Weak states are most prevalent in Africa, but they also appear in Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. Experts have for years discussed an "arc of instability" -- an expression that came into use in the 1970s to refer to a "Muslim Crescent" extending from Afghanistan to the "Stans" in the southern part of the former Soviet Union. Our study suggests that the concept is too narrow. The geography of weak states reveals a territorial expanse that extends from Moscow to Mexico City, far wider than an "arc" would suggest, and not limited to the Muslim world.
The index does not provide any easy answers for those looking to shore up countries on the brink. Elections are almost universally regarded as helpful in reducing conflict. However, if they are rigged, conducted during active fighting, or attract a low turnout, they can be ineffective or even harmful to stability. Electoral democracy appears to have had only a modest impact on the stability of states such as Iraq, Rwanda, Kenya, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Indonesia. Ukraine ranks as highly vulnerable in large part because of last year's disputed election.
What are the clearest early warning signs of a failing state? Among the 12 indicators we use, two consistently rank near the top. Uneven development is high in almost all the states in the index, suggesting that inequality within states -- and not merely poverty -- increases instability. Criminalization or delegitimization of the state, which occurs when state institutions are regarded as corrupt, illegal, or ineffective, also figured prominently. Facing this condition, people often shift their allegiances to other leaders -- opposition parties, warlords, ethnic nationalists, clergy, or rebel forces. Demographic factors, especially population pressures stemming from refugees, internally displaced populations, and environmental degradation, are also found in most at-risk countries, as are consistent human rights violations. Identifying the signs of state failure is easier than crafting solutions, but pinpointing where state collapse is likely is a necessary first step.
The Rankings: In the table, the columns highlight the 12 political, economic, military, and social indicators of instability. Higher scores (in black) represent more instability; lower scores (in white) suggest less.