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Where No Government Governs

Drug-war dispatches out of Mexico, Pakistan’s seeming inability to control its tribal areas, and Jon Lee Anderson’s recent reporting on the largely lawless swaths of Rio de Janeiro lodged a question in my mind: How many people in the world live in places where no government actually governs?

The question alone upends my standard assumptions and reminded me of the eye-opening opening of The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche:

“Since we live on land, and are usually beyond sight of the sea, it is easy to forget that our world is an ocean world, and to ignore what in practice that means. Some shores have been tamed, however temporarily, but beyond the horizon lies a place that refuses to submit. It is the wave maker, an anarchic expanse, the open ocean of the high seas. Under its many names, and with variations in color and mood, this single ocean spreads across three-fourths of the globe. Geographically, it is not the exception to our planet, but by far its greatest defining feature.”

Analogously, I’m realizing that I – living on the dry land of a relatively tame neighborhood in a relatively tame city in a relatively tame nation – might have trouble seeing beyond the horizon, might tend to put too much stock in the order and neatness suggested by standard maps with their precise borders.

So here is a link to another sort of map. It’s a graphic representation of 2009’s installment of the “Failed States Index,” a collaboration between Foreign Policy and The Fund for Peace.

Somalia, which scores worst on the index for the second year running, has a government that — as of December — “controlled merely a few blocks in a country of 627,000 square kilometers,” according to Foreign Policy.

The magazine warns that “the global recession is sparking fears that multiple states could slip all at once into the ranks of the failing.” It goes on to describe the triage challenge world leaders would face: distinguishing “which failed states are global security threats and which are simply tragedies for their own people.”

I have much more to learn about this topic. I plan to check out a RAND monograph called “Ungoverned Territories.” I’ve also started reading “Ungoverned Spaces: The Challenges of Governing Tribal Societies,” a master’s thesis by Ty L. Groh of the Naval Postgraduate School.

I will post more here on Global Pedestrian as I learn it. Please use the comments section below to share anything you know about this topic — whether it be from books or, ideally, from walking the streets of one of the world’s ungoverned spots.


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