Failed states
Thursday, 10 September 2009 05:54

From the earliest times human beings have banded together into larger associations, starting with household and kinship groups and extending through to the modern state.  A major reason that individuals do this is to obtain security and other benefits from being part of a bigger group.  In doing so, we surrender certain "freedoms" from our “state of nature”, like the freedom to do things that might disturb social order and peace.  And we subject ourselves to civil law and to political authority, but we gain civil rights and protections in return.


Most regrettably, tens of thousands of years since the rise of humankind, too many states are still unable to provide security and other basic public goods for their citizens.  "Failed state" is the term used to describe a state perceived as having failed at some of the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government.  Foreign Policy magazine publishes annually an index of failed states, put together with the Fund for Peace, which we will review in this article.


According to the Fund for Peace, the following criteria characterize a failed state: (i) loss of physical control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein; (ii) erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions; (iii) an inability to provide reasonable public services; and (iv) an inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.  A state could be said to "succeed" if it maintains, in the words of Max Weber, a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders.  When this is broken (e.g., through the dominant presence of warlords, paramilitary groups, or terrorism), the very existence of the state becomes dubious, and the state becomes a failed state.





Failed states are to some extent an inevitable product of the history of the Westphalian system of states which entails a collection of sovereign political entities ruled by rulers or governments that, in theory and largely in practice, exercised full control over the territories formally recognized as belonging to those states and over the populations living there.  When the Westphalian system was created, most of the developing world was not organized in the form of states.  Then during much of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, the developing world was colonized by Western countries.


Following the Second World War, the developing world was progressively decolonized.  Although many developing countries were not institutionally capable of exercising genuine control over their territories, they received substantial support from either the Western or Eastern bloc.  With the end of the Cold War, and the withdrawal of much superpower intervention, a great number of states were revealed to have limited capacities to govern their countries.  These countries are variously called failed, failing or fragile states.


The Failed States Index published by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy is based on twelve indicators of state vulnerability:


1.  Social indicators: Demographic pressures; Massive movement of refugees and internally displaced peoples; Legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance; Chronic and sustained human flight.


2.  Economic indicators: Uneven economic development along group lines; Sharp and/or severe economic decline.


3.  Political indicators: Criminalization and/or delegitimisation of the state; Progressive deterioration of public services; Widespread violation of human rights; Security apparatus as ‘state within a state’; Rise of factionalised elites; Intervention of other states or external factors.


According to the recently published "Failed States Index 2009", the worst 20 states are shown: Somalia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Guinea, Pakistan, Côte d'Ivoire, Haiti, Burma/Myanmar, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, North Korea, Yemen, Bangladesh, Timor-Leste.


What are this year’s failed states news as reported by Foreign Policy?


While Yemen may not yet be front-page news, a perfect storm of state failure is now brewing there: disappearing oil and water reserves; a mob of migrants, some allegedly with al Qaeda ties, flooding in from Somalia, the failed state next door; and a weak government increasingly unable to keep things running.  Yemen could be the next Afghanistan.


The widely presumed linkage between failing states and terrorism is less clear than many have come to assume since the Sept. 11, 2001.  A recent report by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center revealed that Osama bin Laden’s outfit had an awful experience trying to operate out of Somalia (the number one failed state), for all the same reasons that international peacekeepers found Somalia unmanageable in the 1990s: terrible infrastructure, excessive violence and criminality, and few basic services, among other factors. In short, Somalia was too failed even for al Qaeda.


While Zimbabwe and Sudan have been top of the index for years, 2008 found several newcomers moving closer to failure -- "failing" rather than failed states -- which could be headed for disaster in the coming months.


1. Cameroon.  Usually quiet Cameroon had a turbulent 2008. Rising unemployment became unbearable when food prices skyrocketed in the first half of the year. When the president, Paul Biya, changed the constitution to prolong his half century of rule, protests and riots rocked the commercial capital of Douala.  Declining prices for timber and other commodities have resulted in $630 million in corporate losses.  Refugees are flooding over the northern border with Chad.


2. Guinea.  Guinea's unhappy rise in the Failed States Index follows a late 2008 coup d'état, the country's first since its long-ruling president, Lansana Conté, took power by the same method in 1984. Conté died in December, and a group of military leaders seized the reins. Human Rights Watch accuses Guinean soldiers of rampant thievery, with raids on citizens' offices and homes disturbingly common. Drug trafficking has picked up and holds an ever tighter grip on the country's economy, and prices for the country's few legal exports are falling.


3. Yemen.  Refugees and extremists were perhaps Yemen's most noteworthy imports in 2008. More than 50,000 migrants from Somalia are thought to have made the trip by boat across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen last year. Although many left to work in the Persian Gulf, thousands more languish in the country with few rights or protections. Saudi al Qaeda members, viewing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh as too weak to prevent them from organizing and training, have also poured in. Yemen's economy, meanwhile, is in dire straits. The government depends on fast-shrinking oil reserves for 80 percent of its budget. Population growth is pushing unemployment through the roof. Many wonder how much longer the country can merely muddle through.


4. Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Ethiopia and Eritrea, bitter enemies whose borders are still militarized from conflict a decade ago, both jumped dramatically in their index scores this year. In Ethiopia, government clampdowns on opposition and NGO activity raised political tension, and an influx of Somali refugees exacerbated the low-level conflict in the Ogaden region. The drought-prone country was also hit particularly hard by skyrocketing food prices in the first half of 2008. Over the border, the Eritrean government is "truly in control to a frightening degree," says Human Rights Watch's Christopher Albin-Lackey. Because of young migrants fleeing the military draft—and the dismal internal conditions that have left 15 to 20 percent of children malnourished—Eritrea is now one of the largest exporters of refugees in the world.


5. Guinea-Bissau.  With convenient access to Europe's vast illegal drug market and state institutions too weak to get in the way, Guinea-Bissau is fast becoming Africa's first narcostate. The street value of cocaine seized there in 2007 equaled a whopping 25 percent of the small country's GDP, and state security forces are believed to be complicit in the trade. Unfortunately for the country's ranking, 2009 hardly looks more stable: In March, the president and the Army chief of staff were assassinated.


Climate change – an emerging challenge for failed states


Pakistan's troubles today pale compared with what it might face 25 years from now with the prospective disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers.  Ninety percent of Pakistan's agricultural irrigation depends on rivers that originate in Kashmir.


Traditionally, Kashmir's waters have been naturally regulated by the glaciers in the Himalayas. But if global warming continues at its current rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates, the glaciers could be mostly gone from the mountains by 2035. Water that once flowed for the planting will flush away in winter floods.


Research by the global NGO ActionAid has found that the effects are already starting to be felt within Kashmir. In the valley, snow rarely falls and almost never sticks. The summertime levels of streams, rivers, springs, and ponds have dropped.  Water is already undermining Pakistan's stability. In recent years, recurring shortages have led to grain shortfalls.


The Kashmiri water conflict is just one of many climate-driven geopolitical crises on the horizon.  In 2007, the London-based NGO International Alert compiled a list of countries with a high risk of armed conflict due to climate change. They cited no fewer than 46 countries, or one in every four, including some of the world's most gravely unstable countries, such as Somalia, Nigeria, Iran, Colombia, Bolivia, Israel, Indonesia, Bosnia, Algeria, and Peru. Already, climate change might be behind the deep drought that contributed to the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan and hundreds of thousands of deaths.


Rising global temperatures are putting the whole world under stress, and the first countries to succumb will be those, such as Sudan, that are least able to adapt. Compare the Netherlands and Bangladesh: Both are vulnerable to rises in sea levels, with large parts of their territory near or under the level of the waves. But the wealthy Dutch are building state-of-the-art flood-control systems and experimenting with floating houses. All the impoverished Bangladeshis can do is prepare to head for higher ground.


Indeed, with a population half that of the United States crammed into an area a little smaller than Louisiana, Bangladesh might be among the most imperiled countries on Earth. In a normal decade, the country experiences one major flood. In the last 11 years, its rivers have leapt their banks three times, most recently in 2007.  Bangladesh's troubles are likely to ripple across the region, where immigration flows have been historically accompanied by rising tensions.


What to do?


A durable exit from poverty and insecurity for the world’s most fragile states will need to be driven by their own leadership and people.  International actors can affect outcomes in fragile states in both positive and negative ways.  According to the OECD, the long term vision for international engagement in fragile states is to help national reformers to build effective, legitimate, and resilient state institutions, capable of engaging productively with their people to promote sustained development.


The focus must be on state-building as the central objective.  States are fragile when state structures lack political will and/or capacity to provide the basic functions needed for poverty reduction, development and to safeguard the security and human rights of their populations.  International engagement will need to be concerted, sustained, and focused on building the relationship between state and society, through engagement in two main areas.


.  Firstly, supporting the legitimacy and accountability of states by addressing issues of democratic governance, human rights, civil society engagement and peacebuilding; and

.  Secondly, strengthening the capability of states to fulfill their core functions is essential in order to reduce poverty.  Priority functions include: ensuring security and justice; mobilizing revenue; establishing an enabling environment for basic service delivery, strong economic performance and employment generation.  Support to these areas will in turn strengthen citizens’ confidence, trust and engagement with state institutions.  Civil society has a key role both in demanding good governance and in service delivery.


Aid donors have responded to the challenges of fragile and conflict-affected states with more aid.  According to the OECD, in 2007, $37.2 billion of official development assistance (ODA) went to fragile and conflict-affected states, or 38.4 per cent of total ODA.  However, half the ODA for 48 fragile and conflict-affected states benefited just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Sudan, and around a fifth of that ODA was in the form of debt relief.  Most regrettably, almost all of the 48 states receive peanuts in the form of ODA!


Pockets of state failure can be found most everywhere!


Recent years have offered several good illustrations of what might be termed “pockets of failure” within otherwise strong and stable states.


.  In the United States, Hurricane Katrina exposed gaping holes in the country’s disaster preparedness. Viewers around the world watched in astonishment as the world’s superpower left thousands of its citizens stranded for days.

.  Not long after, violent riots in France paralyzed swaths of the country and exposed deep fissures between Muslim immigrants and the rest of French society.


Partially as a result of these events, the United States and France have a worse score than other rich, industrialized countries (Finland, Sweden, and Norway emerged as the most stable).


Symptoms of state failure can appear in any country in any region of the world.





The Failed States Index 2009, Foreign Policy


Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States and Situations, OECD


Resource Flows to Fragile and Conflict-Affected States

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