Global Policy Forum

What is State Failure?

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 of income inequality among all developed countries today.

By Saskia Sassen and Razi Ahmed

Dissent Magazine
July 21, 2010



Foreign Policy magazine issues a Failed States Index once a year in conjunction with the Fund for Peace. A number of indicators are used to determine state failure: demographic pressures, the presence of refugees and internally displaced people, group grievances, human flight, uneven development, delegitimization of the state, human rights violations, an unaccountable security apparatus, failing public services, economic decline, elite factionalizing, and external intervention. The most recent Index, released in July, ranked Pakistan tenth among the sixty states categorized as failing to some degree.

Designating Pakistan a failed state renders invisible the multiple and diverse democratizing forces that have evolved there over the last decade. These forces are shaping law, welfare, diplomacy, business, and people's empowerment. They need to be recognized by the wider world. They should not be written out of history by indexes that pivot solely on the character of the state.

A number of signs point to successes in Pakistan.

Consider the 2008 nationwide elections that were held amid militants' threats, after eight years of military rule and the terrible assassination of prime minister candidate Benazir Bhutto. These were credible elections, despite militants controlling much of northwest Pakistan.

Admittedly, deadly explosions at Lahore's Ahmadiyya mosques in May and the Sufi shrine Data Durbar in July are reminders to the world of the militants' ability to stage "comebacks." But these comebacks arrived in the wake of politically backed military operations in the Buner and Swat districts in 2009, in which the military decisively defeated Taliban forces. And of an estimated 2.7 million persons displaced from their homes in recent years, resettlement work by the Pakistani state has thus far enabled 1.6 million to return home.

Pakistan is a country with enormous socioeconomic inequality, but income inequality is not a particularly significant indicator of a failed state. Many admired states-the United States, China, Brazil-have had long histories of sharp inequality. Furthermore, Pakistan's parliament has now implemented its largest ever, state-led welfare program-the Benazir Income Support Program. This law strengthens the claims of the welfare agency on the national budget, quite significant in a country obsessed with unaccounted for defense and national security projects.

Diplomatically, the Pakistani state has reentered into peace talks with India. Though these remain symbolic at this stage, the two states have lowered tensions which boiled high after the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, permitting modest movements of people and goods between them. Notwithstanding their mutual suspicions and exchange of terrorism charges, this dialogue could be a stepping stone for establishing ties based on common interests in intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism, helping to reclaim territories ceded to militants in northwest Pakistan and northeast India. The leaders of failed states rarely talk to leaders of other states. That's not the case with Pakistan.

To a great degree, Pakistan's self-grown civil society operates with little interference from the state. Entities like the Edhi Foundation, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the Aurat Foundation, the Citizen's Foundation, and hundreds more grassroots organizations mitigate state failure. They actively work against Pakistan becoming a failed state by providing free ambulance services, monitoring human rights, enabling women's participation in the public domain, subsidizing mainstream education for the poor, and so on.

Kashf, a microfinance endeavor recently praised by President Obama, has 300,000 clients with $100 million in loans; it is a relatively new private business showing the potential of entrepreneurship in untapped segments of the country's population. Economic reforms have enabled multiple start-ups in niche sectors. The success of these start-ups is reflected in a recent World Bank survey that ranked Pakistan eighty-fifth out of 183 countries in terms of ease of doing business.

State and society in Pakistan responded to the humanitarian crisis following the 2005 earthquake with generosity and a sense of duty to the nation, debunking the recycled charges of factionalism and fragmentation, which are typical problems in failed states. The state may have been remiss in its pre-quake preparedness, but the nation came together as a whole, with the support of international organizations, to compensate for that state failure.

Democracy in the country has brought provincial autonomy for the people of Pakistan's Northern Areas, now renamed Gilgit-Baltistan. This has created a de facto fifth province, complete with its own legislature. The first governor of the new province is a female social worker. Other forces are at work too, including the call by Ismaili spiritual leader Agha Khan to give political rights to the Northern Areas, home to a large Ismaili population. These developments promote greater democratization in Pakistan.

THE INTENTION here is not to hide or downplay the problems facing Pakistan. It is rather to ask what we gain by rendering the forces of democracy outlined above invisible on the larger stage of world opinion by burying them under the overpowering concept of a failed state. Calling Pakistan a failed state has the effect of writing these forces out of the script.

To further underline the importance of these democratizing forces in Pakistan, we can look to instances of undemocratic forces in a country that has never been on the list of failed states and that considers itself a global champion of democracy: the United States.

  • The United States widely uses private security companies, such as Blackwater, to take over tasks customarily done by the military. The U.S. Congress has no oversight of these companies nor of the amount of taxes used by the executive branch to pay for them; all of these facts and decisions are secret. These private contractors benefit from considerable legal impunity even in cases of severe abuse, as witnessed in Iraq.
  • Corporations from all sectors of the economy and their lobbyists have become the largest donors to politicians in the United States. The major banks spent $56 million lobbying in the 2007-08 fiscal year; the mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac spent $180 million over a period of eight years.
  • The United States has offered longstanding and widely recognized support to dictators and autocrats-from Pinochet to the Shah, from Zia to Mubarak-often in a bid to secure geopolitical advantage and the interests of U.S. multinational corporations, particularly oil companies and mega-contractors such as Halliburton.
  • The United States ranks lowest among the highly developed countries in such key indicators as workplace safety, infant mortality, and exposure to hazardous materials. The recent BP oil spill underscores the failure of regulatory agencies and the absence of needed regulations.
  • The level of socioeconomic inequality in the United States is the highest among the developed countries, and it has continued to increase over the last decade. Sources as diverse as University of Chicago's Richard Posner and the Economic Policy Institute estimate that the number of Americans below the poverty line has increased by 15 percent between 2000 and 2006, at a time of economic expansion. The economic crisis that exploded in 2008 has further contributed to poverty and inequality. The ratio of average income between chief executive officers and workers provides a telling example. According to Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Japan this ratio is 11 to 1, in Germany 12 to 1, and in the United States 319 to 1. Overall, the after-tax income of the top 1 percent of earners grew by 281 percent from 1979 to 2007, and by 95 percent for the top fifth, compared to 25 percent for the middle fifth and 16 percent for the bottom fifth


In brief, even global champions of democracy with robust protections of freedom of expression have some rather serious flaws that compromise their democracies.

All we seek to do here is to call for cross-border recognition of the diversity of elements that constitute a country beyond certain features of the state, and the importance of including such elements in the overall rankings of those countries.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.