A different take on just what makes a "failing" state.
The label "failed" remains a powerful way to describe those states that no longer serve their people. That harsh term sharpens the attention of policymakers and helps single out countries that should be of utmost concern. The threat of such state failure also focuses attention on the soon-to-crumble; it is those countries that need the most external help.
Yet for such a classification to be useful, it must be more objective, more precise, and more discriminating than the popular conception of a failed state is today. Rather than lumping countries together qualitatively, the title of failed state should surgically distinguish countries at risk. The term should tell us that the country in question demonstrates certain characteristics, rather than merely evoking an amorphous sense of dysfunction.
Failed states have two defining criteria: They deliver very low quantities and qualities of political goods to their citizens, and they have lost their monopoly on violence. Nation-states on the cusp of failure are either "weak" or "failing"—but not "failed." "Collapsed" ought to be reserved for geographical expressions without governments, such as Somalia.
Since 2004, I have asked citizens from all countries what they demand from their governments; these 57 deliverables are then measured systematically and aggregated into five overarching categories: safety and security; rule of law and transparency; participation and human rights; sustainable economic development; and human development. A government might fail badly, as South Africa does, in one of these categories. If it scores poorly across all five, then we have a palpable case of failure. But not otherwise.
This year's Failed States Index, using a different methodology, produces some puzzling results. Zimbabwe is the second-most failed state, just ahead of Sudan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Yet Zimbabwe has no discernible civil warfare. Its government does prey harshly on any opposition, but the Zimbabwean state has not lost its monopoly control of violence and should therefore not be considered failed. And though there are simmering pockets of conflict in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, these states have failed only if their provision of political goods to the entire population has conclusively fallen to the lowest ranking among regional peers.
Other results are equally confusing. Can Nigeria, with some violence but with the state mostly in control, rate worse than Sri Lanka, with its recent history of internal conflict? Should Colombia, with two or three fizzling internal civil wars, rank 41st while Bolivia does better despite its ongoing secessionist movement?
Finer and more accurate distinctions among states are always preferable, especially with the world's least effective—and most complicated—countries. A more objective system of rankings would better help policymakers analyze the options available and choose the prescriptions that best fit the country in peril.
Robert I. Rotberg is director of the Kennedy School of Government's program on intrastate conflict and conflict resolution, and president of the World Peace Foundation.