Global Policy Forum

Failed States

Picture Credit: UN Photo/Milton Grant

Failed states can no longer perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty. Within this power vacuum, people fall victim to competing factions and crime, and sometimes the United Nations or neighboring states intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster. However, states fail not only because of internal factors. Foreign governments can also knowingly destabilize a state by fueling ethnic warfare or supporting rebel forces, causing it to collapse.



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How the Syrian Crisis is Putting Lebanon at Risk (July 30, 2013)

In an article for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Lebanese scholar Doreen Khoury outlines how the conflict in Syria is affecting the political stability of Lebanon. Khoury points out that the Syrian crisis is contributing to an erosion of the state's institutions in Lebanon while also fostering renewed sectarian violence. As a result, Lebanon may find itself on the brink of civil war once again. (Heinrich Böll Stiftung)

France in Mali: The Long Durée of Imperial Blowback

Some observers have justified France’s intervention in Mali on the grounds of humanitarianism, internal stability, and French national security. Critics of these justifications have pointed out the potential humanitarian and security risks posed by the intervention. Both sides of this debate have focused on immediate concerns like the potential for a humanitarian emergency, or the recent history of foreign involvement in the region such as the intervention in Libya. Professor Mark LeVine, however, considers this intervention in wider historical context, arguing that the Malian crisis is not only blowback from the intervention in Libya, but also from colonial policies and French support for North African dictatorships. Levine contends that western policies have combined “to produce maximum chaos,” and concludes that the intervention in Mali may also have a destabilizing effect. (Al Jazeera)


Is Afghanistan Doomed As A "Failed State"? (October 1, 2012)

Ambassador Carlo Ungaro, a retired Italian senior Diplomatic officer, argues that “the very term “failed state” evokes a sense of hopelessness and despair, and should therefore be used as sparingly as possible.” Drawing on the cases of Liberia, Somalia, and especially Afghanistan, where he served during sixteen years, he asks “what precisely is needed for a Nation to qualify for that dubious title?” Ungaro argues that it is indeed USSR and US’ invasions of the country that truly caused the conditions preventing Afghanistan’s economy, social standards, and governance from improving since the 1970s. And despite US troops’ upcoming withdrawal, there are little reasons to be optimistic about the future of Afghanistan.  (OpEd News)

Somalia's Fleeting Opportunity for Hopeful Change? (September 18, 2012)

On September 10, 2012, Somalis elected Hassan Sheikh as their new President, hoping he will “break the prevailing corrupt and tribalistic political order.” International observers welcomed the change of leadership with applauds, hastily describing it as the first step towards the end of the “failed state” paradigm. In this article, Professor Abdi Ismail Samatar is skeptical that such “fraudulent and illegitimate process that accidently propelled a decent man to the top post” will really serve the Somali people. And beyond Mogadishu’s domestic politics, he stresses the role of the UN and the West that, after having promoted such change, now have to prove they have the “decency to change their attitude and genuinely assist the new leadership serve the Somali people”. (Al Jazeera)

Somalia: The End of a Failed State? (September 11, 2012)

When speaking of war-torn “failed states”, Somalia is often mentioned as the archetype. Indeed, Somalia has not had a functioning central government since 1991 and it is ranked today 222th worldwide in terms of GDP per capita. Yet, on September 10th, Somalia held its first presidential elections in 40 years. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the new President, is seen as incarnating a drive for change, promoting reform and readjustment after decades of war and poverty. However, the country’s stability is still threatened by resource-driven conflicts, arms smuggling and foreign interventions, all of these worsen by a lack of viable institutions. Will these elections really be a first step on the path towards recovery? (The Africa Report)

