Global Policy Forum

Life in a Failed State



July 21, 2009


It is a sobering time for the world's most fragile countries-virulent economic crisis, countless natural disasters, and government collapse. This year, we delve deeper than ever into just what went wrong-and who is to blame.

Yemen may not yet be front-page news, but it's being watched intently these days in capitals worldwide. A perfect storm of state failure is now brewing there: disappearing oil and water reserves; a mob of migrants, some allegedly with al Qaeda ties, flooding in from Somalia, the failed state next door; and a weak government increasingly unable to keep things running. Many worry Yemen is the next Afghanistan: a global problem wrapped in a failed state.

It's not just Yemen. The financial crisis was a near-death experience for insurgency-plagued Pakistan, which remains on IMF life support. Cameroon has been rocked by economic contagion, which sparked riots, violence, and instability. Other countries dependent on the import and export of commodities-from Nigeria to Equatorial Guinea to Bangladesh-had a similarly rough go of it last year, suffering what economist Homi Kharas calls a "whiplash effect" as prices spiked sharply and then plummeted. All indications are that 2009 will bring little to no reprieve.

Instead, the global recession is sparking fears that multiple states could slip all at once into the ranks of the failing. Now more than ever, failed-state triage could become a grim necessity for world leaders from the United Nations and World Bank to U.S. President Barack Obama's White House. All of which puts a fine point on an old and uncomfortable dilemma: Whom do you help when so many need it?

This is a sober question for sober times, and it is the backdrop for the fifth annual Failed States Index-a collaboration between The Fund for Peace, an independent research organization, and Foreign Policy. Using 12 indicators of state cohesion and performance, compiled through a close examination of more than 30,000 publicly available sources, we ranked 177 states in order from most to least at risk of failure. The 60 most vulnerable states are listed in the rankings.

Figuring out which faltering states to help depends in large part on what they need. After all, as Tolstoy might have put it, every failing state is failing in its own way. Georgia, for example, jumped 23 places in this year's index due to a substantial spike in that elusive indicator, "Invaded by Russia." Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are failing because their governments are chronically weak to nonexistent; Zimbabwe and Burma are failing because their governments are strong enough to choke the life out of their societies. Iraq is failing, but its trajectory may be toward greater success, while Haiti is failing as well, and it is hard to imagine success around the corner.

It is also a harsh fact that a greater risk of failure is not always synonymous with greater consequences of failure. For example, Zimbabwe (No. 2 on the index) is technically failing more than Iraq (6), but the geopolitical implications of state failure in Iraq would be far greater than in Zimbabwe. It's why we worry more about Pakistan (10) than Guinea (9), and North Korea (17) more than the Ivory Coast (11).

Then take the paradoxical case of Iran, which jumped 11 spots in the rankings this year. With an already faulty economy, a vampire state mismanaging it further, and a global recession on top of all that, it is no surprise that Iran is faltering. But the state is not failing-indeed, it is succeeding quite well-in one rather important respect: the pursuit of nuclear weapons. And it is this "success," more than Iran's myriad failings, that keep it above the fold of other worrying news.

Answering the question of which failed states demand attention might well come down to which are deemed to pose the biggest threat to the world at large. But even the widely presumed linkage between failing states and terrorism is less clear than many have come to assume since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sounded the alarm about the consequences of governments not in control of their territory. Take Somalia, once again the No. 1 failed state on this year's index. A recent report by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, drawing on captured al Qaeda documents, revealed that Osama bin Laden's outfit had an awful experience trying to operate out of Somalia, for all the same reasons that international peacekeepers found Somalia unmanageable in the 1990s: terrible infrastructure, excessive violence and criminality, and few basic services, among other factors. In short, Somalia was too failed even for al Qaeda.

Which failed states are global security threats and which are simply tragedies for their own people? This is one question that will matter most this year of living dangerously, and there are others we present in the following pages: Which countries might blow up next? Are there pockets of success within states of failure? And who (or what) is to blame when things go bad-corrupt leaders, dysfunctional societies, bad neighbors, a global recession, unfortunate history, or simply geography itself?

The Failed States Index does not provide all the answers, nor does it claim to be able to. But it is a starting point for a discussion about why states fail and what should be done about them-a discussion, sadly, that we might be having even more frequently this year.

Click here to get to the "Failed States Index"


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