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A failed state is a political body that has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government no longer function properly (see also fragile state and state collapse). Likewise, when a nation weakens and its standard of living declines, it introduces the possibility of total governmental collapse. 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 an inability to raise taxes or other support, and has little practical control over much of its territory and hence 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.
The level of government control required to avoid being considered a failed state varies considerably amongst authorities. Furthermore, the declaration that a state has "failed" is generally controversial and, when made authoritatively, may carry significant geopolitical consequences.
According to the political theories of Max Weber, a state is defined as maintaining 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, armed gangs, 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 explains that only the state has the means of production necessary for physical violence. 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, insurgency, 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.
There is no real consensus on the definition of a "failed state"; the subjective nature of indicators that are used to measure state failure have led to an ambiguous understanding of the term. Some scholars focus on the capacity and effectiveness of the government to determine if a state is failed or not. Other indices such as the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index underline the democratic character of state institutions in order to determine its level of failure. Finally, other scholars focus their argument on the legitimacy of the state, on the nature of the state, on the growth of criminal violence in a state, on the economic extractive institutions, or on the states’ capacity to control its territory. 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.
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. 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. 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." 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. 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.
Further critique for the way in which the way the ‘failed state’ concept has been understood and operationalised is brought forth in research by Morten Bøås and Kathleen M. Jennings who, drawing on five case studies—Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, and the Niger Delta region of Nigeria—argue that "the use of the ‘failed state’ label is inherently political, and based primarily on Western perceptions of Western security and interests". They go on to suggest that Western policy-makers attribute the 'failed' label to those states in which 'recession and informalisation of the state is perceived to be a threat to Western interests'. Furthermore, this suggests a hypocritical approach on behalf of Western policy-makers, due to the fact that the characteristics that would lead certain states to be labelled as failed are accepted in other states where these characteristics are in accordance with Western interests. In fact, "this feature of state functioning is not only accepted, but also to a certain degree facilitated, as it creates an enabling environment for business and international capital. These cases are not branded ‘failed states'".
A relevant contribution to the field of failed states and its attributes was made by J. Goldstone in his paper Pathways to State Failure. He defines a failed state as one that has 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. A state that retains one of these two aspects is not failed as such; however it is in great danger of failing soon if nothing is done. He identifies five possible pathways to state failure:
Although Goldstone identifies 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.
The measurement methods of state failure are generally divided into the quantitative and the qualitative 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 desarrollo democrático de América Latina). 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.
The Fragile States Index published its eleventh annual report in 2015, 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 in green.
The FSI total score is out of 120, and in 2015 there were 178 states making the ranking. Initially, the FSI only ranked 75 countries in 2005. The FSI uses two criteria by which a country qualifies to be included in the list: first of all, the country must be a United Nations member state, and secondly, there must be a significant sample size of content and data available for that country to allow for meaningful analysis. There are three groupings: social, economic and political with overall twelve indicators.
Political and military indicators:
The indicators each count for 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. In the 2015 Index, South Sudan ranked number one, Somalia number two, and the Central African Republic number three. Finland is currently the most stable and sustainable country in the list.
While it is important to note that the FSI is used in many pieces of research 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.
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.
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 stage. Robert I. Rotberg’s model underlies an ordinal logic and thus, implies that the state failure process is a chronological chain of phases.
Charles Tilly (1985) argued that war-making was an indispensable aspect of state development in Europe through the following interdependent functions:
Tilly summarized this linkage in the famous phrase: "War made the state, and the state made war."
Similarly, Herbst (1990) added that a war might be the only chance to strengthen an extraction capability since it forced rulers to risk their political lives for extra revenue and forced subjects to consent to pay more tax. It is also important for state development in that the increased revenue would not return to its original level even after the end of wars. Contrary to European states, however, he also pointed out that most Third World states lacked external threats and had not waged interstate wars, implying that these states are unlikely to take similar steps in the future.
Steward and Knaus (2012) tackled a question "can intervention work?" and concluded that "we can help nations build themselves" by putting an end to war and providing "well resourced humanitarian interventions." They criticized the overconfidence of policy makers on nation-building by contrasting successful interventions in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999) with failed attempt of nation-building in Iraq (2003) and Afghanistan (2001) in which the U.S. lost thousands of lives over ten years and expended more than a trillion dollars without realizing its central objective of nation-building.