10 Reasons Countries Fall Apart (July/August 2012)

Economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, authors of Why Nation Fails, bring an interesting perspective to the question of “failed states” by focusing on domestic institutions and the role of political and economic elites. By giving concrete examples of what they call "extractive" economic institutions, they shed light on the following disincentives to growth: the endemic lack of property rights in North Korea, forced labor and coercion in Uzbekistan, the former professional caste system in apartheid South Africa, the elite’s monopolistic control of the economy in Mubarak’s Egypt or its rejection of new technologies in 19thCentury Russia and Austria, the absence of effective centralized state and system of laws in Somalia, the government’s weak control over the territory in Colombia or its inability to provide public services in Peru, the political exploitation of rural populations in Bolivia, and the intense extraction of natural resources in Sierra Leone. While these are undoubtedly central to understand why some states fall apart, the two economists only present part of the picture, as they tend to neglect that these countries are not isolated but included in complex geopolitical dynamics.  (Foreign Policy)

Lebanon Heading for Failed State Status? (July 30,2012)

The Syrian conflict has exploded into neighboring Lebanon. Infiltration and cross-border raids carried out by Syrian personnel have caused widespread chaos within the country. The Lebanese government is reluctant to send military troops to the Syrian border as a means of self-defense and citizens are losing faith in their government. Lebanon’s gradual loss of control over its geographical territory, the weakening of institutions of law and authority as well as the Syrian spillover has the world wondering if Lebanon is heading for failed state status. (IPS)    

Somalia: Rescuing the Process of Transition (May 11, 2012)

Somali citizens and scholars demand openness and transparency in Somalia’s UN-led constitution-making process. In response to dissenters, UN officials released a letter threatening to punish them with sanctions. The new draft-constitution is led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Political Office (UNPOS), and includes a “road map” leading into a post-transitional Somali government. The author of this Al Jazeera article warns that if the new draft-constitution is forced onto the Somali people, it may be considered illegitimate in their eyes, and may recycle the status quo. (Al Jazeera)

The Continuing Saga of UN Impunity (March 7, 2012)

Several scientific studies allege that UN peacekeepers brought Cholera to Haiti, a disease that has affected over 5,000 Haitians. Two organizations filed complaints to the legal department at UN headquarters. But the bigger the complaint, the more likely it is to “get lost” in the UN Secretariat. Haiti’s government refuses to back the claims of its citizens against the UN because Haiti depends on the UN for donations. Ironically, the world’s leading institution to promote human rights and international law avoids accountability for its own violations. (al Jazeera)

“The Super Bowl of Disasters”: Profiting from Crisis in Post-Earthquake Haiti (February 16, 2012)

Corporate investors are treating post-earthquake Haiti like a Monopoly game, played with US taxpayer dollars. The International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), whose members are primarily PMSCs, hosted a “Haiti Summit” in Florida for corporations to discuss post-earthquake contracting opportunities. Contractors include some of the same companies that profited from war in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as CH2M Hill and KBR Global Service. While the US government funds much of these investments (thanks to corporate lobbyists), there is little transparency to where the money goes once it enters corporate pockets.  Haitians must suffer the long-term outcomes of what unaccountable foreign corporations build, destroy, or steal in their neighborhoods. (The WIP)

International Law and the Problem of Failed States (January 27, 2012)

The collapse of order in a nation-state can spread to its neighbors, and those neighbors may feel compelled to intervene. Such intervention disrespects state sovereignty and goes against international law. The UN created the responsibility to protect (R2P), which allows for intervention in situations where a “failed” state cannot prevent its own population from suffering mass atrocities. But there is no internationally agreed upon definition of what a “failed state” is, which makes it possible for powerful states to adapt R2P to their own interests. This ISN document calls for a clearer legal definition for what constitutes a “failed” state, and for when intervention is lawful. (ISN)


Time for a New Deal for “Fragile States” (November 29, 2011)

At the fourth OECD high-level forum on aid effectiveness, the g7+—a group comprised of 19 countries that struggle with poverty, instability, and the threat of violent conflict—will call for a new deal for “fragile states.” Few of these countries are expected to meet a single Millennium Development Goal.  Because the fate of fragile states is closely linked with effective, accountable national institutions, the g7+ seek a development approach geared toward addressing political and security capacities. This article outlines four key steps to help countries establish their own capable, legitimate institutions in order to withdraw international peacekeepers and avoid chronic reliance on foreign aid. (Guardian)

