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Failed state

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Failed state

A failed state is a state perceived as having failed at some of the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government. Although there is no general consensus on the definition, the Fund for Peace characterizes a failed state as having the following characteristics:

Common characteristics of a failing state include a central government so weak or ineffective that it has little practical control over much of its territory and there is a non-provision of public services. When this happens widespread corruption and criminality, the intervention of non-state actors, the appearance of refugees and the involuntary movement of populations, and sharp economic decline can occur.[1]

The level of government control required to avoid being considered a failed state varies considerably amongst authorities.[2] Furthermore, the declaration that a state has "failed" is generally controversial and, when made authoritatively, may carry significant geopolitical consequences.[2]

Definition and its issues

According to the political theories of Max Weber, a state could be said to "succeed" if it maintains 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. The difficulty of determining whether a government maintains "a monopoly on the legitimate use of force", which includes the problems of the definition of "legitimate", means it is not clear precisely when a state can be said to have "failed." The problem of legitimacy can be solved by understanding what Weber intended by it. Weber clearly explains that only the state has the means of production necessary for physical violence (politics as vocation). This means that the state does not require legitimacy for achieving monopoly on having the means of violence (de facto), but will need one if it needs to use it (de jure).

Typically, the term means that the state has been rendered ineffective and is not able to enforce its laws uniformly or provide basic goods and services to its citizens because of (variously) high crime rates, extreme political corruption, an impenetrable and ineffective bureaucracy, judicial ineffectiveness, military interference in politics, and cultural situations in which traditional leaders wield more power than the state over a certain area. Other factors of perception may be involved. A derived concept of "failed cities" has also been launched, based on the notion that while a state may function in general, polities at the substate level may collapse in terms of infrastructure, economy and social policy. Certain areas or cities may even fall outside state control, becoming a de facto ungoverned part of the state.[3]

There is no real consensus on the definition of a “failed-state”. Various government agencies and think tanks often use their own indicators of state failure, leading to an ambiguous understanding of the term.[4] Some scholars focus on the capacity and effectiveness of the government to determine if a state is failed or not.[5] Other indices such as the Fund for Peace’s Failed State Index underline the democratic character of state institutions in order to determine its level of failure.[6] Finally other scholars focus their argument on the legitimacy of the state,[7] on the nature of the state,[8] on the growth of criminal violence in a state,[9] on the economic extractive institutions [10] or on the states’ capacity to control its territory.[11] Robert H. Bates refers to state failure as the “implosion of the state”, where the state transforms “into an instrument of predation” and the state effectively loses its monopoly on the means of force.[12]

As part of the debate about the state failure definition, Charles T. Call (2010) attempts to abandon the concept of state failure altogether; as, he argues, it promotes an unclear understanding of what state failure means.[13] Indeed, one of the main contributions to the theorization of the “failed-state” is the “gap framework” developed by Call (2010). This framework builds on his previous (2008) criticisms of ‘state failure’, as a concept used as a catch-all term for diverse states with varying problems and as a base and explanation for universal policy prescriptions.[14] It unpacks the concept of “state failure” focusing on three gaps that the state is not able to provide when it is in the process of failure: capacity, when state institutions lack the ability to effectively deliver basic goods and services to its population; security, when the state is unable to provide security to its population under the threat of armed groups; and legitimacy, when a “significant portion of its political elites and society reject the rules regulating power and the accumulation and distribution of wealth.”[15] The “gap framework" seems to be more useful than other definitions. Instead of attempting to quantify the degree of failure of a state, the gap framework provides a three-dimensional scope useful to analyse the interplay between the government and the society in states in a more analytical way. Call does not necessarily suggest that states that suffer from the challenges of the three gaps should be identified as failed states; but instead, presents the gap idea as an alternative to the state failure concept as a whole.[15] Although Call recognizes that the gap concept in itself has limits, since often states face two or more of the gap challenges, his conceptual proposition presents a useful way for more precisely identifying the challenges within a society and the policy prescriptions that are more likely to be effective for external and international actors to implement.