Pritchett, Woolcock and Andrews (2013) analyzed the systematic failure of the development of failed states. They defined "state administrative capability for implementation" as the key aspect of state development, and found out the mechanism in which failed states stumbled regardless of decades of development practices tried, billions of dollars spent, and alleged "progress" boasted. These countries adopted the following techniques which led to undermine it:
In light of the fact that many of these countries would likely need centuries to reach the state capability of developed countries, they suggested creating "context-specific institutions", promoting "incremental reform process", and setting "realistic expectations" for attaining the goal of substantial development.
Moss, Todd, Gunilla Pettersson, and Nicolas Van de Walle (2006) acknowledged the controversy over the effect of foreign aid that has developed in recent years. They argued that although there is a call for an increase in large aid efforts in Africa by the international community, this will actually create what they call an “aid-institutions paradox.”  This paradox is formed because the large cash contributions that Western countries have given to African countries have created institutions that are “less accountable to their citizens and under less pressure to maintain popular legitimacy.”  They mention that the gradual decrease of aid may help foster long-lasting institutions, which is proven by the United States’ efforts in Korea after the Cold War.
Berman, Eli, Felter, Shapiro, and Trolan (2013) also found similar evidence to support the paradox, stating that large US aid attempts in African agriculture have only resulted in further conflict between citizens. Notably, small investments such as grants for schools have proven to decrease violence compared to large investments, which create “incentives to capture economic rents through violence.”
Furthermore, Binyavanga Wainaina (2009) likens Western aid to colonization, in which countries believe that large cash contributions to spur the African economy will lead to political development and less violence. In reality, these cash contributions do not invest in Africa’s growth economically, politically and most of all, socially.
James Fearon and David Laitin (2004) suggest that the problem of failed states can be addressed through a system of "neotrusteeship," which they compare to "postmodern imperialism." Fearon and Laitin's idea of neotrusteeship involves a combination of international and domestic organizations which seek to rebuild states. Fearon and Laitin start with the assumption that failed states comprise a collective action problem. Failed states impose negative externalities on the rest of the international system, like refugees who are displaced by war. It would be a net good for the international system if countries worked to develop and rebuild failed states. However, intervention is very costly, and no single nation has a strong enough incentive to act to solve the problem of a failed state. Therefore, international cooperation is necessary to solve this collective action problem.
Fearon and Laitin identify four main problems to achieving collective action to intervene in failed states:
Fearon and Laitin do propose some solutions to these problems. To solve the recruitment problem, they argue for having a powerful state with security interests in the failed state to take the lead in the peacekeeping operations and serve a point role. Having a single state lead the peacekeeping operation would also help solve the coordination problem. Empowerment of a UN body to investigate human rights abuses would solve the accountability problem. Finally, forcing the failed state to contribute funds to peacekeeping operations after several years can reduce the incentives of the peacekeepers to exit. Fearon and Laitin believe that multilateral interventions which solve the above four collective action problems will be more effective at rebuilding failed states through neotrusteeship.
Jeremy Weinstein disagrees that peacekeeping is necessary to rebuild failed states, arguing that it is often better to allow failed states to recover on their own. Weinstein fears that international intervention may prevent a state from developing strong internal institutions and capabilities. One of Weinstein's key arguments is that war leads to peace. By this, he means that peace agreements imposed by the international community tend to freeze in place power disparities that do not reflect reality. Weinstein believes that such a situation leaves a state ripe for future war, while if the war were allowed to play out for one side to win decisively, future war would be much less likely. Weinstein also claims that war lead to the development of strong state institutions. Weinstein borrows from Charles Tilly to make this argument, which states that wars require large expansions in state capabilities, so the states that are more stable and capable will win wars and survive in the international system through a process similar to natural selection. Weinstein uses evidence from Uganda's successful recovery following a guerilla victory in a civil war, Eritrea's forceful secession from Ethiopia, and development in Somaliland and Puntland—autonomous regions of Somalia—to support his claims. Weinstein does note that lack of external intervention can lead to mass killings and other atrocities, but he emphasizes that preventing mass killings has to be weighed against the ensuing loss of long-term state capacity.
Capability trap means that countries are progressing at a very slow pace in the expansion of state capability even in the contemporary world, which is also the core problem of failed states. Many countries remain stuck in conditions of low productivity that many call “poverty traps.” Economic growth is only one aspect of development; another key dimension of development is the expansion of the administrative capability of the state, the capability of governments to affect the course of events by implementing policies and programs. Capability traps close the space for novelty, establishing fixed best-practice agendas as the basis of evaluating failed states. Local agents are therefore excluded from the process of building their own states, implicitly undermining the value-creating ideas of local leaders and front line workers.
