Now that We Have Your Attention:
The Failed States Index as a Policy Tool to Improve Human Security

Published June 29, 2012
By Krista Hendry and Nate Haken
The Fund for Peace Commentary
The publication of the Failed States Index (FSI) each year leads to a flurry of discussion and debate in national media outlets and blogs all over the world. This year, its reception in Indonesia has caught our attention. At first, as frequently happens, the politicians disagreed with our findings and even publicly questioned our intentions and qualifications. But then they started actually debating the scores as did journalists and average citizens. The politicians spoke about the strong economy (which doesn't get as much weighting on our Index as many would like). Some in the public expressed frustration with corruption and with the distribution of public services. Others pointed out that over the years, there has been progress made on many of the indicators and called on the government to continue to make improvements.

And that's what the Failed States Index allows. The application of a common framework and robust methodology allows for the measurement of changes on the ground over time, and facilitates a conversation about where things are improving, where things seem to be deteriorating, and what needs to be done to keep a country from slipping into conflict.

Granted, indices implicitly assume an unrealistic level of generalizability in the world. In the case of the FSI, we assume that social, economic, and political pressures come together as symptoms of instability in roughly the same way in every country every time. We recognize that this paints a complex picture with a very broad brush. But sometimes a broad brush can be useful.

Different agencies and sectors have specialized disciplines, tools, and metrics. The problem of state failure, however, is bigger than that. There are cross-cutting issues of governance, economy, public services, atomization of the polity, security, brain drain, and sovereignty. Addressing the root problems requires the engagement of civil society, security forces, development experts, political leadership, and others. Living in silos can be dangerous—depending on the situation. What makes sense for the economy alone, or from a security perspective alone, can sometimes undermine political stability. There are conflicting short term, medium term, and long term considerations and imperatives. The parts are always moving, some faster than others.

With so many challenges to juggle, an index like the FSI helps keep track of them all. As David Rothkopf put it, “(The FSI) is an important barometer of governance and stability, and though it could not hope to offer the last word on an issue as complex as state failure, it succeeds because every year it triggers a vigorous debate about places that usually get too little attention in the halls of power -- but often come back to haunt us all later."

Because the issue of state fragility and state failure is more complex than any index, we expect people on the ground to question the scores and delve more deeply into the numbers.

In Indonesia, we read of politicians asking civil society to join with them to understand the challenges and work together to improve the country. We hope this call to collaboration is genuine and will be accepted. This epitomizes our ultimate goal—the use of the FSI as a tool on the ground around which to consider priorities, discuss responsibilities, and monitor progress, such that it becomes a part of positive change contributing to increased human security worldwide.

Originally posted on the U.S. Institute of Peace International Network for Economics and Conflict blog.