Discussing Failed States; Is the Concept Valid?

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Hyledzirra Banu
Assistant Editor at SAIS Europe

The concept of state weakness, though controversial and often misleading, remains relevant for policymaking. However,  the label “failed state” undermines the concept by deeming dynamic states failed entities, without providing insight into the kinetics of the state.

States become weak for different reasons. These reasons are not one-dimensional, and they concern the most fundamental needs for human existence. When the citizens lack access to water, security of life, freedom of expression, speech and movement, when social services such as healthcare, banking and education falter, when the state cannot provide economic and political services to its citizens, that state can be described as a weak state.

Analysis concerning failed states provides data and intelligence regarding the troubled spots of the world, allowing more stable states to prevent negative spillover effects from affecting their territories. States like Kenya have been negatively affected by weaker neighbors, such as Somalia. Somalia has significantly transformed Kenya’s demographics, economy and socio-political make-up.

Studies on the concept of weak states allow for early warning and forecasting of conflict-prone areas. With their Continental Early Warning System in conjunction with the African Union and the United Nations Development Programme, organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States have been able to successfully forewarn governments of areas and situations likely to erupt in conflict. These organizations have also successfully contained conflicts with analyses on weak states. For instance, in 2012, ECOWAS detected and responded to conflict situations in crises in Niger, using indicators of state weakness. The analysis of weak states also provides insight into the root causes of conflicts and arms governments and institutions with valuable information on how to solve them.

However, the concept of weak and failing states goes beyond the label. One might even argue that the tag “failed state” is misleading. As expressed by the Fund for Peace, the idea of the Failed States Index is to provide data that “prevents violent conflict and promotes sustainable security.” Assumedly, the goal of the exercise is to allow access to data and research that informs relevant players in international politics of the likelihood of conflict on a comparative basis. Arguably, the title, “failed state,” though attributed based on ranking, deliberately misleads individuals to perceive and view the highest ranking states as failed entities, while this may not particularly be correct.

Since states and countries are dynamic, “weak” or “failing” states may be undergoing necessary periods of transformation and evolution, which every state experiences. The label “failed state” relegates states undergoing transformations as failed entities.

The concept, “failed state,” is  pertinent to policymakers and scholars of international relations. However, the concept must be proposed with a clearer and a more befitting title and presented as a tool for the promotion of stability and peace in the world order.

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