The Failed States Index: Misunderstanding a Definition

Quentin Crisp, socialite, illustrator and famed curmudgeon, suggested that, if at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your only option.  Are some states similarly disposed, doomed to chronic collapse, spouts of improvement only to be undermined by tin pot despots, short and even stout?  The cheeky devil, as ever, hides in the obtuse detail.

The circumstances in which a state can be called one of failure are far from clear. For one thing, states are complex, variable, mind bogglingly confusing in terms of operations, targets and efficiency.  Analysts evidently need to justify their funding at think tanks and journals need to garner an audience.  The result is a slipshod approach as to what failure actually constitutes.  For one thing, any index can be as good as any other. The problem is always who is doing the asking, and of whom.  Success and failure may be one and the same thing.

The journal Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace have been collaborating over the issue of identifying failed states since 2005.  The term itself is one of fashion.  “If anything has become clear since we started publishing the Failed States Index in 2005, it’s that state failure is an entrenched problem – one the world is far from figuring out how to fix.”

This, at least, is an honest confession: failure has a habit of assuming permanence, a habit with many causes.  Furthermore, the earnest scribblers for change contend that revolutions do not a stable nation make.  The Arab Spring has gone into an autumnal slide, awaiting the bloody fall.  States such as post-Qaddafi Libya, post-Mubarak Egypt and currently Assad held Syria are making strides up the list, providing “a reminder that although revolutions may weaken or topple dictators, they can also provoke greater instability.”

With an almost predictable tedium, the names in the “top ten” of the FSI index have rarely changed.  The Oscar nominations rarely move beyond such countries as Somalia (winner takes all), Chad (pouting poster boy), Democratic Republic of Congo (ambitious contender).  Iraq nudges up the chart, a country so mangled by invasion it has become the great failure of failure, the cripple among cripples – the top achievement of other powers that sought to deconstruct a society from first without and then within.  The committee at FP and the Fund are none the wiser.

The indicators used, numbering 12 (four social, two economic and six political), are of special interest.  Categories are a way of evading understanding, and sketching a few is always an interesting exercise.  A few can be noted: “factionalised elites”; “external intervention”; “demographic pressures”; “brain drain”; “group grievance”; “inequality”.  To disentangle this, the FSI index groups countries.

Of greater interest, perhaps, lies in who the middle contenders are, at least in the eyes of the assessors.  Countries such as Serbia came in at 92 out of the 178 countries ranked, from most vulnerable to least vulnerable.  Troubled Bosnia and Herzegovina comes in at 83. Areas of concern for both countries lie in the problems of factionalised elites and group grievance.

Even such a list suggests that all states, to some extent, have those concerns.  Demography is destiny, suggested August Comte, and states persistently get on the population bandwagon concerned with either too many subjects or too few.  Factionalised elites are to be found aplenty – name a country that doesn’t have one.  Everyone needs to eat.  Everyone needs some form of habitation.  Nor do high levels of prosperity necessarily indicate a supreme quality of life.

Then comes that spanner in the works, the seemingly puzzling statistic showing that paradise is tainted.  Finland tops the end of the FSI chart at 178, unnervingly stable and perfect according to the set criteria.  Yet the most stable country on earth has an above average suicide rate, even if rates have been falling in recent years, notably among men.  (In 1992, Finland recorded an astonishing 1,500 suicides, hardly the figure of top health.)

As Maia Szalavitz noted in the Health and Family segment of Time Magazine (April 25, 2011), “the happiest countries also seem to have the highest suicide rates.”  In the United States, Utah might rank highest in terms of “life satisfaction”, but it also embraces the ninth highest suicide rate in the United States.  Hawaii has high satisfaction as a place to live, but comes in fifth for suicides.  Dare we conclude that stable happiness, in all its abundance, kills?

The other feature about the failed states notion is how the concept is sustained.  The least understood aspect of the problem is how it is compounded.  Doctors, mused Voltaire, provide the side amusement for patients while nature cures them.  If one is not careful, doctors might well kill the patient, whatever the Hippocratic Oath might say on the subject.

In many instances, the last thing an ailing state needs is the policeman surgeon, the brute who comes in with paternalistic choices about how to order society and tidy up the stables.  From Iraq to Kosovo, the writing of failure is present not merely for the state in question but for those who embarked on the crusade of reform to begin with.

Ditch the index, or at the very least, embrace a more accurate one.  The imperfect appraisal is often more appropriate.  Views of social movements, attempts to change from within a society, need to be accounted for at greater length.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.