Failed States

The Watch List

Predicting state failure isn't as hard as you think.

On March 21, just weeks ahead of a scheduled election, a band of soldiers seized the presidential palace in Bamako, Mali, and toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré. What started as a mutiny over lackluster support for the armed forces in their fight against Tuareg insurgents in the country's desert north wound up puncturing a two-decade run of elected government.

The coup in Mali shocked many observers, including those with deep knowledge of the region. "Mali's [coup] was a complete surprise; nobody predicted it," Alex Vines of London's Chatham House think tank told GlobalPost. On the African Arguments blog, Jolyon Ford of Oxford Analytica wrote, "One can be confident saying that many in the business of risk analytics in Africa would not have predicted the Mali coup." The Failed States Index is not meant to predict coups, but it's worth noting that in 2011 Mali ranked 76th, right in the middle of the global pack.

That the Mali coup surprised so many Africa watchers and professional risk analysts does not mean it was inherently unpredictable. True, the subjective forecasts of even knowledgeable people typically aren't much more accurate than chance, as psychologist Philip Tetlock showed in his tour-de-force 20-year study of expert political judgment. Statistical models, however, can often assess risks fairly accurately, even when the problem is complex and the models are simple.

As it happens, Mali appeared ripe for a coup in forecasts I published at the start of 2012, a couple of months before Capt. Amadou Sanogo and his colleagues seized power in Bamako. According to those forecasts, Mali ranked among the 10 countries most likely to experience a coup attempt this year. Second on that list was Guinea-Bissau, a neighbor of Mali that went on to suffer a successful coup of its own just a few weeks later.

Using statistics to forecast political events isn't as complicated as it sounds. At its core, it's all about recognizing the right patterns. Generally speaking, you start by building a list of similar events in relevant cases in the past; then you assemble data on likely risk factors; next, you use statistical techniques to generate an algorithm that captures useful patterns in those data; and, finally, you apply that algorithm to current data to get a forecast.

My 2012 forecasts pushed Mali toward the top of the list because Mali's structural conditions at the end of 2011 looked a lot like conditions in other countries that have recently suffered coup attempts: in this case, a poor country with a partially democratic government and an ongoing insurgency in a tumultuous region.

In fact, most countries in the top 20 land there because they are poor and have competitive authoritarian or partially democratic political regimes. Unsurprisingly, coups also turn out to be a recurrent problem; the risk is higher in countries that have experienced other coup attempts in the past several years, a factor common to the top eight countries on this list. Active insurgencies also increase the risk of a coup, and this factor affected the 2012 forecast for countries like Ethiopia, Mali, and Sudan. Ditto for civil wars and popular uprisings in regional neighbors and slow economic growth, common themes in several regions, including West and Central Africa.

Of course, the top of the list isn't the only part of it that deserves our attention. Statistical forecasts can also be useful when they surprise us in the other direction, suggesting that some risks aren't as serious as we thought.

One such surprise is Pakistan, which barely cracked the top 40, landing at 38th in the company of Cambodia, Iraq, and Senegal. Pakistan has a deep history of military entanglement in politics, and rumors of an impending coup swept the country again in early 2012. Few observers would claim that Pakistan's civilian government has finally gained decisive control over its security services. Still, my projection is that the risk of a coup attempt in 2012 is substantially lower than Pakistan's checkered history would suggest (which is not to say, as Pakistan's perennially weak showing on the Failed States Index makes clear, that there's nothing else to worry about).

Sometimes, the forecasts can prove useful even when they confirm the conventional wisdom. Twice in the first few months of this year, China, of all places, was the subject of coup rumors. China hasn't seen a coup attempt in decades, and as expected, the 2012 forecasts rank it among the world's lower-risk countries, at 94th out of more than 150. Why? Because China just doesn't bear any real resemblance to the countries that have seen coup attempts in the recent past. Statistical models aren't crystal balls, but they can help us remember to take a deep breath when rumors start flying.


Failed States

Was the Arab Spring Worth It?

The people of the Middle East have paid a steep price to overthrow their dictators.

Click here to read more about why geography is destiny for South Asia's troubled heartland.

Last year's Arab revolutions captured the world's imagination as they toppled dictators from Tunis to Sanaa. But what they haven't yet done is make life measurably better for the people throwing off the tyrant's yoke.

