failed states

 This essay seeks to address the ‘Failed State’ condition that blights many of the world’s poorest states it examines some of the possible causes of state failure, the problems that arise out of them and their potential solutions. The controversial and descriptive term has been used to categorise a portion of the world’s most politically troubled states which are deemed to have failed to meet the most essential conditions of statehood. The issue of how to address the problems of state failure is a contentious and timely concern for the international system. More so at a time where mass flows of migration, the threat of international terrorism and conflict originating in fragile states spill over into the politics of some of the world richest nations.

The desire for global norms of stability and peace become increasingly hard to achieve as many of the world’s troubled states dither precariously between fragility and failure, weakness and collapse (Rotberg, 2003, pg1) These states are seen to vary in their degree of failure by their proximity to complete collapse. They are considered lawless, economically deprived and unstable. Their governments lose legitimacy and their citizens suffer. As their borders become less secure so does the possibility and will to contain these problems. These problems put neighboring countries at risk and even as a result the international order. This propels the issue of addressing the problems of failed states high on the agenda of most international organisations. In the post 9/11 the CIA describe failed states as ‘posing the biggest threat to US security’. In associating 9/11 with the instability in Afghanistan and to some extent Iraq; the US cemented a notion of the weak, failed state as posing a threat to the stability of some of the most powerful states.

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 This paper explores attempts that have been made to define the term before assessing some of the efforts to measure the condition of failure. In doing so the paper seek to draw on both literature, data and real examples of state failure to find answers to the enduring question of how best to address the problem of failed states. For the purpose of this paper we will be utilising the definition of the Fund for Peace who publish a yearly Fragile States Index to analyse and assess states in accordance with 12 indicators of vulnerability to failure.

   What are ‘failed’ states?   Before any effort can be made to understand how or why states fail, it is crucial to understand what the ‘state’ is and what its role is. In doing so we can then set a standard by which we can measure a state’s as having succeeded or failed. Max Weber defined the state as a ‘human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ ((Max et al 2004, p33); he further acknowledged territory as being a characteristic of the state.

Therefore, according to Weber; a state’s success is measured by these competencies. To some extent, this definition is useful as most of the world’s fragile states[1] are mired by conflict, insecurity and a lack of authority. However it has its limitations as most of the countries which apportion the largest amount of government spending into defense do not necessarily rank the highest in terms of their stability and economic success[2].

That is; they are not considered stronger states in relation to their spending. Some argue that definition, whilst useful does leave out some of the modern expectations of states , including but not limited to delivering what have been described as crucial  ‘political goods’ (Rotberg,2003,pg4)[3] or core functions. These goods include expectations, that citizens hold that inform the political culture which informs ‘the social contract between ruler and ruled that is the core of regime/government and citizenry actions’. What, then, is the true measure of state failure, sovereignty and its ‘monopoly of violence’ or its functions and capacity to provide political goods? Much of the studies into what makes a strong state in the modern era makes the case that both are essential. Whilst monopoly of violence is a valuable characteristic of statehood; it is not the only function it has. Other functions are also necessary.

Inclusive in these functions are the provision of key services such as healthcare, education, employment and participation in political processes. For example Finland is ranked the most stable state in the world followed by Norway, Switzerland and Denmark which all have low levels of government spending apportioned to defense in comparison to other developed countries but with greater expenditure allotted to ‘political goods’ and institutions such as key departments including education, health and infrastructure as well as towards their GDP and debt (OECD, 2016).Therefore it cannot be assumed that a state is more of state because of its ability to legitimately monopolise its use of violence which can be measured to some extent through its investment in the mechanism which facilitate security such as an army and police force. Rather a state is so by its ability to function holistically to provide various and important ‘political goods’ to its citizens, including security.

A state that is incapable of this can be said to have failed to function as a state. In recent years this condition has come to be termed as ‘state failure’.  An understanding which takes a comprehensive approach to defining state failure was developed by the think tank Fund for Peace who compile an annual measure of state failure in their Failed States Index. Whilst there is no single agreed upon definition of state failure; we can utilize their comprehensive definition; ‘A state that is failing has several attributes. One of the most common is the loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

Other attributes of state failure include the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, an inability to provide reasonable public services, and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.’ The term has been used to refer generally to the condition that is attributed to a state that becomes incapable of performing its essential security and development functions [4] leaving it with little effective control over its own territory. This leads to a condition where the state in question is unable to ‘reproduce the conditions for its own existence’.Often referred to as ‘crisis states’, ‘quasi states’ and ‘places of limited statehood’, attempts to pin down the idea of state failure have fixated political analysts and policy makers alike. Typologies of StatesRobert Rotberg; who remains one of the most cited authors on the phenomena of state failure, has formulated a new taxonomy on the categories of statehood. He identified four categories of statehood as; strong, weak, failing and collapsed. The taxonomy elaborated further on the historically simplified classification of states as either weak or strong. Strong StatesStrong states, he explained, are so because of their capacity to protect their territories, deliver a wide range of high quality of political goods to its subjects and encourage economic competition.

