This paper explains correlations between humanitarian emergencies and political economies of 'failing states' in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In both, Cold War era rulers acquired personal power through their influence over economic exchange, irrespective of conventional public/private distinctions. The political shock of the end of the Cold War, coupled with the growing independence and invigoration of clandestine markets challenges this domination. This creates opportunities for enterprising rivals and regional strongmen to assert their own control. The consequence is nearly complete institutional collapse of states and open warfare to control the alternative economic bases of political power. Communities with resources become targets of struggle amongst rival strongmen. This struggle leads to rapid, widespread impoverishment. Warfare, combined with the loss of local control over resources, creates massive refugee flows, which further destabilize neighbouring communities. Liberia, for example, lost up to 90 per cent of the civilian population of rural areas in the early 1990s, straining resources in neighbouring states and nearly destroying Liberia's economic and occupational mainstays. The two cases also point to the contagion of conflict and humanitarian emergencies. Struggle between strongmen and factions over economic resources occurs irrespective of globally recognized frontiers and incorporates local political entrepreneurs into the wider conflict.