We at Africa Is a Country think Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace should either radically rethink the Failed States Index, which they publish in collaboration each year, or abandon it altogether. We just can't take it seriously: It's a failed index.
This year, pro forma, almost the entire African continent shows up on the Failed States map in the guiltiest shade of red. The accusation is that with a handful of exceptions, African states are failing in 2012. But what does this tell us? What does it actually mean? Frankly, we have no idea. The index is so flawed in its conception, so incoherent in its structuring criteria, and so misleading in its presentation that from the perspective of those who live or work in those places condemned as failures, it's difficult to receive the ranking as anything more than a predictable annual canard issued from Washington, D.C. against non-Western -- and particularly African -- nations.
The problem is that there are any number of reasons why the Fund for Peace might decide that a state is failing. The Washington-based think tank has a methodology of sorts, but Foreign Policy insists on making the list accessible primarily through a series of "Postcards from Hell." Flipping through the slide show, it's impossible to shrug off the suspicion that the whole affair is a sloppy cocktail of cultural bigotries and liberal-democratic commonplaces -- a faux-empirical sham that packs quite a nasty racialized aftertaste. How do we know if a state is failing or not? Old chestnuts like the rule of law are certainly considered, but also in play are things like economic growth, economic "success," poverty, inequality, corruption, nonstate violence, state violence, human rights abuses, body counts, terrorism, health care, "fragility," political dissent, social divisions, and levels of authoritarianism. And yes, we'll be indexing all of those at once, and more.
The golden principle by which this muddle is to be marshaled oh-so-objectively into a grand spectrum of state failure coefficients is apparently the idea of "stability." But is it really? Well, if you're an Arab Spring country, then yes, it's the "instability" of revolution or popular revolt that has put you in the red this year. Sorry about that. But if you're North Korea (the paradigmatic failed state in the U.S. imagination -- hence why Zimbabwe is often branded "Africa's North Korea"), it's because you're far too stable. If stability is the key to all this, and yet there's an imperative for places like North Korea still to be ranked as failures, then we're in trouble. The cart has long ago overtaken the horse. It would be very difficult indeed to conceive of a more stable form of rule than having power descend smoothly down three generations of the same family over six decades and more (perhaps the Bushes will pull off something like this one day). And, of course, it helps if the names of overweening rulers are spelled correctly: Cameroonian readers of the slide show were startled to discover that they had been led for many years by someone by the name of "Paul Abiye," of whom they had never heard (the spelling has since been corrected).
Clearly, the value of stability to any society is uncertain and subjective. Foreign Policy explains to its readers that Malawi (No. 36 on this year's index) is to be considered a failed state on account of the 19 people killed by police during popular protests against Bingu wa Mutharika's government a year ago. Yet such dissent is evidence of the strength of Malawian civil society and the determination of ordinary Malawians not to get screwed by their government. Malawi is undoubtedly better off for these protests, not worse. What makes the country's listing as a failed state look even sillier is that Malawi recently endured a blissfully peaceful transition of power following Mutharika's sudden death, with constitutional guidelines scrupulously adhered to despite the vested interests of many of the country's ruling class.
One of our readers, the cartographer Jacques Enaudeau, called the index "a developmentalist ode to no-matter-what political stability and linear history." He's right, but as we've seen this stability fetish only applies to those states perceived as non-totalitarian. So how exactly can a democratic country like, say, Nigeria ever hope to satisfy the whimsical judgment of Foreign Policy magazine? The Occupy Nigeria movement that demonstrated against corruption and the removal of the country's fuel subsidy in January was a peaceful mass movement that achieved major gains for working people. It was a thoroughly global protest, with Nigerians in the diaspora taking to the streets of Brussels, London, New York, and Washington, D.C., to demand better governance in Nigeria. Yet these protests are listed on the country's "postcard" alongside terrorist attacks by Boko Haram as equal evidence of Nigeria's "hellishness." For some reason, the postcard neglects to mention the extraordinary spectacle of protesters in Nigerian cities standing guard outside each other's places of worship -- Muslims outside churches, Christians at the doors of mosques -- so that each group could pray without fear of further bombings.