Failed States

Actually, It's Mountains

Sometimes the toughest obstacles are the naturally occurring ones.

Geography, it has been famously said, is the most fundamental cause behind political fortune because it is the most unchanging. The truculent personalities of Prussia and czarist Russia, to say nothing of their successor states, had much to do with their being land powers with few natural borders to protect them, whereas Britain, the United States, and Venice could each in its own way champion liberty because they have had the luxury to be protected from meddlesome neighbors by expanses of surrounding water. Precisely because geography is so overpowering and unchanging a factor in a state's destiny, there is a danger of taking it too far. So rather than believing that geography inevitably dooms states to failure, think of it as yet another complexifying factor for the weakest of countries. Their difficult geographies should spur us to action, rather than lead us to despair.

And difficult they are. Consider Africa, where nearly half of the top 60 countries in the Failed States Index are located, in most cases south of -- or at least at the southern extremity of -- the Sahara. Although Africa is the world's second-largest continent, with an area three times that of Europe, its coastline south of the Sahara is about a fifth as long and lacks many good natural harbors. Few of tropical Africa's rivers are navigable from the ocean, dropping as they do from interior tableland to coastal plains by a series of falls and rapids. The Sahara hindered human contact with the north for too many centuries, so that Africa was little exposed to the great Mediterranean civilizations. All this has combined to afflict Africa with the burden of geographic isolation.

Unlike the most remote African countries, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia have, thanks to their proximity to the Indian Ocean, had access to global trade from the Middle East and Asia since late antiquity and the Middle Ages. But these countries have their own problems related to geography. Kenya is burdened by tribalism in its interior, Ethiopia by its mountainous and drought-prone landscape, and Somalia by the fact that it constitutes sprawling desert populated by clans that have little or nothing in common. Somalia also has the longest coastline on mainland Africa, close to major sea lines of communication. And given that piracy is the maritime ripple effect of anarchy on land, it is no surprise that Somali piracy has become an international problem.

Yemen, on the opposite shore of the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, is equally burdened. Its 22 million people are running out of groundwater, and thus its prognosis is not good. Like Ethiopia, Yemen is riven by mountains, meaning its central government has difficulty accessing vast reaches of this deeply fragmented country. The regime must keep peace through a fragile balance of tribal relations because no one tribe or sect has been able to establish an identity for the Yemeni state. The defining aspect of Yemen is the diffusion of power rather than the concentration of it. For example, since ancient times, the Wadi Hadhramaut, a 100-mile-long oasis in southeastern Yemen surrounded by great tracts of desert and stony plateau, has through caravan routes and Arabian ports maintained closer relations with India and Indonesia than with other parts of Yemen itself.

Iraq, 1,400 miles to the north, combines the Kurdish mountains with the Mesopotamian plain and desert, putting ethnic groups together that either were previously on their own or part of a multinational empire. Keeping them united in an artificially conceived state required levels of force unseen even in the Arab world, as evinced by the rules of Saddam Hussein and the previous military dictators going back to 1958.

Head east to Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose geographic woes are such that neither country's borders have much logic. In the west, Afghanistan is an extension of the Iranian plateau. In its northeast, the Hindu Kush mountains separate the Pashtun tribal belt straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan from the demographic homelands of the Tajiks and Uzbeks; Afghanistan's most natural borders are thus situated in the middle of the country. Pakistan is an artificial puzzle piece that, unlike India, has no logical frontiers, so different, territorially based ethnic groups exist uneasily together.

To the southeast, Burma's geographical predicament is equally precarious. The country, though rugged and underdeveloped, is as large as France and is formed around the lush cradle of the Irrawaddy River valley, surrounded by highlands on three sides. In general, ethnic Burmans live in the valley, and the minority ethnic groups such as the Karen, Karenni, Shan, and Kachin live in the sprawling hill country. It was to control the irregular armies of some of these tribal groups, which make up a third of the population, that Burma's military took power in the first place in 1962. So, behind Burma's benighted, authoritarian regime lie structural problems of ethnicity and geography.

And it's not just rivers and mountains that complicate the development of fragile states. For African countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Nigeria, and Sudan, as well as Iraq and Burma, there is the geographic factor of oil, natural gas, and strategic minerals and metals to contend with. Political elites often fight over the spoils, only adding to instability.

None of these places is doomed. Human agency can triumph over determinism. But we should not be naive either: Geography is one more strike against them.


Failed States

Who Else Is to Blame?

From security short falls to lack of government accountibility, Mo Ibrahim, Paul Wolfowitz, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Bruce Babbitt, and Raymond C. Offenheiser explain those contributing factors that cripple societies and inevitably keep failed states failing.

By Mo Ibrahim

There's corruption at the top, and then there's corruption at the bottom. At the commanding heights of failed states, massive theft and fraud perpetrated consistently by elites diverts funding from social projects and scares off investors. This grand corruption, when combined with the discovery of natural resources, often leads to conflict as expectations rise and are dashed when a select few capture most of the benefits. Everyday petty corruption -- baksheesh to the border guards or cash to the ambulance driver -- ironically allows daily life to go on in countries where salaries are low and irregular. But over time, this too takes its toll on a society's moral fiber, undermining governance. The unaccountable, opaque nature of all corruption is irreconcilable with the principles of transparency and accountability -- the exact principles required for the creation of peaceful, stable, and prosperous societies.

Mo Ibrahim, founder of telecommunications firm Celtel, is chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which grants an annual prize for excellent leadership in Africa and compiles an annual index of African governance. Finding no suitable candidates last year, the foundation did not award the prize.


By Paul Wolfowitz

Bribe-takers are bad enough for a country teetering on the brink of failure, but for every bribe-taker, there has to be a bribe-giver, and those givers are all too often from a rich country. These firms are enabling corruption, crippling or even killing off vulnerable states. In Africa, the Chinese are the newest offenders. But though the United States has come far from its Cold War days, when it funneled billions of dollars into corrupt Zaire, U.S. companies are no angels either. In 2008, Transparency International listed two U.S. oil companies (Exxon Mobil and Devon Energy) -- along with two Chinese and one each from India, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, and Russia -- as the least forth-coming about the revenues countries collect from them. Perhaps these companies have nothing to hide. But the best way to show they aren't paying bribes is to open their activities to public scrutiny. And we must all hold them accountable.

Paul Wolfowitz is former president of the World Bank and is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

David McNew/Getty Images

By Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin

One of the major factors that creates failed and corrupt governments around the world is us -- Americans -- and our insatiable consumption of oil. As the largest petroleum consumers in the world, we are the driving force of a global energy market in which the suppliers are often corrupt regimes maintaining power in part through the revenues they extract from our consumption. If we want to fix the problem of failed states, we must start by reforming our own approach to energy: adopting smart-growth policies, driving less, and creating alternative energy sources. Until then, we are just fueling the very corruption we condemn.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland chairs the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission).

David McNew/Getty Images

By Bruce Babbitt

If you really want to send a country into a tailspin, the key resource to tap isn't oil, gold, or diamonds, but something a bit more prosaic -- trees. The rampant, corrupt extraction of timber has been consistently, repeatedly, and devastatingly linked to state failure, from the Khmer Rouge's clear-cutting in 1990s Cambodia to Charles Taylor's deforestation-for-guns in Liberia in the early 2000s. Today in the Congo Basin, rebel groups are financing their ruinous activities by selling rainforest trees via shady European logging companies to eager consumers in the West, who prize the exotic woods. In Burma, Chinese groups are slicing away at virgin teak forests, the revenues from which are supporting the junta there. With so much corruption and secrecy involved, estimating how much of the world's timber industry is illicit is a guessing game, but the World Bank estimates annual losses due to lost revenue and resources at $10 billion -- eight times the amount of aid aimed at sustainable forest management. And beyond the environmental catastrophe of this highly unsustainable industry, timber smuggling requires a network of bribery, corruption, and graft that hollows a state from within.

Bruce Babbitt is former chairman of the board of directors of the World Wildlife Fund and was U.S. interior secretary from 1993 to 2001.


By Raymond C. Offenheiser

It may seem obvious: A government that cannot provide security for its citizens will soon find itself running a weak or failed state. But recognizing the problem doesn't make combating it much easier. From Chad to Colombia, Somalia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the absence of trustworthy security forces has inspired illicit armed groups to protect themselves and settle disputes through whatever means possible. The presence of such militias practically guarantees that a state will have difficulty expressing its authority and advancing development. Strengthening the police and military forces, however, is only half the battle; the easy flow of weapons exacerbates the proliferation of well-armed groups. Unscrupulous arms dealers are experts at exploiting the underregulated global arms trade, to deadly result. At least 95 percent of Africa's most commonly used conflict weapons, for example, come from outside the continent. So, until governments take real steps to curb arms flows, few troubled states are likely to emerge from weakness or failure.

Raymond C. Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America.


NEXT: Robert D. Kaplan: Actually, It's Mountains