesion in a variety of contexts could be the sharing of power and resources within in a federalist framework. 

In conclusion, the research shows that failing states pose a serious risk. Yet with the right understanding, analysis, and policies these risks can be overcome. The future may be bright if we really understand nation building in more granular detail, accounting for the successes and failures of our time. This is what we are aiming to do. 

To download the free e-book from the Centre for Economic Policy Research click here. 

  • Dominic Rohner

    Holding a PhD in Economics from the University of Cambridge, Dominic Rohner is a Professor of Economics at the Faculty of Business and Economics (HEC) of the University of Lausanne. Dominic Rohner’s research focuses on key drivers of civil and interstate wars, such as e.g., natural resources and analyses institutions and public policies that can reduce the risk of conflict and foster peace.

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