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Top 5 reasons why “failed state” is a failed concept

1) “State failure” is leading to confused policy making.

For example, it is causing the military to attempt overly ambitious nation-building and development to approach counter-terrorism, under the unproven assumption that “failed states” produce terrorism.

2) “State failure” has failed to produce any useful academic research in economics.

You would expect a major concept to be the subject of research by economists (as well as by other fields, but I am using economics research as an indicator). While there has been research on state failure, it failed to generate any quality academic publications in economics. A search of the top economics journals1 reveals that “state failure” (and all related variants like “failed states”) has been mentioned only once EVER. And this article mentions the concept only in passing.2

3) “State failure” has no coherent definition.

Different sources have included the following:

a) “Civil war”
b) “infant mortality”
c) “declining levels of GDP per capita”
d) “inflation” 3
e) “unable to provide basic services”
f) “state policies and institutions are weak”
g) “corruption”
h) “lack accountability” 4
i) “unwilling to adequately assure the provision of security and basic services to significant portions of their populations” 5 (wouldn’t this include the US?)
j) “inability to collect taxes”
k) “group-based inequality… and environmental decay.” 6
l) “wars and other disasters”
m) “citizens vulnerable to a whole range of shocks” 7

Most of these concepts are clear enough in themselves, and often apply to a large number of countries. But is there any good reason to combine them with arbitrary weights to get some completely unclear concept for a smaller number of countries? “State failure” is like a destructive idea machine that turns individually clear concepts into an aggregate unclear concept.

4) The only possible meaningful definition adds nothing new to our understanding of state behavior, and is not really measurable.

A more narrow definition of “state failure” is: a loss of the monopoly of force, or the inability to control national territory. Unfortunately this is impossible to measure: how do you know when a state has control? The only data I have been able to find that might help comes from the Polity research project that classifies the history of states as democracies or autocracies. 8 It describes “interregnums” that sound like the narrow “state failure” idea:

A “-77” code for the Polity component variables indicates periods of periods of “interregnum,” during which there is a complete collapse of central political authority. This is most likely to occur during periods of internal war.

If interregnums are indeed a good measure, the data show that “state failure” is primarily just an indicator of war. As the data show, the rate of “state failure” in the 20th century spiked in the two World Wars, and then increased again (but not as much) after decolonization, again almost always associated with wars.

Even this measure does not really capture the narrow definition. Many countries were often created as “states” by colonial powers rather than following any natural state-building process in which states gain more and more control of territory. Almost all ex-colonies fail to control national territory after independence, and many still do not do so today – many more than the usual number of “failed states.” (Africa being the most striking example as exposited in the great book by Herbst, States and Power in Africa. 4)

Hence, if we use the measure described above, than state failure is just synonymous with war, and if we don’t (as we probably shouldn’t), then “state failure” is something more common and harder to measure than the current policy discussion recognizes.


5)  “State failure” appeared for political reasons.

The real genesis of the “state failure” concept was a CIA State Failure Task Force in the early 1990s. Their 1995 first report said state failure is “a new term for a type of serious political crisis exemplified by recent events in Somalia, Bosnia, Liberia, and Afghanistan.” All four involved civil war, confirming the above point that  “state failure” often just measures “war.” And we have just seen from the data (and common sense about decolonization) that either the claim of “newness” is false, or we are still not sure what “state failure” means.

Nevertheless, “state failure” became a hot idea in policy circles.  If we use the number of articles in Foreign Affairs mentioning “state failure” or variants, then it first appeared around the same time as the CIA task force, and then really took off after 9/11.

One can only speculate about the political motives for inventing an incoherent concept like “state failure.” It gave Western states (most notably the US superpower) much more flexibility to intervene where they wanted to (for other reasons): you don’t have to respect state sovereignty if there is no state. After the end of the Cold War, there was less hesitation to intervene because of the disappearance of the threat of Soviet retaliation. “State failure” was even more useful as justification for the US to operate with a free hand internationally in the “War on Terror” after 9/11.

These political motives are perfectly understandable, but they don’t justify shoddy analysis using such an undefinable concept.

