Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Failed States

Posted by Professor Cameron Thies

Why do some rulers use the coercive power of the state to repress their own people? Why do some states experience coups, civil wars and other episodes of violence? Why do some states struggle to provide adequate education, health care, or jobs for their people? Why are some states home to terrorist groups, roving bandits and even pirates?

All of these questions point to the problem of state failure in today’s world.  According to Robert Rotberg (2003: 2) “Nation-states exist to provide a decentralized method of delivering political (public) goods to persons living within designated parameters (borders).”[1]  The mix of public goods that each society expects its state to produce has varied over time, but at a basic minimum we expect that states provide security to their citizens.  This includes protection from external threats (e.g., war, loss of territory, terrorism), domestic threats (e.g., rebel groups, civil war, coups), crime (e.g., police, judicial system), and dispute resolution between citizens (e.g., rule of law, contracts, judicial system, property rights).  Once individuals feel secure, they are then able to engage in economic, cultural and political activities that lead to increases in individual and societal well-being.  The public good of security thus lays the foundation for the provision of higher order goods, such as transportation and communication infrastructure, a functioning economy, a rich associational life, a responsive political system, education, health care, and a healthy natural environment.

Rather than consider state failure to be a problem just for Africa or other developing regions, a focus on public goods provision forces us to confront the fact that all states fail to a certain degree at certain times.  We can think about state failure as a continuum with relatively strong states on one end and relatively weak states on the other.  Strong states perform well in effectively delivering most types of public goods; they tend to have high GDP per capita, good infrastructure, quality of life, and tend to be democratic.  Weak states have an overall tendency to be less effective at producing public goods, with lower GDP per capita, poor infrastructure, poor quality of life, and they tend to have autocratic governments.

At the extreme, a weak state is a failed state when it is “no longer able or willing to perform the fundamental jobs of a nation-state in the modern world” (Rotberg, 2003: 6).  Even worse is the collapsed state, in which there is a complete vacuum of authority.  Somalia is the most well-known example of a collapsed state, which occurred in the aftermath of the fall of President Siad Barre’s regime in 1991.  Americans are familiar with Somalia largely from the horrific images of U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 when U.S. forces engaged self-proclaimed president Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his militia.  This incident was later dramatized in the movie Black Hawk Down.  In the aftermath of the collapse of the central government, Somalia devolved into a territorial patchwork of “warlords” providing security for themselves and those loyal to them across the former state.  Over time, an official Somali government reemerged to control the capital, but other parts of the former Somali state continued to operate independently, such as Somaliland in the north.  Piracy sprang up off the coast of Puntland and terrorized the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, requiring a multinational force to begin naval patrols to protect commercial shipping.  Somalia is thus an extreme example of a failed state, but one that shows what happens when states are no longer capable of providing the basic good of security.

A number of organizations have begun to identify indicators and warning signs of state failure.  Most adopt a similar position to the one outlined in this blog post: states exist on a continuum of strength and failure.  For example, the Fund for Peace produces their annual Failed States Index.  You can check out their latest 2012 ranking of all states here: http://www.fundforpeace.org/global/?q=fsi.  You will note that Somalia anchors the failed end of the spectrum, but it is joined by others that the index identifies as those we should be alerted to, such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Haiti, Yemen and others.  On the sustainable, strong end of the spectrum are the Nordic states, Canada, and Australia.  It may surprise you that the United States is not in that top group of strong states, but is in the next tier with South Korea and the Czech Republic.  Check out the component parts of the index to see why!

The Country Indicators for Foreign Policy at Carleton University in Canada also has a state fragility index.  You can check out their method for ranking failed and failing states here: http://www4.carleton.ca/cifp/app/ffs_ranking.php.  It produces a similar, though not identical ranking of states on a continuum from fragility to strength.  Both approaches to measuring state failure rely on identifying failures in the provision of public goods.  Security is the most basic good, but there are many others that these approaches identify as critical to the success and health of states.  Ideally, these approaches could be refined to one day produce early warning systems, so that events like the Arab Spring would not be a surprise to policy makers.  Unfortunately, our ability to predict the specific time and form of such state failures is not very advanced at this point in time.

If you are interested in learning more about state failure, I regularly teach a course “State Failure in the Developing World” (030:173).  We explore a variety of theoretical frameworks for understanding the causes and consequences of state failures, as well as approaches to rebuilding states that have failed.  We conduct in-depth analyses of a number of states at different points on the continuum of failure, from a variety of regions in the developing world.  This course will be offered again in the Fall Semester of 2013.

[1] Rotberg, Robert I., ed. (2003) State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror.  Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution. 

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