Failed state

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.[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 issues

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.[3]

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.[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 Fragile States 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.[6] 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.[13] 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."[6] 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.[6] 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".[14] 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'.[14] 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'".[14]

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:

  1. Escalation of communal group (ethnic or religious) conflicts. Examples: Syria, Somalia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Liberia, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan
  2. State predation (corrupt or crony corralling of resources at the expense of other groups). Examples: Russian Federation, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Brazil, Philippines, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, South Africa, North Korea, Saudi Arabia
  3. Regional or guerrilla rebellion. Examples: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, Congo, 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 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.

Other Languages
العربية: دولة فاشلة
čeština: Zhroucený stát
español: Estado fallido
Bahasa Indonesia: Negara gagal
íslenska: Þrotríki
italiano: Stato fallito
Nederlands: Mislukte staat
日本語: 失敗国家
português: Estado falido
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Propala država
svenska: Statsförfall
中文: 失敗國家