The price of freedom may be incalculable, but it seems equally hard to tally up the very real costs of the so-called Arab Spring. How many have died or been displaced in these conflicts? How have they affected economies and standards of living? Have they made their societies more or less stable? A look at the numbers so far makes for grim accounting: In the four most violent uprisings, in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen -- all four of which slid backward on the Failed States Index for 2012, and likely will again next year -- as many as 50,000 people have died since the revolutions began. Some $20 billion of GDP evaporated last year in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, in addition to more than $35 billion in public finances, according to International Monetary Fund data.

But each country will assess the revolutionary toll in its own way. In Libya, clearly the staggering death tally from the civil war dwarfs all other prices. For average Egyptians, growing political tensions and the cratering economy probably outweigh the violence between protesters and security forces. Yemen was well on its way to failed statehood and economic collapse before the Arab Spring, and virtually all indicators are distinctly, and in some cases alarmingly, negative, while the benefits of the protest movement have yet to manifest themselves in any concrete way. In Syria, there is only cost -- including thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of displacements, and an incipient economic meltdown. The benefits, if any, of the Syrian intifada will only be realized far in the future.

So, was it worth it?

Because most of these dramatic transformations are still playing themselves out, only soothsayers and knaves can give a confident answer. In spite of the ongoing violence and chaos in Libya, there appears to be very little nostalgia for Muammar al-Qaddafi. The same applies to Egypt, where the longing for Hosni Mubarak is still limited to remnants of the former regime. In those countries, where the costs have been very grave, most would say the uprisings were nonetheless worth it -- at least for now. The answer is far more complicated in Yemen, where the country's interlocking crises make it hard to untangle where the chaos began and how it will end.

It is in Syria that the biggest constituency for a "no" is probably to be found. Yet the protest movement, as well as the insurgency that arose to protect it, is not going away. The costs of unseating Bashar al-Assad will be exorbitant in blood and treasure, it is now abundantly clear. But the brutality of the crackdown is inexorably pushing ever larger numbers of Syrians to think that anybody but Assad is a better way to go.


2011 Failed States rank: 45 | 2012: 31

Deaths: According to government figures, at least 846 Egyptians died in the three-week uprising early last year. In subsequent months, at least another 150 have died in violent street clashes.

Economic costs: After growing 5 percent in 2010, Egypt's GDP grew less than 2 percent in 2011.


2011 rank: 111 | 2012: 50

Deaths: There is no independently verified account of the number of people killed in the Libyan civil war, but the new government claims at least 30,000 people died on both sides. Postwar clashes have killed dozens of others.

Refugees: According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 700,000 people, almost half of them expatriate workers, fled during the civil war, and few have returned.

Economic costs: In 2011, Libya lost as much as 60 percent of its GDP as the value of oil exports fell an estimated 40 percent. GDP is projected to grow at a 76 percent clip this year, with oil production returning to pre-war levels.


2011 rank: 13 | 2012: 8

Deaths: Yemen's government recently estimated that 2,000 people were killed in the uprising leading to Ali Abdullah Saleh's resignation. Amnesty International's estimate of 200 people killed during the protests is far smaller.

Economic costs: Before the crisis, the United Nations projected Yemen's economy would grow 3.4 percent in 2011, but instead it has "shrunk substantially," with inflation averaging about 20 percent. And it will get worse: The IMF expects Yemen's GDP to decrease another 0.5 percent in 2012.

Humanitarian crisis: Nearly half a million Yemenis have been displaced from their homes in recent years. Almost 1 million Yemeni children under age 5 face acute malnutrition, with 250,000 at risk of dying. An estimated 55 percent of Yemenis live below the poverty line on less than $2 per day, with 10 million "food insecure" and 5 million of those "severely food insecure." Youth unemployment is estimated to be more than 50 percent.


2011 rank: 48 | 2012: 23

Deaths: The most recent U.N. estimate of civilian deaths in the Syrian uprising, from late March, is more than 9,000. By now that number has likely exceeded 10,000. Opposition groups cite figures closer to 15,000.

Refugees: In May, the U.N. estimated that half a million Syrians had fled their homes during the fighting and that 73,000 had become refugees in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Economic costs: Syria's currency is in free-fall, inflation is soaring, and exports collapsing. The consultancy Geopolicity estimates that the country had lost more than $6 billion in GDP as of October 2011.