It’s time to declare “failed state” a “failed concept.”

[1] Kristie M. Engemann and Howard J. Wall, A Journal Ranking for the Ambitious Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, May/June 2009, 91(3), pp. 127-39. We included all 69 journals that they studied, which they said were their meant to capture all likely members of the top 50.

[2] Sujai J. Shivakumar, Towards a democratic civilization for the 21st century, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Vol. 57 (2005) 199–204.

[3] a through d: Robert I. Rotberg, Failed States in a World of Terror, Foreign Affairs. New York: Jul/Aug 2002. Vol. 81, Iss. 4; pg. 127.

[4] e through h:  World Bank

[5] USAID Fragile State Strategy, 2005

[6] j through k: Fund for Peace

[7] l through m: Overseas Development Institute

[8] Monty G. Marshall and Keith Jaggers, Polity IV Project: Dataset Users’ Manual, George Mason University and Center for Systemic Peace, 2009.

[9] Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, Princeton University Press, 2000.

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  1. Iris wrote:

    Hear hear. Not to mention the fact that it has generated substantial backlash from developing countries when they are being slapped with the ‘failed state’ label – this was a big thing here in the Pacific region where I work for example. How do we better help people based on a better understanding of their problems when we start the conversation by pushing them into defensive mode?

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 12:14 am | Permalink
  2. Andy wrote:

    “State failure” has failed to produce any useful academic research in economics.

    Let us all prostrate ourselves before this venerable altar…

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 12:53 am | Permalink
  3. yes, I’m with Andy. The ‘economics’ criteria is rubbish. Social Capital, for example, has produced absolute reams of research in economics despite each of your other four criticisms holding for that concept.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 1:59 am | Permalink
  4. Michael Josefowicz wrote:

    Might it make sense to reframe the notion of a “State” to be replaced by something like “natural regions.” It’s interesting that global corporations use the intersection of both to articulate what is going on in the real world.

    Yesterday I heard the head of GM Global product development describe his world as being composed of four regions. North America, South America, Asian Pacific and Europe. The blindspot for Africa and the Middle East are interesting, but it might point to a better thinking model to both analyze and intervene in building social capital.

    National borders are historical constructs, both in previous colonial territories, but also in Europe and certainly in America. It obscures, rather than clarifies reality in the States to talk about GDP or unemployment or even high school dropouts. e.g. a mere 2400 high schools in the States produce over 50% of the dropouts. If a regional, as opposed to a national framework were used, it would shed light on where the greatest benefit would come from the minimum investment.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  5. Dan wrote:

    This is a fantastic discussion to have. I suppose in political science many of us are not all that worried that there isn’t one agreed upon definition for complex and controversial concepts. Nor am I overly bothered by the fact that a given concept hasn’t produced “useful academic research,” a subjective idea if I ever heard one.

    It is worth noting that the concept of a failed state does make normative judgments about what states should be doing and how they should function. That is a worthwhile conversation. So, it appears to me that the problem is one between the concept and the discipline of economics and not a problem with the concept, or any concept in and of itself. It’s the carpenter blaming the tools to abuse a metaphor.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink
  6. I’m with Andy, Ranil, and Dan. That economists haven’t figured out a concept doesn’t mean no one else has. There’s a TON of useful academic research on state failure in political science and anthropology. Definitions do vary, but there are well-specified ones that apply across contexts. State failure is most definitely not another term for “war”; indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of many failed states is that the bulk of inhabitants live in a state of “not war/not peace” for extended periods of time. Sorry, but y’all have this one wrong.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  7. Dan Kyba wrote:

    I have worked in the Solomon Islands which to me fits the definition of a ‘failed state’ during the so-called Tensions. I define a state as the organisational vehicle by which public goods are provided and protected. To protect its public goods investments, a state needs a monopoly of power (or violence). Lose that monopoly and the state cannot provide and protect its public goods investments – hence it has failed in its primary mission.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  8. Monk wrote:

    Charles Call has written extensively on the failure of the ‘failed state’ model in IR theory. See, for example,
    this paper.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  9. azmyth wrote:

    I usually use Doug North’s definition of state “an organization with a comparative advantage in violence, extending over a geographic area whose boundaries are determined by its power to tax constituents” (North 1981:21). By this definition, the “interregnum” criterion is a good one.

