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Failed State Overview & Characteristics | What are Failed States?

Instructor: Nathan Mahr

Nathan has taught English literature, business, social sciences, writing, and history for over five years. He has a B.A. in Comparative History of Ideas from the University of Washington.

Explore the characteristics of a failed state. Learn the definition of a failed state and understand its causes with various examples. See a map of failed states. Updated: 12/30/2022

What is a Failed State?

A failed state is a country that has lost control of itself due to a number of factors, such as political instability, civil unrest, and lack of governance. The term "failed state" is not an official term used in international law, and it does not necessarily imply that the government has collapsed completely; however, it does indicate that a state is undergoing a period of severe instability and is in danger of becoming completely ungovernable. In some cases, the term fragile state is also used. Generally, the term failed state implies that a sovereign nation-state has lost two primary abilities: the ability to maintain authority over its own people and territory and the ability to protect its own national borders.

In many cases, governments of failed states have lost the ability to provide basic public services, enforce laws, or protect citizens from violence, either internally or externally. In extreme instances, failed states may experience civil war, famine, or massive displacement of people. Failed states are often at the mercy of criminal networks, terrorist organizations, and international powers that can take advantage of their lack of security.

Causes of Failed States

There are several possible causes of failed states ranging from political instability to economic neglect and lack of governance. The following list explores some of the most common causes of failed states:

  • Political Instability: The lack of an effective functioning government or ruling authority can lead to political instability and chaos. This can be exacerbated by corruption, mismanagement of resources, or internal conflict.
  • Economic Mismanagement: Failed states often have a history of economic mismanagement and neglect, leading to poverty, unemployment, and other problems.
  • Social Inequality: Unequal access to resources, education, and healthcare can create deep divisions within a nation and lead to unrest.
  • Regional Conflict: Wars, insurgencies, and other conflicts between states or groups can destabilize a region and lead to failed states. Civil wars are particularly devastating, as they can disrupt the government and social structure of a country.
  • Foreign Intervention: Failed states can sometimes be the result of foreign intervention, whether intentional or unintentional. This can include military interventions, sanctions, and other forms of interference in domestic politics.
  • International Pressure: Large-scale international interventions such as trade embargoes or economic sanctions can cause economic hardship and lead to instability in a nation.
  • Climate Change: Countries that rely heavily on natural resources for their livelihoods can be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, which can lead to economic and political instability.

Failed State Characteristics

Although the context and specifics of each failed state will vary, there are some common characteristics shared by most failed states. These include:

  • Weak or ineffective government: The government of a failed state is often unable to provide basic public services or interact with other states effectively. It may be unable to control its borders or enforce laws.
  • Political instability: Failed states often experience a high level of political unrest, with frequent changes in leadership and power struggles between different factions.
  • Economic decline: Failed states typically go through extended periods of economic decline due to mismanagement, corruption, or foreign sanctions. This can lead to poverty and other social problems.
  • Poor infrastructure: Failed states may have poor transportation, communications, and energy infrastructure. This can exacerbate issues related to providing basic services to citizens.
  • Refugee crises: Failed states can experience mass displacement of people due to wars, political unrest, or economic collapse. This can lead to a refugee crisis in neighboring countries or around the world.
  • International isolation: Failed states often become isolated from other nations, as other countries may be unwilling to interact with them or provide aid. This can lead to a vicious cycle of poverty and instability.
  • Human rights abuses: Failed states may experience widespread human rights violations due to the lack of an effective legal system or government oversight. This can lead to a variety of problems, including forced labor and slavery.
  • Terrorism: Failed states can be a breeding ground for terrorist groups due to the lack of government control. This may result in various types of security threats for other countries.

Measurement of Failed States

Measuring failed states is a complex process involving both quantitative and qualitative approaches. Quantitative measures typically focus on the economic health of a state, such as the failed state's gross domestic product (GDP), unemployment rate, and public debt. Qualitative measures are more subjective and involve assessing a state's political stability, human rights record, and access to quality healthcare.

One well-known measure of failed states is the Fragile States Index (FSI), published annually by The Fund for Peace. The FSI assesses countries based on twelve indicators and assigns each country a score on a scale of 0 to 10, with higher scores indicating a greater risk of state failure. These indicators are then aggregated into a total score out of 120, and a ranking is created to identify the countries most at risk of becoming failed states. The twelve indicators pertain to a few different categories of concern and can be grouped into issues relating to economic, political, cohesion, and social pressures. The index is intended to help identify countries at risk of becoming failed states and provide comparative data for policymakers.

Map of Failed States

The Fragile State Index is an important tool for assessing the fragility of countries around the world.

2008 World Map showing data from the Fragile State Index

This 2008 Fragile State Index map demonstrates the degree of state failure worldwide, with countries colored based on their score on the FSI. The following scores relate to their color on the map:

  • Red (Alert): 90 to 120
  • Orange (Warning): 60 to 89.9
  • Yellow (Moderate or Stable): 30 to 59.99
  • Green (Sustainable): 0 to 29.99
  • Grey (Insufficient Data)

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is meant by failed state?

The term failed can be relatively ambiguous in the complex context of global politics. However, a failed state is generally described as a country that has experienced a dramatic loss of government control and cannot govern its citizens or protect its borders. Many have defined failed states as states that have lost the ability to govern their own people, protect their borders, and generally maintain their territory.

What are examples of failed states?

There are many examples of failed states around the world. Some of the most notable examples of states that have been considered to be past failed states include Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Haiti, and South Sudan.

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