The Failed States Index 2013 Launch Event

Published July 9, 2013
By J. J. Messner
The Failed States Index Launch Event
Transcript of speech presented to the Failed States Index 2013 Launch Event by J. J. Messner, Co-Director of the Failed States Index, at the University Club in Washington, D.C. on July 9, 2013.

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Welcome everyone to the launch of the 2013 Failed States Index.

The Fund for Peace is pleased to present the ninth edition of our Index which rates 178 countries based on their susceptibility to destabilization.

But before we talk more deeply about the index or our findings, it is important to be clear on what we mean when we talk about state failure.

State failure, or state collapse as some refer to it, constitutes: the state’s loss of control of its territory, or that the state no longer has a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders; the erosion of the state’s legitimate authority to make collective decisions; the inability of the state to provide adequate public services; and the state’s inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.
In essence, a failed nation is characterized by social, political, and/or economic failure.

So why do failed states matter?

No state is an island. Well, obviously some states are literally islands, but geopolitically, every nation is interconnected, such that the pressures on one state can have serious effects not only at home, but abroad as well.

State failure matters to the individual state for fairly obvious reasons. State failure can lead to poverty, famine and insecurity for its population, and very likely, internal conflict and strife.

But state failure also matters to other countries as well. State failure in one country can very easily place immense pressure on others –for example, the intense uptick in pressure experienced by Syria can have regional consequences on neighboring countries such as Lebanon. Indeed, the Arab Spring demonstrated how events can be transnational in nature, spreading from Tunisia to the Levant and the Western Sahel. Or even for a country like the United States, it can face significant risk of terrorist attack from groups operating unfettered in regions on the other side of the world with little state control.

It is easy to talk about failed states in the abstract, but much harder to actually apply that definition to a country. The term “failed state” is frequently thrown around a little too loosely and more often than not without justification. And so it is important to find a way to quantify susceptibility to state failure.

In order to do just that, about 15 years ago, under the leadership of Dr. Pauline Baker, the Fund for Peace developed the CAST framework for conflict assessment. The CAST framework assesses internal pressures upon a state – or even a region or a province – based on twelve social, economic and political indicators. Under these 12 indicators are over 130 sub-indicators – In many ways, the Failed States Index is actually 12 separate indices.

About ten years ago, The Fund for Peace started work to automate parts of what was a laborious undertaking for our analysts. Recognizing that there was a huge gap in quantitative data, we created our own content analysis methodology to fill the data gap.

This year, we examined 41,060,211 articles using our highly specialized search parameters to generate the raw scores that represent the salience – or significance – of each of the pressures upon a given country.

The content analysis data we create and use in the FSI gets arguably the most attention. But it is only one methodology we employ. We actually employ several different methodologies and different data types. We also use existing quantitative data, like economic and demographic statistics. And we bring in qualitative review. Each country is assessed by an analyst to determine how the 12 indicators have trended in the past year.

Recognizing the inherent weaknesses and biases that exist in each of these methodologies, we then triangulate them to determine the indicator scores. In this way, we hope to have taken advantage of the strengths of each methodology to produce the most accurate scores possible.

It is The Fund for Peace’s position that no state is ever failed, permanently. The term “failed” implies a finality that we would not give to any country – even for Somalia, which one could argue, at this time, demonstrates many aspects of failure on such a country-wide basis. Indeed, Somalia managed to improve in the past year, helping to demonstrate that when we talk of state failure or state fragility, we should do so in a temporal sense – no country need remain failed, and will may worst find itself in a phase of state failure.

The Failed States Index looks at countries on a continuum of state failure – each with their own characteristics. Importantly, the Index does not designate state failure. It simply rates the susceptibility to failure and collapse.

Nevertheless, quantifying the signs of state failure is critical in being able to identify and address current or pending crises. The Failed States Index is informative in quantifying the pressures upon states relative to each other, and for states that score poorly, it can be crucial in bringing attention to countries that do not otherwise enjoy much attention.

Almost all of us probably knew before today that Somalia is in bad shape, irrespective of having seen its ranking on the Failed States Index. But can the same be said for a country like the Central African Republic, ranked 9th. Or Guinea Bissau, at 15th? We believe that the ranking of the Failed States Index is able to draw attention to countries that face significant challenges.

Though we are confident in the objectivity and accuracy of the Failed States Index, the results should nevertheless be understood in context.

The Failed States Index is in many ways an average.