As a result their economies perform well; endowing them with the means to deliver services. Moreover, they perform well on key indicators such as GDP per capita, Transparency International’s corruption Perceptions Index and the UNDP Human Development Index.Weak States In contrast weak states can include a wide variety of states which may be mired by a variety of constraints including but not limited to physical, geographical and economic. As well as political tensions, authoritarianism and ‘extractive institutions’[5]; the prevalence of ethnic, religious and other tensions create fragile atmospheres susceptible to violence and disputes. Their capacity to deliver political goods are limited and continue to diminish as infrastructure and health care deteriorate; they grapple with economic decline and instability. Key indicators such as GDP and Human Development Index rankings as high levels of corruption misappropriate the little resources that are available.

In the weak state Rotberg concludes ‘citizens are harassed and despots rule’ (2004, pg2).A small category of weak states can be considered as strong ones. Authoritarian regimes which face little opposition and harness absolute power; but who also provide little by way of political goods. A key example is North Korea, which is far from a strong state but yet cannot be described as failing as it is relatively stable in comparison to all the countries deemed fail. Yet, a small number benefit economically, exploiting the instability and the rest of the population to fall further into poverty. Its citizens cannot rely on the state for any form of security or justice.

Failed States Failed states exist where a state faces even more precariousness and instability; offering minimal crucial political goods. They suffer from even less stability than weak states, they are tense and mired by civil strive and conflict. The government grapples to maintain legitimacy but are challenged by a variety of non-state actors. Insurgencies, paramilitary, rebel groups and at times terrorist organisatons posit themselves against the existing government in an attempt to attain power. Much of the prevalent violence is directed at government forces but at times civilian casualties are used as indirect statement to the leadership in the case of suicide attacks and bombings. Often these conflicts are extremely complex, and fought along ethno-religious, tribal lines. State authority weakens and criminal elements exist with impunity. Infrastructure deteriorates and corruption flourishes.

Large segments of the population may seek save havens in neighboring countries or further afield. The government desperately attempt to contain dissention and all out conflict. Faced with pressure form regional neighbours and strong states they may accept interventionCollapsed StatesThough less common, much of a collapsed states problems are extreme forms of those prevalent in failed states. The collapsed state becomes visibly ungoverned and ungovernable by the leadership, with no visible presence or authority. There exists a ‘palpable power vacuum’ (Rotberg, 2009). Its citizens depend on warlords and other forms of illegitimate leadership which offer protection at a cost. In the collapsed state political goods are only obtained through ‘private and ad hoc means’ as ‘sub state actors take over’ (Rotberg, 2004, pg4).

In these rare cases of state collapse, a state can only be rehabilitated back to being failed; and possibly then onto weak; if a significant degree of security can be restored and institutions revived to bring legitimacy back to the recovering state. This is usually provided by an external power, such as Sierra Leone with British intervention and more notably the US with Afghanistan. The US military intervention lead to 14 years of extensive investment to rebuild the country, though still troubled it was able to reverse the process taking it from a state of collapse back to failed going from a state of High Alert to Alert What causes failed states?  Is culture the reason some states fail and others do not? Or can the issue of state failure be put down to one of pure economics? Or is there a historical context which needs to be acknowledged?Theorists and researchers struggle to narrow down an overarching cause of state failure. A variety of theories are presented from those that suggest the issue lies in forcing nations which are which are simply territories containing communities to behave as ‘states’; to more measurable suggestions such as a given states economy in correlation to its diversity.  In 2007, political think tank, The Fund for Peace began attempting to measure the reality of state failure in an attempt to predict and prevent where it could occur next. The Fund publish a yearly Fragile States Index to analyse and assess states in accordance with 12 indicators to measure vulnerability to failure.

Relying of a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods; the index is produced as a list with the states measured against a series of indicators against a score of 10.The scores are then added up and those with the highest scores across the indicators are considered to be the most fragile.  [4]Max Weber’s definition of the ‘state’: a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that ‘territory’ is one of the characteristics of the state. Max, W.

, David, O. and Strong, T. (2004). The Vocation Lectures. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., p.33.[5] Defined as : Institutions which are structured to extract resources from the many by the few and that fail to protect property rights or provide incentives for economic activity  (Vries,2015,pg13)


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