A relevant contribution to the field of failed states and its attributes was made by J. Goldstone in his paper called "Pathways to State Failure". What differs him from other definitions is the fact that to him, a state is failed if it lost both its effectiveness and legitimacy. Effectiveness means the capability to carry out state functions such as providing security or levying taxes. Legitimacy means the support of important groups of the population, it is dissociated from democracy as a government/leader can be legitimate in the eyes of his people without being elected. Goldstone coupled pathways to state failure to his conception of a lack of both effectiveness and legitimacy. A state that retains one of the two aspects isn't failed as such, however it is in great danger of failing soon if nothing is being done. Five possible pathways to state failure are: 1. Escalation of communal group (ethnic or religious) conflicts Examples: Rwanda, Liberia, Yugoslavia, Lebanon 2. State predation (corrupt or crony corralling of resources at the expense of other groups) Examples: Nicaragua, Philippines, Iran 3. Regional or guerrilla rebellion Examples: Colombia, Vietnam 4. Democratic collapse (leading to civil war or coup d’etat) Examples: Nigeria, Madagascar, Nepal 5. Succession or reform crisis in authoritarian states Examples: Indonesia under Suharto, Iran under the Shah, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev

Although Goldstone identified pathways to state failure he is quick to warn about simplifying the issue. Often (re)-building either legitimacy or effectiveness implies a trade off with the other aspect of the state. Since these states are missing one of the two pillars to stability, it is dangerous to initiate such a trade off as it takes time to rebuild trust from the population. Although State Failure has been studied for decades by numerous scholars, it remains a contested concept vulnerable to political, ideological and economical agendas.

Criticisms of the concept

The spread of the term "failed state" has been criticized by policy researchers for being arbitrary and sensationalist. Olivier Nay, William Easterly and Laura Freschi have argued that the concept of state failure "has no coherent definition", and only serves the policy goals of Western states to militarily intervene in other states.[16] The British writer Anatol Lieven draws a distinction between "genuinely failed and failing" states in Sub-Saharan Africa with states in South Asia, whose rulers he says "have not traditionally exercised direct control over... most of their territory and have always faced continual armed resistance somewhere or other". Although he concedes that Pakistan might be considered "failed" when compared to the industrialized states of Western Europe, he criticizes how commentators use the War in North-West Pakistan to brand Pakistan as "failed", while not doing the same for the in his opinion proportionally more serious Naxalite insurgency in India or the Sri Lankan Civil War.[17]

Call (2008) argues that the label of ‘failed state’ has been applied so widely that is has been effectively rendered useless.[18] As there has been little consensus over how to define failed states, the characteristics commonly used to identify a failing state are numerous and extremely diverse, from human rights violations, poverty, corruption to demographic pressures.[19] This means that a wide range of highly divergent states are categorised together as failed (or failing) states. This can conceal the complexity of the specific weaknesses identified within individual states and result in one size fits all approach typically focused on strengthening the state’s capacity for order. Furthermore, the use of the term 'failed state' has been used by some foreign powers as a justification for invading a country, or determining a specific prescriptive set of foreign policy goals. Following 2001, Call notes that the US stated that failed states were one of the greatest security threats facing the country, based on the assumption that a country with weak - or non existent - state institutions would provide a safe haven for terrorists, and act as a breeding ground for extremism.

Call (2008) suggests that instead of brandishing countries as failed states they could be categorised in more relevant understandable terms. For example, a 'collapsed state' would refer to a country where the state apparatus completely falls apart and ceases to exist for a couple of months. This would only apply to a country where absolutely no basic functions of the state were working, and non-state actors were carrying out such tasks. A 'weak state' could be used for states whereby informal institutions carry out more of the public services and channelling of goods than formal state institutions. A 'war-torn' state, might not be functioning because of conflict, but this does not necessarily imply it is a collapsed state. Rotburg argued that all failed states are experiencing some form of armed conflict. However, the challenges to the state can be very different depending on the type of armed conflict, and whether it encompasses the country as a whole and large territories, or is specifically focused around one regional area. Another type of state that has been traditionally put under the umbrella term 'failed state' could be an 'authoritarian state'. While authoritarian leaders might come to power by violent means, they may ward off opposition once in power and as such ensure there is little violence within their regime. Call (2008) argues that the circumstances and challenges facing state-building in such regimes are very different to those posed in a state in civil war. These four alternative definitions highlight the many different circumstances that can lead a state to be categorised under the umbrella term a 'failed state', and the danger of adopting prescriptive one-size fits all policy approaches to very different situations.