Malawi Risks Becoming “Fragile State” (November 17, 2011)

Impoverished Malawi is wrought with political unrest stemming from rising prices, fuel shortages, and unemployment. Government mismanagement and rampant corruption continue to diminish economic opportunities. Recent legislation represents an assault on civil rights and centralizes control of state resources to finance the President’s patronage networks. Organized political parties are failing to respond to the needs of the people, creating a vacuum. In sum, Malawi is beginning to show all of the signs of a fragile state. (Guardian)

World Bank Urges New Focus on Global Development in Fragile States (April 11, 2011)

The World Bank has demanded that a new focus should be placed on the stabilization of fragile and failed states. Warning that criminal and political violence are chronically damaging weak states, the World Bank Report 2011 argues that the gradual rebuilding of legitimate state institutions is vital to state health. Quoting the cases of Ethiopia, Mozambique and Rwanda, this article highlights the difficult path to rebuilding secure states and providing security, justice and poverty reduction. (Guardian)

Ivory Coast: 100 More Bodies Found as Ethnic Tensions Rise (April 8, 2011)

The civil war in the Ivory Coast has been marred by ethnic conflict. This article highlights how the bloody clashes have developed an ethnically motivated undertone and how this affects UN and foreign intervention. (Guardian)

Failed States: Where Life is Cheap and Talk is Loose (March 17, 2011)

The Failed States Index uses definite criteria to determine the degree of a state's failure. However is it truly possible to diagnose a state as "failed," or does this categorization raise more problems than it solves? This article articulates the inherent difficulties in attaching the term "failed state" to countries such as North Korea, which functions as a regime, but is nonetheless an oppressive dictatorship, amongst other examples. Overall it argues that governments should be wary of rendering states as "failed" without considering the semantic issues of this classification. (The Economist)

Italy Struggles with Tunisia Influx (February 14, 2011)

The aftermath of the Tunisian revolution is causing an immigration crisis on the Italian island of Lampedusa, as thousands of Tunisian migrants have arrived claiming refugee status. Without any prospects of employment either in Italy or back in Tunisia, there is little hope for the migrants who are likely to be returned to their home country. This article shows how the repercussions arising from a collapsed state, such as poverty and unemployment, have a dramatic effect on neighbouring countries. (Al Jazeera)

Environmental and Demographic Forces Threaten State Failure (February 9, 2011)

Minority groups' demands for national self-determination and the formation of new nations often monopolize the discourse on nations and states. Yet when existing nations degenerate, or fail altogether, the future of these areas becomes a topic of global importance. Examining the Failed States Index, this article highlights the role of food security and rapid population growth in the disintegration of government and the high likelihood of conflict that results. (Terraviva Europe)

Transnational Networks and State-Building in the Balkans (January 17, 2011)

NATO members have congratulated themselves on the "successful" creation of six new states in the Balkans.  Yet this article argues the Balkans is not the success story claimed, as the region's states are inherently weak and do not work for the public good.  The authors attribute this to the perpetuation of wartime transnational networks - including organized crime - which have significant influence over, or overlap with, the public sector.  These networks advance their own agendas and disenfranchise the rest of the population. (Open Democracy)


What is State Failure? (July 21, 2010)

Pakistan, as of late subsumed into "Af-Pak" for the purposes of US policy, currently ranks tenth on the Failed State Index issued each year by the Foreign Policy magazine. The authors of this article call into question the utility of this index, saying that it renders any positive democratizing forces in Pakistan invisible and instead promotes a monolithic narrative about the character of the state. Socioeconomic inequality is a highly played up indicator on this index; the New York Times also recently ran a piece calling attention to tax evasion and resulting income inequalities in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the United States, obviously missing from the list of failed states, has the highest (and increasing) level income inequality among all developed countries today. (Dissent Magazine)