Matt, Lant and Woolcock from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government proposed an approach called the "Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)", to escaping the capability traps. Given that many development initiatives fail to improve performance because they promote isomorphic mimicry, PDIA focuses on solving locally nominated and prioritized performance problems of failed states. It involves pursuing development interventions that engage broad sets of local agents to ensure the reforms are politically supportable and practically implementable.
Larry Diamond (2006) argues that weak and failed states pose distinctive problems for democracy promotion. In these states, the challenge is not only to pressure authoritarian state leaders to surrender power but rather to figure out how to regenerate legitimate power in the first place.
There are mainly two distinct types of cases, and each of these three types of cases requires specific kinds of strategies for democracy promotion:
Generally speaking, order is the most important prerequisite for democracy promotion, which relies heavily on formal democratic mechanisms, particularly elections to promote post-conflict state-building. In the absence of an effective state, there are basically three possibilities: If there has been a civil war and a rebel force has ultimately triumphed, then the vacuum may be filled by the rebellious army and political movement as it establishes control over the state; second, there may be a patchwork of warlords and armies, with either no real central state (as in Somalia) or only a very weak one. In this situation, the conflict does not really end, but may wax and wane in decentralized fashion, as in Afghanistan today; the third possibility is that an international actor or coalition of actors steps in to constitute temporary authority politically and militarily. This may be an individual country, a coalition, an individual country under the thin veneer of a coalition, or the United Nations acting through the formal architecture of a UN post-conflict mission.
According to U.S. Department of Justice Trial Attorney 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".
A study of the Cligendael Center for Strategic Studies 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. 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".
Contributing to previous research on the matter, Tiffiany Howard looks at a different dimension of the connection between state failure and terrorism, based on evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa. She argues that "citizens of failed states are attracted to political violence because of the deteriorating conditions within this type of states". Focusing on individual citizens decision-making patterns, it is suggested that "individuals living in failed states are attracted to political violence because the system is broken—the state has failed in its duty". This finding is based on empirical evidence using barometer survey data. This individual-level approach, which differs from previous research which has focused on the attractiveness of failed states for terrorists and insurgents finds that "failed states threaten an individual’s survival, which ultimately drives them to obtain tangible political and economic resources through other means, which include the use of political violence". This finding has significant implications for the international community, such as the fact that "this pattern of deprivation makes individuals in these states more susceptible to the influence of internationally sponsored terrorist groups. As a consequence, failed states are breeding grounds for terrorists, who then export their radical ideologies to other parts of the world to create terrorist threats across the globe"
The link between state failure (and its characteristics) and terrorism, however, is not unanimously accepted in the scholarly literature. Research by Alberto Abadie, which looks at determinants of terrorism at the country level, suggests that the "terrorist risk is not significantly higher for poorer countries, once the effects of other country-specific characteristics such as the level of political freedom are taken into account". In fact, as the argument goes, "political freedom is shown to explain terrorism, but it does so in a non-monotonic way: countries in some intermediate range of political freedom are shown to be more prone to terrorism than countries with high levels of political freedom or countries with highly authoritarian regimes". While poverty and low levels of political freedom are not the main characteristics of failed states, they are nevertheless important ones. For this reason, Abadie's research represents a powerful critique to the idea that there is a link between state failure and terrorism. This link is also questioned by other scholars, such as Corinne Graff, who argues that 'there is simply no robust empirical relationship between poverty and terrorist attacks'.
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".
The term “failed state” has faced criticism along two main strands. The first argues that the term lends itself to overgeneralization, by lumping together different governance problems amongst diverse countries, and without accounting for variations of governance within states. The second is concerned with the political application of the term in order to justify military interventions and state-building based on a Western model of the state.
Olivier Nay, William Easterly and Laura Freschi have complained that the concept of state failure “has no coherent definition”, with indexes combining various indicators of state performance with arbitrary weights to arrive at unclear and aggregated measurements of state fragility. Call (2008) argues that the label of ‘failed state’ has been applied so widely that it has been effectively rendered useless. 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. 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 branding 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.
Pakistan has been used as an example of how intrastate variations in governance undermine the concept of state failure. 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".
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."  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."
The concept has been criticised for being teleological, ahistorical and reflecting a Western bias of what constitutes a successful state. 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.
For a critical approach, see: