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The Failing States Index, and the question of why some states that should fail, don’t

FPs failing states map

Foreign Policy’s most recent issue features a Failed States Index, a listing and map of the sixty nations they believe are most likely to collapse, fail to control their borders, or generally failing to provide services to their citizens. Like all indexes, it glosses over a great deal of nuance to provide a single number. But the conclusions it draws are – I think – pretty interesting ones and worth a close look.

As FP’s editors point out in the introduction to the piece, “failed states” have become increasingly important in national security circles – in the 1990s, it was likely that anyone talking about failed states was a humanitarian activist. These days, thinkers like Tom Barnett and the gang at the Center for Global Development (see their recent publication “On the Brink”, which focuses on failing states) have become increasingly influential in shaping the thinking of military and political leaders regarding weak states. Conventional wisdom these days: any state that can’t control its borders may become a host state for terrorists and is likely to be used for drug and weapon smuggling. There’s another school of thought that suggests that states which fail to provide for the needs of their citizens run the risk of having their citizens recruited into terrrorist movements.

The gang at Foreign Policy and the The Fund for Peace used a methodology called the “Conflict Assesment System Tool” to rank the countries they’re considering. What’s interesting about the methodology is that it makes some broad assumptions about proximate causes for instability. Some factors – delegitimization of the state, the evidence of flight from a country – seem like clear indicators of impending conflict. Others seem harder to connect to impending conflict, especially “uneven development”, which would appear to be present in the vast majority of countries, conflicted and otherwise. Other factors – “human rights” (where I take it to mean “the absence of human rights”) – seem like they should be connected to state failure, but I’m not sure one can demonstrate evidence that the two are tightly linked…

The biggest surprise I had seeing Foreign Policy’s map: their number one failed state is Cote d’Ivoire. Iraq, with daily bombings, ranks 4th and Afghanistan, with a revived trade in heroin, ranks 11th. Somalia, with open-air arms markets and a government in exile comes in 5th place. Seven of the top ten states on the index are in sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s interesting to ask, “If Cote d’Ivoire is such a mess, why hasn’t it fragmented yet?” A similar question has to be asked: “How did Cote d’Ivoire possibly get this bad so quickly?” Until the late 90s, the nation was the economic powerhouse of the region. In some ways, the high rank it receives on this index is as much an indication of amazement that the country hasn’t fallen apart, given ethnic tensions and economic inequalities, as a prediction that it will.

Foreign Policy speculates that Cote d’Ivoire “would probably collapse completely if U.N. peacekeeping forces pulled out.” But there’s also an argument to be made that French peacekeepers are aggravating the situation in the country… and, indeed, the index includes a factor for “external intervention” – it’s not clear to me whether external intervention is an indicator that conflict is present, or a predictor of increased conflict because of outside meddling.

If this index is to be believed, Africa is likely to be wracked with civil wars in the next few years. A collapsed Cote d’Ivoire and recurrently collapsing Sierra Leone and Liberia should stretch ECOMOG resources to their limit, possibly straining Nigeria to the point of collapse. The Democratic Republic of Congo will melt down, and, with failing states in Chad and Sudan trapping it to the north, the weak government of the Central African Republic should fall as well. Ethiopia, already facing internal conflict, and now pinned between Sudan and Somali, is screwed, and the collapse of northeast Africa should force Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya to focus on regional stability and try to prevent a future war. After Zimbabwe fails and South Africa tries to deal with a refugee influx, we should expect that region to destabilize as well.

Oddly, this doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, DRC is lurching towards elections. While Somalia lacks a government, Somaliland has a wealth of foreign investment, and a number of entrepreneurial phone companies. Liberians are returning home, from Ghana and the US. Despite a wave of civil wars on the continent over the past two decades, it looks like current African conflicts are more self-contained.

Perhaps one of the great miracles of Africa is that many of the states that should fail somehow manage not to.

Barnett, in his book “The Pentagon’s New Map”, suggests that these “disconnected” states listed in indexes like these are nations in which the US should be prepared to intervene, if neccesary to prevent the spread of instability. Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly clear that our intervention in Iraq has helped that nation become a truly failed state, and that our intervention in Afghanistan hasn’t stabilized the state as much as anticipated. Perhaps we need to do some more deep thinking about why African states haven’t collapsed yet before being willing to intervene, ensuring a collapse and rebuilding process…

4 thoughts on “The Failing States Index, and the question of why some states that should fail, don’t”

  1. Certainly it is premature to consider Afghanistan and Iraq regarding their future. Think of them as diseased trees that were uprooted and now you are looking at the germinated seedlings and saying that they aren’t as tall as the trees they replaced.

    Barnett’s measures look at some long term trends like life expectancy and average income – it is unwise to expect overnight results.

    Consider the voice of the bloggers in Iraq (IraqTheModel comes to mind) not what we would have heard during the reign of Hussein.

    Consider the freedom of women in Iraq, whose lives were at the whim of the like of Uday. A reminder of those days is here: http://differentriver.com/archives/2005/08/16/is-howard-dean-pro-rape-or-just-pro-saddam/

    And human rights in Afghanistan… you get my point – the people must heal before they can thrive.

  2. Valid pushback, Stuart. You’re right – both Iraq and Afghanistan could move towards functional states or towards failed states and it will be difficult to tell for some time to come. I’m less optimistic about the situation than you generally are, but I apologize for turning my sense that those states are failing into a fait acompli.

    What interests me the most in this analysis is Cote d’Ivoire’s position as the state most in crisis. When I lived in Ghana in 1993, Abidjan was the second most expensive city in the world, after Tokyo, and friends would travel across the border to eat $10 hamburgers and go ice-skating in West Africa’s only ice rink. A dozen years later, economic activity in the region has moved to Senegal or Ghana and the nation’s on the brink of complete collapse. It’s an interesting reminder to me of how quickly these indices can change because nations change so rapidly.

    Maybe that’s good news regarding the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can hope that’s so.

  3. Sorry to get off the main point of your post.

    One of the aspects that I appreciate about your blog is the information and perspective you offer about Africa. So mow I am more curious about Cote d’Ivoire and what the environment is like, what is their government like, how much freedom do people enjoy, what if the effect of neighbors that share their borders, and what has caused their economic downturn?

    Stability and economic strength are partial indicators to a ‘desirable’ state as the former conditions in Albania and the Soviet Union attest. Certainly reaching ‘Failed State’ status is hitting the bottom of the barrel but some ‘non-Failed states’ are/were not much better. Without knowing almost anything about the DRC, you question is very intriguing – what conditions lead a country to ‘failed state’ status and what prevents one from heading there?

  4. Africans have developed a powerful resistance to suffering because we have seen so much of it. Much like you would develop a resistance to polio through immunisation with the inactive virus. When an African nation falls apart, most times it is not because of the suffering of the people but through racial conflicts and/or the greed of our leaders.

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