Somalia, the Perfect Failed State (May 18, 2010)

Almost 20 years of civil war has lead to Somalia being called the "perfect failed state." Without a functioning government for almost two decades, rival Islamic militias battle for control of the capital and Somali pirates attack Western ships. Doctors estimate that 1,000 people die each month in the fight for Mogadishu. Most are civilians who get caught up in the fighting among the ruins, or are hit by mortar shells. (Spiegel)


Angola "Failed" yet "Successful" (April 2009)

Different sources attribute widely varying levels of "failure" to the same states. This report on Angola questions the measurement of failed states in league tables. It also highlights wider important analytical issues concerning the question of failed states, challenging the common assumption of the "resource curse" that oil revenues inevitably set in motion bad politics and instability. (Fride)

Life in a Failed State (July 21, 2009)

Recently, Foreign Policy presented a list of the world's most fragile and dysfunctional states. In looking at 12 indicators, this "failed states index" provides a valuable overview of the present situation. Although each state is unique, the index lays the basis for discussion about why states fail and what should be done about them. (Foreign Policy)


"Belgium Is the World's Most Successful Failed State" (July 16, 2008)

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterne offered his resignation to King Albert II, arguing that Belgium's federal model "has reached its limits." Many question the future unity of the country because of deep divisions between Dutch speaking Flanders and French speaking Wallonia. German newspapers offer different explanations of the crisis – a conflict of identity, a clash over resources, or politicians with primary loyalty to their region and not to their country. Despite the crisis that elsewhere would seem fatal, Belgians "muddle through." Regional governments determine most policies and the EU takes care of finance policy, making Belgium an interesting "successful failed state." (Der Spiegel)

Explaining African State ‘Failure': Does the State Make the Nation or the Nation Make the State? (June 23, 2008)

Analysts generally present two broad explanations for failed states in Africa. Primordialists argue that African countries cannot build nations because it is impossible to change or model ethnic identities to fit a broader national identity. On the other hand, constructivists contend that people can create a nation, but some African leaders politicize identities and mobilize ethnic groups against each other. Both explanations, however, overlook the influence of international organizations and NGOs. (e-International Relations)

Weak States Got Weaker in 2007 (June 23, 2008)

According to the 2007 Failed States Index – composed by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace – most weak states are weaker than they were in 2006. The Index measures countries along social, economic, and political indicators, and it aims to raise awareness of possible crisis situations. The Index rates Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Chad, and Iraq, as the weakest states, while Norway ranks as the most stable country. This Inter Press Service article warns that the food and oil crises will increase instability in the fragile states.

The Myth of "Failed State" in Africa: A Question on Atomistic Social Ontology? (April 29, 2008)

Who is to blame for the plight of Africa's failed states? Author Caglan Dolek argues that richer nations created the concept of the "failed state" to avoid taking responsibility for political instability in Africa. This failed state "myth" de-contextualizes African countries from their historical and social circumstances. In reality, colonization, post-colonial dependency, and the imposition of neo-liberal structural adjustment programs contributed to Africa's struggles. And, blaming Africa for Africa's problems, allows richer countries to justify their own interventions, thus perpetuating the cycle of Africa's difficulties. (Journal of Turkish Weekly)

How a Tiny West African Country Became the World's First Narco State (March 9, 2008)

Guinea-Bissau, the world's 5th poorest country according to the UN's development index, has become the first African "narco-state." Ravaged by war in the 90s, Guinea-Bissau failed as a state and consequently became an ideal scene for drug traffickers. The rule of law barely exists, there are no prisons and the government remains corrupt. Colombian drugbarons take advantage of the country's weakness, moving their usual drug trafficking channels from Latin America to the West African coast. (Guardian)

Iraq: An Example of a Collapsed State (February 21, 2008)