In addition to the previous critiques of the 'failed state' concept, Alex Maroya argues that the term 'failed' is limited in its approach. He suggests that "it is the model of statehood based on territorially sovereign, extensive central government that has failed much of the world, and the frontier areas of the former European empires in particular." [20] Rather than producing states that mirror the Western system, these states should develop their own model of statehood, which does not use coercion as a form of rule. The author in fact argues for more radically decentralised concepts of the state, instead of the rigid borders which have contributed to conflict and instability. In 2003, Maroya argued that certain so-called "failed states" might be better off under a decentralized government. Instead of merely labelling these states as 'failed' and almost 'doomed' to perpetual conflict, the literature should focus on alternatives such as multiple levels of governance and regional integration. In other words, "the international relations discourse needs to move away from blithe talk of 'state failure' and towards a critical understanding of the kinds of states that have developed in former frontier regions."[20]

The concept has been criticised for being teleological, ahistorical and reflecting a Western bias of what constitutes a successful state.[18] Inherent in the concept of the failed state is the assumed association with terrorism and other transnational threats. They are sometimes described as incubators for international terrorism.[21]

Transnational crime and terrorism

According to Trial Attorney of U.S. Department of Justice Dan E. Stigall, "the international community is confronted with an increasing level of transnational crime in which criminal conduct in one country has an impact in another or even several others. Drug trafficking, human trafficking, computer crimes, terrorism, and a host of other crimes can involve actors operating outside the borders of a country which might have a significant interest in stemming the activity in question and prosecuting the perpetrator." [22]

A study of the Cligendael Center for Strategic Studies[23] explains why states that are subject to failure serve as sanctuaries (used to plan, execute, support, and finance activities) for terrorist organisations. When the government does not know about the presence of the organisation or if it is not able to weaken or remove the organisation, the sanctuary is referred to as a “Terrorist Black Hole”. However, next to governmental weakness there need to be „Terrorist Comparative Advantages“ present for a region to be considered as a "Terrorist Black Hole". According to the study, social tensions, the legacy from civil conflict, geography, corruption and policy failure, as well as external factors contribute to governmental weakness. The comparative advantages are: religion and ethnicity, the legacy from civil conflict, geography, economic opportunities, economic underdevelopment and regional stimuli. Only the combinations of the two factors (governmental weakness and Terrorist Comparative Advantages) explain what regions terrorists use as sanctuaries.

Research by James Piazza of the Pennsylvania State University finds evidence that nations affected by state failure experience and produce more terrorist attacks.[24] Contemporary transnational crimes "take advantage of globalization, trade liberalization and exploding new technologies to perpetrate diverse crimes and to move money, goods, services and people instantaneously for purposes of perpetrating violence for political ends." [25]

Moreover, "problems of weakened states and transnational crime create an unholy confluence that is uniquely challenging. When a criminal operates outside the territory of an offended state, the offended state might ordinarily appeal to the state from which the criminal is operating to take some sort of action, such as to prosecute the offender domestically or extradite the offender so that he or she may face punishment in the offended state. Nonetheless, in situations in which a government is unable (or unwilling) to cooperate in the arrest or prosecution of a criminal, the offended state has few options for recourse." [22]


The measurement methods of state failure is generally divided into the quantitative and the qualitative approach.

