Failed State Index

The Fragility of the State Fragility Index

Fragile States Index 2010 MapI recently came across a “State Fragility Index Map” from 2010 that made me doubt the usefulness of the index. As a predictive measurement, its failures are obvious. Note that Syria was depicted at the time as a relatively stable state, while Libya was portrayed as quite secure. In the 2010 Index, Syria ranked 48th from the bottom (out of 177 countries), placing it in a much more stable position than Iran (32nd). Libya, on the other hand, was put in the 111th position from the bottom, indicating that it was less fragile than Malaysia (110th), Mexico (96th), India (79th), or China (62nd).

The Fragile States Index, which was until recently called the Failed States Index, is produced by the Fund for Peace and the periodical Foreign Policy. According to the Wikipedia, the indicators used in the index “are not designed to forecast when states may experience violence or collapse. Instead, they are meant to measure a state’s vulnerability to collapse or conflict.” But do they actually measure such vulnerability accurately? If they did, would not the 2010 index have indicated rather more vulnerability on the parts of Syria and Libya? According to the Fund for Peace, the index is supposed to “spur conversations, encourage debate, and most of all help guide strategies for sustainable security.” In that spirit, I would argue that makers of the index might want to rethink their methodology in order to more accurately gauge the fragility of states.

Fragile States Index 2014 MapMy most serious doubts about the index do not actually stem from its failure to note the fragility of Syria in 2010. I certainly did not suspect in 2010 that Syria would soon implode, nor did many others. (As Yogi Berra supposedly said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”) My problem is rather with the failure of the index to capture current conditions. The 2014 iteration places only five countries in the “very high alert category”: South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic, DR Congo, and Sudan. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in contrast, only rank in the less-fragile “high alert category,” alongside Pakistan, Haiti, and several other countries. But can one seriously argue that Sudan is currently more fragile, as a state, than Syria or Iraq? Libya is even more problematic, as it is currently categorized as more stable than any of these countries, ranked at virtually the same level as Iran and as less fragile than Uganda or Rwanda.

In actuality, Libya is not merely an extraordinarily fragile state, but rather it has virtually ceased to be a state at all in any real sense of the term. A recent Los Angeles Times article describes Libya as “teetering on the brink of disintegration,” and as “a security vacuum that was quickly filled by armed men belonging to a dizzying array of militant factions.” But that may be something of an understatement. As a Guardian story from September 9th explains:

A Greek car ferry has been hired as last-minute accommodation for Libya’s embattled parliament, which has fled the country’s civil war to the small eastern town of Tobruk. The 17,000-ton Elyros liner has been deployed, complete with its Greek crew, as a floating hotel for a legislature clinging to power in the Libyan city that is last stop before the Egyptian border. …

Islamists and their allies have captured the capital, Tripoli, and most of Benghazi, the country’s second city. Derna, the next town up the coast, has been declared an Islamic caliphate and the front line begins at Tobruk airport, where pickup trucks mounting anti-aircraft guns face out into the shimmering empty desert.

The small port is home to what remains of Libya’s sovereign power.

It is possible, of course, that Libya could remerge as a coherent state, whether under the power of its nominal, internationally recognized government or under that of one of its many militias. I very much doubt, however, that this will happen any time soon, and I would not count on it ever happening. Somalia, after all has been essentially a non-state for a quarter century, yet our basic political maps and other sources of official geographical information continue to regard it as at sovereign state in good standing in the “international community.” In reality, it is little more than a figment of the geopolitical imagination.

How does the Fragile State Index miss the fact that Libya is so fragile that it has essentially ceased to exist? It does so by relying on proxy measurements. In particular, it takes into account: demographic pressures; massive movements of refugees; legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance; chronic and sustained human flight; uneven economic development along group lines; sharp and/or severe economic decline; criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state: progressive deterioration of public services; widespread violation of human rights; security apparatus as “state within a state”; rise of factionalized elites; and intervention of other states or external factors. Such indicators, to the extent that they are accurate, tell us significant things about social, political, and economic conditions, but as a whole they evidently do not accurately reflect the fragility of the states that they purport to assess.

One problem with the index is the fact that it downplays the more subtle ideational aspects of state fragility and stability. Of signal importance here is the issue of legitimacy. Although “delegitimization of the state” is incorporated into the index, it is placed in the same category as “criminalization of the state,” which is a very distinct matter. Yet if most people (and especially, most elites) in a country deny the legitimacy of its government regardless of any “criminal” aspects, fragility is enhanced. If large numbers of them deny the very legitimacy of the country itself, fragility will necessarily be pronounced. Many experts argue that such a loss of support contributed powerfully to the downfall of the Soviet Union. By the same token, it is of crucial importance that large numbers of local people—ranging from Kurdish nationalists to Islamist supporters of a renewed caliphate—do not accept the legitimacy of the states of Iraq and Syria.

I like to use such composite indexes in my teaching, as they tend to generate interesting and provocative world maps. But whenever I examine any particular index in detail, it tends to fall apart. It is evidently not so easy to shoehorn the vast complexity of the world into neat statistical categories.

