So, according to NPR Iraq has now set the record for the longest time after a parliamentary election without a government.  For those unfamiliar, Iraq operates under a democratic system that awards seats in parliament by percentage of the vote, and they’ve got several political parties.  The end result?  Nobody has a majority, and at this point nobody seems to be able to cobble together a coalition of enough parties to get a majority and form a government.  Man, you really have to dislike the other guy when you more or less give up power rather than partner with them.

But this is not the sweeping case that the title of the article, “Iraq Breaks World Record for Length of Time Without a Government,” suggests.  By any reasonable standard, the contemporary record has to go to Somalia, which has been operating without anything resembling a real national government since . . . 1991. Yep, I graduated from high school right about the same time Somalia lost its government.  Current college freshmen and sophomores have never lived in a world where Somalia had a national government.  So why no mention of Somalia?  I mean, even if you count the transitional government (put in place in 2004), they went 13 years without a government.  Well, they are disqualified because they are not a parliamentary democracy (turns out Iraq’s record is pretty narrow, after all).  It’s too bad Somalia is out of this competition, though , because it is an amazing case of state failure in the modern world.  The transitional government appears to control, at best, a few city blocks in Mogadishu.  Seriously – that’s not a hyperbolic statement.  They literally control a few blocks.  Sometimes.  Er, that does not count as a national government, people.

Somalia is lines on a map and a bustling informal economy that seems to float a stable national currency – despite lacking a central bank or, as I mentioned above, A GOVERNMENT.  (Economists hate that.  A lot.)  That’s about it.  Somalia is the hole in the map, the one place in the world where there is really no effective control of the territory of the country by anything resembling a state.  Sure, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and many in Asia, contain territory over which they have very little, if any, control – but those tend to be little spaces within countries.  Somalia is basically a giant sovereignty hole, with a tiny pocket of control.

I spend a lot of time thinking about this these days, as I think the connection between the state and local communities is probably the central governance question for development agencies in places like sub-Saharan Africa.  Simply put, in much of SSA, the only legitimate governance (that is, governance that people feel bought into, and believe in) is pretty local, and vested in land tenure (those with control over access to land tend to be in charge, since so many people need land to farm and make a living).  Development agencies, on the other hand, tend to work with national governments and generally avoid dealing with “traditional” or “informal” modes of governance, such as those seen at the local level.  The result is a disconnect between a lot of development planning and programming and the reality of life on the ground in many countries – we do our planning and programming through a state that is simply unable to represent the needs of its people effectively, and even if it could it has no means of actually carrying out development planning in a meaningful way.  Yet some folks persist in worrying about how to write legislation that would lead to effective adaptation planning . . . which completely misses the point.  You can write all the laws you want, but if nobody can enforce them and the citizenry don’t see any reason to pay attention to them or any other governmental activity, all you are doing is killing time and trees.

In these situations, we’re looking for governance in the wrong places.  Hell, the people in Somalia are quite vulnerable – to drought, violence, disease, etc.  But they are not all dead, which means they have organized into structures that provide food, shelter, clothing and other goods in an informal way – there is governance here, but not from the state.  I’m not going to valorize much of that governance, as it is rooted almost completely in violence and physical force without respect for the needs of the wider population, but the point is that this governance has found its own form of legitimacy that works, for better or for worse, much better than the pointless national government that the rest of the world seems to want to prop up so they can go on with the charade of working with another national government.