Quantitative approach

Quantitative measurement of state failure means the creation of indexes and rankings underlying certain indicators. To measure state failure the Fragile States Index (FSI), formerly called Failed States Index, the Fragility Index (FI) and the State Fragility Index (SFI) are particularly important. However, a number of other indexes are generally used to describe state weakness, often focusing on the developmental level of the state. Examples are: the Freedom House Index (FHI), the Human Development Index (HDI) or the World Bank Governance Indicators. Additionally, regional evaluation might give concrete details about, inter alia, the level of democracy such as the Report of Democratic Development in Latin America (Informe de desarollo democrático de América Latina).[26] However, the Fragile States Index has received comparatively much attention since its first publication in 2005. Edited by the magazine Foreign Policy, the ranking examines 178 countries based on analytical research of the Conflict Assessment System Tool (CAST) of the Fund for Peace.[27]

World Map, showing Failed States according to the "Failed States Index 2013"

The Fragile States Index published its tenth annual report in 2014, prepared by the Fund for Peace and published by Foreign Policy Magazine. The Index categorizes states in four categories, with variations in each category. The Alert category is in dark red, Warning in orange, Stable in yellow and Sustainable is green.

The FSI total score is out of 120, and in 2013 there were 178 states making the ranking. There are three groupings: social, economic and political with overall twelve indicators.

  1. Mounting Demographic Pressures
  2. Massive Movement of Refugees or Internally Displaced Persons
  3. Vengeance Seeking Group Grievance
  4. Chronic and Sustained Human Flight
  5. Uneven Economic Development
  6. Poverty, Sharp or Severe Economic Decline
  7. Legitimacy of the State
  8. Progressive Deterioration of Public Services
  9. Violation of Human Rights and Rule of Law
  10. Security Apparatus
  11. Rise of Factionalized Elites
  12. Intervention of External Actors
Each indicator is out of 10, adding up to a total of 120. However, in order to add up to 120, the indicator scores are rounded up-or-down to the nearest one decimal place.[28] In the 2014 Index, South Sudan ranked number one.[30]

While it is important to note that the FSI is used in many researches and makes the categorization of states more pragmatic, it often receives much criticism due to several reasons. Firstly, it does not include the Human Development Index to reach the final score, but instead focuses on institutions to measure what are often also considered human aspects for development. Secondly, it parallels fragility or vulnerability of states with underdevelopment. This comparison firstly assumes that underdevelopment (economic) creates vulnerability, thus assuming that if a state is ‘developed’ it is stable or sustainable. Thirdly, it measures the failure (or success) of a state without including the progress of other areas outside the sphere of the 12 indicators, thus excluding important measures of development such as the decline in child mortality rates, and increased access to clean water sources and medication, amongst others. Nonetheless, when discussing failed states it is important to mention the FSI not just for its use by governments, organisations, educators, and analysts, but also because it provides a measure of assessment that tries to address the issues that cause threats, both domestically and internationally.

Qualitative approach

The qualitative approach embraces theoretical frameworks. Normally, this type of measurement applies stage models to allow a categorisation of states. In three to five stages, researchers show state failure as a process. Notable researchers, inter alia, are Robert I. Rotberg in the Anglo-American and Ulrich Schneckener in the German sphere.

Ulrich Schneckener’s (2006) stage model defines three core elements, monopoly of violence, legitimacy and rule of law. The typology is based on the security first logic and thus, shows the relevance of the monopoly of violence in comparison to the other two while at the same time acting as the precondition for a functioning state. His four statehood types are: (1) consolidated and consolidating states, (2) weak states, (3) failing and (4) collapsed/failed states. The first type is directed towards functioning states; all core functions of the state are functioning in the long term. In weak states, the monopoly of force is still intact, but the other two areas show serious deficits. Failing states lack the monopoly of force, while the other areas function at least partially. Finally, collapsed or failed states are dominated by parastatal structures characterised by actors trying to create a certain internal order, but the state cannot sufficiently serve the three core elements.[31]