In this article, the author argues that the "misdirected policies" of the US have turned Iraq into a collapsed state. He emphasizes that a "collapsed" state differs from a "failed" state in that its coercive powers are decentralized into the hands of different ethnic and religious groups which triggers power struggles and civil war. In addition, a collapsed state is an easy target for occupation by an "imperialist state." (Zaman)

Building a Failed State? (February 14, 2008)

International donors are providing money to UN agencies and NGOs in Afghanistan rather than giving financial aid to the public sector. This article argues that by promoting "small government," donors are hindering the reconstruction of the country. At the same time donors force the country to rely on market mechanisms to access food by refusing grain subsidies, a move that could trigger starvation among the poor. The author adds that several rebuilding African countries also suffer from this "donor dogmatism" and are consequently unable to provide stability to their peoples. (Guardian)

Index of State Weakness in the Developing World (February 2008)

The Brookings Institution's Index of State Weakness ranks 141 developing countries on the basis of four critical state abilities: economic growth, political institutions, security and social welfare. According to their score, the countries are divided into groups from "failed states," "critically weak states," "weak states" to "states to watch." The report illustrates several trends such as extreme insecurity in failed states and the link between extreme poverty and weak states.



The Dismantling of Yugoslavia (October 2007)

This Monthly Review article tells the story of a dismantled Yugoslavia, where not only internal problems, but also external political pressure, especially from the US, tore the country apart. According to the article, the US - acting through NATO - legitimized the military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo by calling them "humanitarian interventions." At the time, the Security Council did not approve the interventions, but it later provided the US with an ex post facto legitimacy. The authors argue that Western media and politicians have simplified the history of the Balkan civil wars, portraying the wars as a battle between good and evil, while neglecting the role and interests of the US.

The Failure and Collapse of the African State: On the Example of Nigeria (September 2007)

J.E. Akuda, associate researcher at FRIDE, discusses how African states can avoid failure and collapse. European nation-building took centuries, but African countries gained independence only a few decades ago and will need more time to "mature." More importantly, they will have to increase their internal revenues and reduce their reliance on external aid to create economic development. According to the author, this includes mainly raising taxes to create dependence of the government on the population instead of reliance on foreign donors.

Age Structure and the Failed States Index (July 2007)

Population Action International finds that countries with younger age structures score "high" on the annual failed states index of 2007. Although countries with a youthful population generally have great potential for development, they often lack social services, which make them vulnerable to conflict. PAI encourages policymakers to "invest in the well-being of young people."

Iraq Rises Up Failed States Index (June 19, 2007)

The US Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace ranks Iraq as second in the failed states index of 2007. Only Sudan is less stable, with "bleeding borders" creating a spill-over to neighbouring countries. In total, eight of the ten most unstable states are located in Africa. Countries such as Liberia, Russia and China obtained a better place on the list thanks to their growing economies. (BBC)

Failure Is Not an Option (June 10, 2007)

If rich countries keep neglecting their development aid obligations to the world's failed states, they not only contribute to "unspeakable human suffering," they also risk increasing future conflicts. The article argues that in Burundi, conflict and corruption have prevented the government from carrying out its duties for many years, but with the democratic elections in 2005, the country could finally "emerge from fragility." The authors maintain, however, that Burundi must be able to count on the financial support of donor governments, pointing out that a recent aid conference raised only half the amount needed. (Guardian)

The Latin American State: "Failed" or Evolving? (May 2007)

In this essay, Laura Tedesco, Associate Fellow at FRIDE, criticizes the notion of "failed states" because it all too often refers to countries that the US considers a threat to its national security. The author argues that state formation is a complex historical process. For example, Latin American countries have been evolving from authoritarianism to democracy since the 1990's. Although a few privileged social groups hold most of the power in Latin America, this does not mean state failure.