    The worst thing that can happen to a term is where one group uses it to mean one thing and another group uses it to mean another. I would not say that North Korea is a failed state, because they maintain their comparative advantage in violence, but others might.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  10. Winton Bates wrote:

    I agree that the “failed state” is not a useful concept.
    If we want to say that a particular society lacks the institutions of a good society I think it is desirable to be specific about what specific institutions are lacking.
    I think the ‘good society’ is a useful concept for reasons I give here:

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 7:32 pm | Permalink
  11. George D wrote:

    “Dan Kyba wrote:

    I have worked in the Solomon Islands which to me fits the definition of a ‘failed state’ during the so-called Tensions. I define a state as the organisational vehicle by which public goods are provided and protected. ”

    Most academics I talk to find state failure to be a particularly unhelpful concept for describing the Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the western Pacific, and one that – as above – invites the securitisation of the discourse and the invitation for the military to take over problem-solving approaches.

    I think it’s time to declare Foreign Affairs as a failed journal.

    Posted January 14, 2010 at 12:52 am | Permalink
  12. Dan Kyba wrote:

    “Failed State’ is not the first, nor will it be the last concept which has been applied in an inappropriate context. The term ‘Democracy’ has been especially abused this way. The challenge is to insist that such terms are defined and applied properly.
    The quick definition I gave is taken from Douglass North and Mancur Olson. For either economist, the necessity of coercive authority against the free-rider problem is self-evident. We can look at this point from another direction:
    “Lest the world be reorganised to the advantage of the more opportunistic agents, checks against opportunism are needed” (Williamson, Oliver E., 1996: 48) and continuing:
    “Whether they are democratic or hierarchical, utopian modes require deep commitment to collective purposes and commonly involve person subordination. The history of social and economic organisation records repeated efforts to craft such structures. But utopian structures are especially vulnerable to the pound of opportunism” (Williamson, Oliver E., 1985: 52)

    Posted January 14, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink
  13. Jeff wrote:

    Great post, great discussion. I think the post raises good points about how this term has been abused and misused. But that doesn’t mean there is no need for such a concept or that just because it has been overused, that there aren’t occasions where its use is appropriate. To me, the case that defines the concept is Somalia where virtually all of the functions of a state have ceased to exist in any way that allows engagement with the outside world. For people who want to figure out how to engage with the people from the land formerly known as Somalia, a new noun is needed.

    Posted January 14, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  14. pm wrote:

    I have to disagree with your first point that state failure does not produce terrorism. The argument is not that state failure produces terrorism, but that it provides an area where terrorists can thrive. On this question there has been some research:
    “Black Holes: On Terrorist Sanctuaries and
    Governmental Weakness.” By: REM KORTEWEG
    “Incubators of Terror: Do Failed and Failing
    States Promote Transnational Terrorism?” By: James Piazza.
    Admittedly I’ve not extensively reviewed these works, so there may be flaws.
    Also, Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace keeps an annual data set called the State Failure Index, although it is probably better understood as a political stability index.

    Posted January 15, 2010 at 12:53 am | Permalink
  15. Robert Tulip wrote:

    To paraphrase Tolstoy, successful states are in some respects all alike but failed states each fail in their own way. Africa has several failed states. Failure of the economics profession to address the problem of state failure is hardly evidence for the success of Somalia, Zimbabwe or DRC. Quantizing failure in economic terms alone may remain elusive, considering that state failure is primarily political, requiring political solutions. UN protectorates would be a better option than the predators who now wield state power in the world’s forgotten corners.

    Posted January 15, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  16. Michael wrote:

    Failed states are like the famous definition of pornography: I can’t always define one but I know when when I see one. Nevertheless…Definition #1: Doesn’t protect its people, Def#2, doesn’t provide goods and services, Def#3 High levels of official corruption, Def#4 No way to rectify 1,2, or 3….was that so difficult? Thank-god economists don’t handle heavy equipment, (-:

    Posted January 20, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

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