Every failed state, to borrow a formula from Tolstoy, is failed in its own way. For some countries, instability is a chronic condition; for others, a single catastrophe can undo years of hard-earned progress. Teasing apart and quantifying the various factors that have contributed to state failure over the past year is a difficult job, and the Fund for Peace has again met the challenge with its Failed States Index (FSI).
What the index can't do, however, is put into relief the human tragedies behind the statistics. A lack of public services isn't merely a source of national shame -- it's often a cause of unnecessary disease and death. A national government that lacks popular legitimacy isn't just fodder for revolution -- it's an injustice that sometimes expresses itself through cruelty and repression. As an abstraction, ethnic conflict sounds bad, but it only barely suggests the traumas of watching one's family slaughtered without warning.
Here's a glimpse at what it means to actually live in some of the world's most desperate societies.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images