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The Failure of the Failed State Index


The use of the term “failed state” has surged over the past fifteen years, as can be seen in the Google N-Gram posted above showing the frequency of the term’s occurrence in scanned books. A January 8, 2011 Google news search for “failed state” yielded—in the first twelve articles alone—stories on Sudan, Mexico, Egypt, Nepal, Kenya, Pakistan, Belgium, and Nigeria. The first pick, from the Huffington Post, claims that South Sudan is a “failed sate in waiting,” a charge later echoed in The Telegraph. Remarkable: here we find a state that does not yet exist, yet has already been declared dead. Other assertions of state failure seem equally rash; while Mexico and Egypt have problems aplenty, neither is close to systematic state breakdown. But a determined enough critic can apparently find evidence of state failure almost anywhere. A recent AlterNet posting, leaning on the work of Noam Chomsky, declares that the United States is a “semi-failed state,” and goes on to assert that Victorian Britain “meets many of the formal criteria of failed statehood.” If Victorian Britain, which dominated almost half the world, was a “failed state,” we might as well toss the term out.

Needless to say, more precise definitions have been proposed. The Fund for Peace, which along with Foreign Policy magazine has established the influential Failed States Index, has put forward the following criteria of state failure:

  • loss of physical control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein,
  • erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions,
  • an inability to provide reasonable public services, and
  • an inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.

The checklist seems reasonable at first glance, but is difficult to use in practice. The last criterion is seemingly impossible to reach; the state of Somalia controls virtually nothing, yet remains a full-fledged member of the international community.* Other problems further undercut the proposed criteria. An “inability to provide reasonable public services” reflects a broader failure of government rather than that of the state per se, as regional authorities can in some instances deliver. “Erosion of legitimate authority” is a trickier concept, as one first has to assess where legitimacy lies. At the popular level, according to the Fund for Peace, delegitimation occurs through the loss of “confidence in state institutions and processes, [as demonstrated by] widely boycotted or contested elections, mass public demonstrations, sustained civil disobedience…” Yet North Korea, which has experienced none of these things, is deemed an almost completely “deligitimated” state. For all we know, most North Koreans view their government as legitimate; propaganda, after all, often proves effective. North Korea apparently earns its non-legitimate status in the index on the basis of its “massive and endemic corruption” and “the lack of transparency, accountability and political representation,” features that do indeed pertain. But both endemic corruption and lack of representation mark some of the world’s most solid states, including China. The Fund for Peace also views the “violation of human rights” as an indicator of state failure, but massive repression, unfortunately, can solidify the standing of a precarious state, as was recently witnessed in Iran.

The Failed State Index uses twelve indicators, which in turn are divided into a variety of sub-indicators. Some of the metrics are classified as social (demographic pressures, human flight), others as economic (GDP decline, uneven development), and still others political (violation of human rights, intervention by other states, and so forth). Taken together, these various markers can indeed highlight a general level of overall disfunctionality in any given country. But failure in this sense is not the same as state failure. State-run structures of control can remain strong in the face of precipitous economic decline or of human rights outrages. By viewing the “state” as a kind of political-social-economic totality, the Failed State Index loses sight of the state itself, which strictly speaking refers to the institutions of central governmental power, especially in their coercive function. It thus classifies moribund states, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgium, as much less threatened with collapse than cohesive and repressive states prevailing over dismal economies, such as North Korea and Eritrea. While North Korea might justifiably be called a failed country, there is little evidence that its state apparatus it tottering. Regarding it as such seems like a case of perversely wishful thinking.

If the Failed State Index is a promising but problematic analytical tool, the map that accompanies it on the Foreign Policy website is something else altogether. At first glance, it appears the cartographers have mapped sovereign states from red to green, while using white as an unmarked category to include both dependent territories, such as Greenland and Puerto Rico, and key disputed lands, such Western Sahara and the Hala’ib Triangle (claimed by Sudan, administered by Egypt). Closer inspection, however, reveals a stunning lack of consistency. The regions depicted in white turn out to have nothing in common. Some are dependencies and a few are disputed territories, but others range from autonomous areas, to insular portions of sovereign states, to fully independent countries. Meanwhile, the world’s hottest territorial dispute, Kashmir, is essentially invisible: the area controlled by India is mapped as part of India, the area controlled by Pakistan is mapped as part of Pakistan, and the area controlled by China (Aksai Chin) is mapped as if it were a lake (or perhaps desiccated lake, given that it is portrayed exactly like the Aral Sea!).

A few of the oddities on the map deserve special mention. The cartographer’s most glaring gaffe is the excision of the island of Newfoundland from Canada. France too is shorn of most of its islands; the map implicitly refutes French sovereignty over all of its overseas departments (Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Réunion), even though they are as much parts of France as Hawaii and Alaska are parts of the United States. In the Caribbean, several independent island countries (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Dominica, and more) are denied sovereignty, mapped instead as white splotches. Further south, Chile has been divested of its half of Tierra del Fuego. Some autonomous island groups, such as Portugal’s Azores and Finland’s Åland Archipelago, are mapped in white, but not Denmark’s autonomous Faroe Islands. Taiwan, a de facto sovereign state not recognized by most other independent countries, is shown in white, but Kosovo, which fits the same category, is colored. A too-large West Bank is mapped in white, but in the accompanying tables it is aggregated with Israel. Elsewhere the mapmaker takes islands belonging to one country and assigns them to another. The coloration scheme shows Socotra as part of Somalia rather than Yemen, Rhodes as part of Turkey rather than Greece, and the Florida Keys as part of the Bahamas rather than the United States. Similar errors abound. Have the editors of Foreign Policy and the creators of the Failed State Index never checked their own map?

*On May 19, 2010, Somalia asserted its own unchallenged diplomatic standing by recognizing Kosovo, and thereby giving that partially recognized state a tad more international legitimacy.

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