What is a Failed State?

The Failed State. A concept I started to look at in the context of global sustainability at the the annual Balaton Group Meeting two months ago. The Balaton Group is an international group of researchers and practitioners in fields related to systems and sustainability. The topic of this years meeting was “Successful Societies” and I was asked to present on the “How to Create a Successful Society from a Failed State.” What an easy topic! I felt a little bit like Miss <Insert-Country-Here> asking for World Peace.

I didn’t know much about Failed States, other than having lived in one, so had some reading to do. The Earth Policy Institute recently released a new book “The World on Edge” by Lester Brown, which includes  a Chapter on how to rescue failed states and recognizes a shift away from isolated military action to combat the root causes of State Failure.

What are the characteristics of state failure? German sociologist, Max Weber describes a failed state as one which “fails to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders.” Noam Chomsky included in the definition a state which “fails to provide security for the population, to guarantee the rights at home or abroad, or to maintain function of democratic states.” The Fund for Peace& Foreign Policy has created an index system that quantifies a dozen aspects of state failure:
1. Physical control of its territory and erosion of legitimate state authority to make collective decisions
2. Inability to provide reasonable public services
3. Inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community
4. Extensive corruption and criminal behavior
5. Inability to collect taxes or otherwise draw on citizen support
6. Large-scale involuntary dislocation of the population
7. Sharp economic decline
8. Group-based inequality
9. Institutionalized persecution or discrimination
10. Severe demographic pressures
11. Brain drain
12. Environmental decay

Still, this list of indicators contrasts to indicators of successful societies: education, health indicators and overall “well-being.” How is it that visions of success and failure have become so disconnected? Is it time to re-think what a Failed State is, and what the drivers of failed or successful societies are? The blurry dichotomy between the two is illustrated through a comparative case of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In Badakhshan province, the two countries share a watershed which is inhabitated by Pamiri people with a common language, religion and culture, separated only by the Amu Darya River and 70 years of a divergent development path. Tajik Badakhshan benefited from Soviet development of infrastructure, education (99.5% overall literacy rate), health care system and access to markets. In stark contrast just across the river, Afghans still walk up to 12 days along donkey trails to the nearest market, and have severely limited access to healthcare (maternal mortality is highest at the world, at 6,507 deaths/ 100,000 births) and education (18% and 36% literacy rates for women and men respectively).

Flying over border between Tajikistan (left) and Afghanistan (right). June 2009

Despite these stark contrasts in development and traditional indicators of success, many Tajiks will say that Afghans are better off, because their livelihoods are independent of external inputs, and they are not affected by global price fluctuations. So success, or failure, depends not only on the scale of analysis, but also on who you talk to. Identifying the systemic role of State Failure requires a break away from the dichotomy presented by these indicators, and asks us to question what are the processes that provide resilience in as system ridden with political rigidity, corruption, and violence.

There are examples of “success”, even within Failed States, which need to be scaled up. One approach to reduce the global risk of failed states may be to identify sources of resilience at the local scale, which may or may not align with conventional indicators of success. Resilience of what to what?

Harvest in Vanj, Tajikistan. Photo by Teo Kaye

Harvest in Jomarj, Afghanistan. Photo by Teo Kaye.

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