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Does nation-building work?

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

(Read caption) Small shops sell food and snacks on a hillside in Kabul, Afghanistan, where squatters have settled.

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Nation-building has a can-do ring to it. You can build a highway, a skyscraper, a Fortune 500 company. Why not a nation?

It isn’t a new idea. Throughout the 20th century – in places as different as Germany, the Philippines, Iraq, Japan, and Kosovo – world powers have worked to turn broken states into healthy ones through a combination of outside force, inside management, and the cultivation of civil society, education, rule of law, and democratic institutions. Soldiers and civil servants have sacrificed their lives. Billions of dollars have been spent.

The outcomes have been mixed, as James L. Payne noted in a 2006 study published in the Independent Review. Some nations (Somalia) reject the effort. Others make it (Austria, Germany, Japan), but we can’t be sure it was due to intervention or popular will. Nation-building works best when insiders take the lead. Some states fail and re-fail and then pull it together (Dominican Republic, Panama – and possibly Haiti, and even Somalia is improving).

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