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Sudan isn’t the only one: the Artificial States problem

In an article newly published in the Journal of the European Economic Association ( just in time for the South Sudan referendum!),  Alberto Alesina, Janina Matuszeski and I look at the general problem of “artificial states.” (Ungated working paper here.)

We have one conventional and one unconventional definition of artificial states, both of them continuous measures of “artificiality.” The conventional one measures the frequency of ethnic groups split in two by a border (usually one that colonizers had mindlessly created).  The unconventional one measures the “squiggliness” of country borders, on the theory that colonizers drawing artificial borders were prone to drawing straight lines (see Sudan in picture), while” natural” states rarely had straight borders (see France).

We identified countries that were “most artificial” on both measures:

Chad, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guatemala, Jordan, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Pakistan,Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

We also described some illustrative country cases:

Pakistan wound up as a collection of Balochistan, NWFP, Sindh (all of whom entertained secession at various times), East Bengal (which successfully seceded in 1971 to become Bangladesh, although only after a genocidal repression by West Pakistani troops), Mohajir migrants from India (many of whom regretted the whole thing), and West Punjab (which had its own micro-secessionist movement by the Seraiki linguistic minority).

Both measures predict that more artificial states are prone to worse development outcomes than less artifical ones, although the conventional measure is much more statistically robust as a development determinant than the “squiggliness” measure.

We don’t draw any policy conclusions in the paper, nor will I do so in this blog post… but you can if you want.

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  1. Adam Baker wrote:

    Recognizing that the squiggliness measure is the more media-friendly of the two new ones you introduced, which is perhaps the reason you cite it in this post, an important sentence in the paper is, “The fi…rst column shows that the variable FRACTAL does not survive the inclusion of a full set of regional dummies, but the coefficient on the variable PARTITIONED remains significant at the 5% level.” My own interpretation of this is that squiggliness is a proxy for “African”, making the entire thing seem like the success of a post-hoc prediction.

    That aside, I would suggest that it’s not how the borders came about, but whether the people are united or not. For example, having the word “United” in the name of your country is worth about $5.5 trillion in GDP. The effect is highly significant: F(3,178); p < 8e-15 (using the World Bank's 2010 GDP data).

    Baker & Easterly 2011.

    You have my email.

    Posted January 10, 2011 at 3:08 am | Permalink
  2. lukas wrote:

    France’s borders are anything but natural, though. They split ethnolinguistic groups virtually everywhere they pass, as the Basque, the Catalan, the Ligurians, the Savoyards, the Franco-Provencal, the Alemans, the West Franconians, the Walloons and the Flemish can tell you. France is very much an artificial state whose borders have been drawn by French arms and French diplomacy.

    Posted January 10, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink
  3. geckonomist wrote:

    three of the richest countries on earth didn’t make your list of artificial countries:

    I won’t draw any conclusions on selection bias in this comment.

    Posted January 10, 2011 at 6:18 am | Permalink
  4. Wonks Anonymous wrote:

    The Monkey Cage says artificial borders don’t cause conflict and Africa has had surprisingly few problems with separatists:

    Posted January 10, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  5. M wrote:

    I would agree that a flat border is an indication of ”prospective nation-building” (speaking neutrally). Yes, Iraq and its straight lines have been a disaster. However, check out Canada’s border with the US. The Prairies, Western Coast and Yukon-Alaska border are almost perfectly straight. The difference is that Canada and the US were able to plan and colonize a mostly empty land (once the Aboriginal populations were corralled of course) and set their own development. Iraq was a case of Western colonizers putting a square peg in a squiggly hole.

    Conversely, France’s boundaries could be considered natural or arbitrary depending on the century one lives in. Today it’s natural. In the 13th century? Whereas we have built states from scratch diplomatically, France made its border via kingdoms, marriages, revolutions and the odd Thirty or Hundred Year’s War. France got squiggly over a considerably long period. Sudan might just be waiting to get squiggly via its own methods…

    Posted January 11, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  6. Nicolas wrote:

    I’m French and I agree with you : France is very much an artificial state and French culture and even rejection of other culture in the past drew its borders. Interesting article anyway.

    Posted January 11, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink
  7. Rich Rostrom wrote:

    I don’t see “straight-line” borders as being that much fo a problem, especially when they are in uninhabited regions. Iraq’s problem is not its straight-line southern and western borders, which lie in vacant desert. The problem is its _extent_ – the inclusion of areas containing mutually hostile ethnic groups. And in several areas these groups are intermingled.

    I also question the selection of Morocco as “highly artificial” – it has existed with roughly its present borders for several centuries.

    Posted January 11, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  8. Not sure the “straight line” theory holds on your squiggly measure. Borders throughout Africa are largely artificial, but they were mostly drawn along trade routes – rivers, paths through mountains, roads skirting malarial swamps, whatever. Relatively few of those borders turned out to be straight lines, yet most people would agree that the vast majority of African borders are arbitrary and artificial.

    Posted January 11, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Permalink
  9. JR wrote:

    Canada is another terribly artificial country. Looking at the portion of its borders that are shared with another country, an enormous proportion is straight lines.

    Borders in the Sahara are just lines in the sand.

    Posted January 12, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  10. Mr. Econotarian wrote:

    States are always “artificial” because their boundaries are drawn by man.

    But States only feel “artificial” when their people hold onto racist feelings against other tribes/peoples/languages.

    For humanity to survive, we must identify first as humans, and stop caring about the accident of who our ancestors were or what language they spoke.

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 2:59 am | Permalink

8 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robert Went. Robert Went said: Sudan isn’t the only one: the Artificial States problem – Bill Easterly on Aid Watch – […]

  2. By Artificial States « Daniel Smith on January 10, 2011 at 5:27 am
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  4. By Links about States « Aid Thoughts on January 10, 2011 at 6:45 am

    […] in Africa should redraw their borders and goes on to point out that ‘artificial states’ are prone to worse development outcomes. I’m not a big fan of either of these lines of thought, even though I freely acknowledge that the […]

  5. […] Easterly on the artificial states […]

  6. By The American Spectator : AmSpecBlog : Must-Reads on January 11, 2011 at 11:19 am

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  7. By News round-up « Kat in Tanzania on January 13, 2011 at 12:36 am

    […] William Easterly – The artificial states problem […]

  8. […] borders, no matter how problematic those borders are. (See Bill Easterly’s new paper on the artificial states problem.) Somaliland may have a good case for independence, but it will have to get there on its […]

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