Both research approaches show some irregularities. While the quantitative approach lacks transparency concerning its indicators and their balancing in the evaluation process of countries, the qualitative approach shows a diversity of different foci. One of the major discrepancies is the question whether all the stages have to be taken continuously or if a state can skip one phase. Schneckener stresses that his model should actually not be interpreted as a stage model as, in his opinion, states do not necessarily undergo every stadium. Robert I. Rotberg’s model underlies an ordinal logic and thus, implies that the state failure process is a chronological chain of phases.[32]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ Braathen, Einar: Brazil: Successful country, failed cities? (NIBR International Blog 24.01.2011).
  4. ^ Nay Olivier. “Fragile and Failed States: Critical Perspectives on Conceptual Hybrids”, International Political Science Review 33.1 (2013): 326-341
  5. ^ Patrick, S. (2007) Failed’’ States and Global Security: Empirical Questions and Policy Dilemmas, International Studies Review 9, 644–662.
  6. ^ Call, C.T. (2010) Beyond the 'failed state': Toward conceptual alternatives. European Journal of International Relations, US Institute of Peace, Washington DC, USA.
  7. ^ Kaplan, S. (2008) Fixing Fragile States. A new paradigm for development. Praeger Security International. US.
  8. ^ Gros, J.G. (1996) Towards a taxonomy of failed states in the New World Order: Decaying Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda and Haiti, Third World Quarterly, 17(3), 455-472.
  9. ^ Rotberg, R. (2004) When States fail. Causes and consequences. Princeton University Press, US.
  10. ^ Levitt, S. (2012), Why Nations Fail? The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Profile Books, UK.
  11. ^ Taylor, A. (2013) State Failure. Global Issues. Palgrave MacMillan, UK.
  12. ^ Bates,Robert H. State Failure. Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 11, pp. 1-12.
  13. ^ Call, C.T. (2010) Beyond the 'failed state': Toward conceptual alternatives. European Journal of International Relations, US Institute of Peace, Washington DC, USA
  14. ^ Call C.T. (2008) The Fallacy of the "Failed State". Third World Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 8, pp. 1491-1507.
  15. ^ a b Call C.T. (2010)
  16. ^ Nay Olivier. “Fragile and Failed States: Critical Perspectives on Conceptual Hybrids”, International Political Science Review 33.1 (2013): 326-341,
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b Charles T Call (2008) 'The Fallacy of the Failed State'
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b Alex Maroya (2003)'Rethinking the Nation-State from the Frontier'
  21. ^ Stewart Patrick(2006)'Weak States and Global Threats: Fact or Fiction?'
  22. ^ a b Dan E. Stigall, Ungoverned Spaces, Transnational Crime, and the Prohibition on Extraterritorial Enforcement Jurisdiction in International Law. February 3, 2013. The Notre Dame Journal of International and Comparative Law 1 (2013)
  23. ^
  24. ^ James A. Piazza, Incubators of Terror: Do Failed and Failing States Promote Transnational Terrorism?, International Studies Quarterly, 2008, 3: 469-488, p.470: "States rated highly in terms of state failures, irrespective of the type of state failure experienced, are more likely to be targeted by terrorist attacks, more likely to have their nationals commit terrorist attacks in third countries, and are more likely to host active terrorist groups that commit attacks abroad."
  25. ^ Bruce Zagaris, Revisiting Novel Approaches to Combating the Financing of Crime: A Brave New World Revisited. Villanova Law Review. Volume 50. Issue 3 (2005), p.509.
  26. ^ see: Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation & Polilat 2013, see Report for Latin America.
  27. ^ Fund for Peace (FFP), 'The Methodology Behind the Index', Methodology
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ Schneckener, Ulrich (2004) 'States at Risk – zur Analyse fragiler Staatlichkeit. Welcome back – Staatszerfall als Problem der internationalen Politik', in Schneckener, Ulrich, (2004), ed., States at Risk. Fragile Staaten als Sicherheits- und Entwicklungsproblem, SWP Studie Berlin,
  32. ^ Rotberg, Robert I. (2004), 'The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: Break-down, Prevention, and Repair', in: Rotberg, Robert I., When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

External links

For a critical approach, see:

  • [1] GSDRC, Applied Knowledge Services Guide: Fragile States, Chapter 3
  • Why failed states shouldn’t be our biggest national security fear. By Stewart Patrick. The Washington Post, April 15, 2011.
  • Global Black Spots: Threats from Governance without Governments. By Dr. Bartosz Hieronim Stanisławski. The National Strategy Forum Review. Summer 2011. Volume 20. Issue 3.
  • Global Black Spots Approach (White Paper). By Dr. Bartosz Hieronim Stanisławski and John A. Conway.

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