Failed State or Failed Debate? Multiple Somali Political Orders Within and Beyond the Nation-State (January 2007)

The recurrent debate around "failed states" fails to provide a suitable set of theoretical and empirical tools for a better understanding of African statehood and assesses African countries as incapable of maintaining political order. The multiple forms of political orders that have emerged in Somalia since 1991 challenge the idea that the absence of a central government dooms a country to chaos and anarchy. The authors also argue that political theorists rely on a western democratic state model as the blueprint for an ideal nation-state instead of using existing political orders within a country as a pattern for state-building. (Politorbis)



Sudan Tops "Failed States Index" (May 2, 2006)

Due to the violent and destabilizing crisis in Darfur, Sudan was ranked the most failed state, according to the 2006 "Failed States Index." Based on 12 criteria such as economic inequality and decline, human flight and displacement, and fragmented political power, the index ranks 146 nations according to their viability as states. Countries facing civil war and insecurity, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, and Iraq joined Sudan at the top of the list, while Norway, Sweden, and Finland ranked as the least failed states. (BBC)

Fragile Countries and United Nations Reform (February 23, 2006)

Many UN Reform proposals deal specifically with the topic of fragile states, including the Peacebuilding Commission, global democracy fund and responsibility to protect (R2P). R2P however is a sensitive subject that raises "thorny issues" of sovereignty, proportionality and the extent of military action. Commentators raise concerns that reform of UN bodies leads to a system that could support an "empire-like" approach. Moreover UN failure can lead to further instability. (Bangkok Post)

Iraq's Election Aftermath Reveals a Failed State (January 5, 2006)

According to Power and Interest News Report, the fragmentation of power, an ongoing insurgency, high levels of unemployment and a lack of basic services are all the markings of a failed state. Based on early results from the December 15 parliamentary elections, Iraq lacks a coherent political class and a functioning civil government may not emerge. Rather than marking the transition to democracy, Iraq's elections "were the opening shot of an intensified conflict" that has revealed a failed Iraqi state.



The Failure of States (September 9, 2005)

Most accounts of state failure tend to focus on the absence of power and the erosion of sovereignty as the primary indicators of a "failed state." However, as this article from Mother Jones demonstrates, state failure is sometimes the product of authoritarian rule and the concentration of power within a centralized government.

Interim Government Starts Relocation (June 13, 2005)

Facing pressure from Nairobi and Western diplomats, Somalia's Transitional Federal Government has begun relocating to Somalia from Kenya, where it has been based since its formation in 2004. The interim government has announced plans to move to Somalia on many prior occasions, but a regional analyst believes that "they seem serious this time around." Whether the government succeeds depends largely on its ability to secure Mogadishu and convince its many warlords to disarm. Somalia has lacked a central government since 1991. (Integrated Regional Information Networks)

The Challenge of Piecing Together a "Failed State" (March 12, 2005)

According to Congres Panafricain (COPAN), a Congolese pressure group, "Congo is a failed state - its internal structures are very weak." Chair of COPAN Yves Kamangu believes that decentralization can solve Congo's poor governance: "once [the Congolese people] have organized themselves, they should exercise self-rule before, voluntarily, coming together to form the greater Congo." Such a solution, however, raises concerns of secession - an inflammatory subject following the attempted breakaway of south-western Katanga province in 1960. (Inter Press Service)

Somalia: Don't Cross the Mogadishu Line (February 9, 2005)

The International Crisis Group (ICG) warns that the decision of African regional organizations to send troops to Somalia "risks destabilizing Somalia's fragile transitional institutions and jeopardizing the peace process." The Somali transitional government is deeply divided over any foreign military deployment, and several Somali leaders and groups threaten to oppose any such intervention by force.

The Perilous Chaos of Forgotten Somalia (January 31, 2005)

Somalia risks becoming "a patchwork of mini-states, some of which increasingly resemble areas of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan or insurgent-patrolled Iraq." To prevent further disintegration, the country needs a functioning government. But this will not happen without focused support from the US and Europe. Neither appear interested. (Daily Star)


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