Special Report

2009 Failed States Index - Disorder in the Ranks

Disorder in the Ranks

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.

Special Report

2009 Failed States Index - Blame Game

Blame Game

Why do states fail, and who’s helping out?


Few states fail by chance. Accidents of geography and history play a certain part, but so do corruption and mismanagement. Why, for instance, has Zimbabwe's annual gdp growth plummeted from 14 percent to at least negative 5 percent during Robert Mugabe's nearly three decades of rule? Is it really a coincidence that immunization rates in Equatorial Guinea fell 10 points over the last 30 years as the country became a petrostate? How come the percentage of paved roads in Yemen and North Korea is still in the single digits?

Asked to explain their governments' failings, representatives of many of the world's most fragile states often passed the buck, if they responded at all. After countless faxes, phone calls, meetings, unanswered requests, and stood-up meetings, nearly all the worst-performing states hotly contested their scores ("Bangladesh is the most undervalued stock in town," said the country's ambassador to the United States, M. Humayun Kabir), and many blamed external sources—from the media to neighboring countries—for their troubles.

"Our country is a victim of much biased propaganda and biased pressures from outside," said Fatahelrahman Ali Mohamed, a top official at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington. Representing the views of Sudan's neighbor, Chad, Ambassador to the United States Mahamoud Adam Bechir said, "It is not strange to be placed on this list. Sudan is sinking and it wants to drag us down with it." Haitian Ambassador to the United States Raymond Joseph blamed unfair expectations: "Because we focus so much on the macroeconomic aspect just to meet international standards, not much has been done for the average citizen."

Only Zimbabwe's finance minister, Tendai Biti, acknowledged his country's failure and the challenges ahead. "We're basically coming from a situation of a failed state, where for 15 consistent years we have had negative declines in gdp," he said in a recent speech.

There is, however, something to the idea that foreign meddling contributes to state failure. A fresh influx of weapons, for instance, is one of the surest ways a conflict can reach new levels of violent intensity. As international negotiators flooded Kenya in early 2008, hoping to end post-election violence, 40,000 Kalashnikov rifles were reportedly entering the country via Ukraine in a legal transaction. Last year, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Yemen also purchased weapons from willing suppliers in China, Ukraine, Italy, and Belgium, despite strapped government budgets and pressing humanitarian concerns. China and Russia, which together represent 27 percent of the global conventional weapons market, made 40 percent of the major arms sales to the 60 worst-performing states in the index, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Weapons designed in the West and licensed to manufacturers in countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, and China are a proliferating source of small arms worldwide. The numbers are already staggering, but they might well be an underestimate, experts say, because they include only officially recorded transactions. And weapons dealers are, of course, just some of failed states' many enablers. There's much more blame to go around.

Under the Influence

For some failing states, the big prize is clout in Washington, where many governments hire elite lobbying firms on big-dollar contracts to get their message across. Over the last two years, Nigeria's Bayelsa state has employed the Carmen Group to lobby for U.S. partnership opportunities; Chad was advised by Patton Boggs on how to improve its relations with the U.S. executive branch; both Ivory Coast and Ethiopia paid DLA Piper for legal advice; and Pakistan contacted congressional staffers with the help of Cassidy and Associates. Pakistani Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari lobbied through Locke Lord Strategies for an inter-national investigation into the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto. And spending nearly $10 million, Iraq employed various lobbyists to help navigate the corridors of Capitol Hill, influence media coverage, and arrange favorable long-term strategic relations with the United States.

In Their Own Words

Morgan Tsvangirai
Prime Minister of Zimbabwe

On his Movement for Democratic Change coming into the government: "It is obvious the level of economic degeneration that just hit us in the face when we went into government. There was a sense of euphoria, which was very short-lived because the decision to go in [to government] was [because] we could not be authors of chaos. …If there was chaos in the country, the outcome would be unpredictable; it would engulf us all."

On working with President Robert Mugabe: "There are sensitivities and emotions that need to be navigated and negotiated [in a transitional government]. It’s frustratingly slow, in our assessment, that we have gone this far without at least indicating how the outstanding issues will be resolved … [but] I am prepared to work with President Robert Mugabe—not because he’s right but because of the national interest."

On international help: "My beef with all the international community and diplomats is that, look, those of us who are pushing the democratic reform agenda should be supported so that we can sustain this experiment."

Samir Sumaida’ie
Ambassador of Iraq to the United States

"Iraq is a traumatized country. It has come out of 3½ decades of mass murder, mass graves, use of chemical weapons on the population—total oppression. It has come out of that hell. It’s transitioning to a situation where there is real freedom. If we lose this context and take a snapshot at any moment, the snapshot is going to look very bad, and maybe that is what we have [in the Failed States Index]."

Mahamoud Adam Bechir
Ambassador of Chad to the United States

"We have done everything right, played by the rules, and still we are considered like Sudan. … This is very offensive. We are not like Sudan. The situation in Chad is a product of the conflict in Darfur."

Fatahelrahman Ali Mohamed
Minister at the Embassy of Sudan in Washington

"[These reports of] the government, the military, bombarding civilians ... it is a war there [in Darfur]! [There are] many rebel movements and even many clashes between the government and rebels. So what [can we expect] the result will be if there is a war? Some from the government will be affected, some of the rebels will be affected, and some of the civilians will be affected."