Firstly, it is an average of an entire country. When we score a country, it is for its entirety. Without doubt, every country will have areas that are better than its score would suggest, and others that are worse. This can be in terms of province by province or city versus rural areas. Take a country like the United States for example – the pressures experienced in New York City, not to mention the capacity of local authorities, are going to be starkly different to that of a small town in, say, Mississippi. Even when a country is at war, there are parts of a country that will be experiencing conflict, and others – though not necessarily at peace – that will be affected less directly.

Secondly, the Failed States Index is an average of a year. We analyze every country from January 1 to December 31, and there will be peaks and troughs throughout the year as some pressures worsen at points and others improve. For some countries, a month-by-month, indicator-by-indicator analysis can look like an EKG graph. But yet, at the end of the year, it receives just one score averaging all those peaks and troughs throughout those twelve months.

Since the Failed States Index is an average of 12 indicators which themselves are in their own way averages, it is important to understand how countries that are completely different to one another can rank similarly. Take, for example, Israel, Fiji, and Bolivia, all three ranked equal 67th on this year’s Index. They have the same total score and rank the same, but no one would ever suggest that they are in any way the same or face similar pressures. Rather, their tied score comes from the simple fact that, put together, their individual indicator scores add up to the same total. But yet, those indicator scores themselves are very different – as Bolivia experiences high uneven development, Fiji is most concerned with legitimacy of the state and Israel faces significant pressure in terms of Group Grievance and factionalized elites.

Now that we have set the context for the Failed States Index, let us now turn to our findings for 2013.

There was some optimism at The Fund for Peace this year that we would finally see Somalia climb out of first place on the Index after having been firmly anchored in top position for five straight years, especially given the encouraging signs that have been emanating from the country in recent times. Alas, it was not to be. Somalia has, for the sixth time in succession, taken top spot.

Indeed, the fact that Somalia ranked first again was met with some surprise, given that there had been signs of some progress in the country during the past year. However when countries fall significantly, they can do so rapidly and catastrophically and it takes significant time and resources to reconstruct them. Though it is true that countries can also experience slow declines (as we’ve seen with multiple European countries), there is really only one speed of recovery – slow.

This was also the first year that South Sudan was officially ranked. Last year, we gave South Sudan a provisional ranking, since it was an independent nation and UN member for less than half of the preceding year. South Sudan remained at fourth position, just behind its neighbor Sudan. There was much rejoicing at the birth of the world’s newest country in 2011, but as it turns out, independence is not a panacea. Violence has continued, sometimes perpetrated by those in state uniforms, sometimes along ethnic lines. For South Sudan, as much as statehood was a herculean effort, in many ways the real struggle began with independence.

At the other end of the Index, Western Europe, and in particular Scandinavia, is heavily represented. Finland has ranked as the best nation for the third time in a row. Both Finland and Sweden are the only countries with the designation of “Very Sustainable.” Notably, Switzerland became the first non-Scandinavian country to rank among the best three countries on the Index.

Year-on-year, Japan is the most-improved nation since 2012.

After being the most-worsened in 2012 from the effects of the previous year’s earthquake and nuclear meltdown, Japan has rebounded significantly this year, though it still has some way to go to return to its pre-earthquake standing. Though recovery can often be a slow process, Japan demonstrates that it is possible for highly resilient countries with legitimate, representative, and professional institutions to recover fairly rapidly from serious shocks. The next most improved country, Iceland, has similarly demonstrated a high level of resiliency, recovering from the economic shocks of previous years.

Mali is by far-and-away the most-worsened country in 2013, having worsened by 11.4 points, and having shot up 41 places to 38th on the Index, as a result of the conflict in the north of the country. Interestingly, neighboring Mauritania and Burkina Faso are 2013’s second- and fourth-most worsened countries. This demonstrates clearly how fragility can be a regional phenomenon, and the pressures on one state can so easily cause pressure in another.

We are sure that the rankings of the Failed States Index, as they do every year, will spark serious debate.

Everyone likely has their own conception of where they believe countries should rank on the Index, and those perceptions will sometimes be at odds with our scores.

But it is important not to view state fragility through the lens of CNN, or in other words, basing those perceptions upon whatever happens to be at the top of the news hour. Many are surprised to see countries that grace our headlines on nearly a daily basis, like Syria, are not at the top of the Index. Or that countries that are being trumpeted as success stories, like Myanmar, have not improved more.

But let us look at these countries objectively. Syria, ranked 21st, is definitely facing significant pressure. But it just so happens that twenty other countries are adjudged to be suffering even more deeply rooted and intense pressure. In many ways, Syria is 21st, and not higher, due to congestion at the top of the Index.

In the case of Myanmar, though we should be cautiously optimistic with regard to the positive signs emerging from the country, we must still be realistic that recovery will be a slow process. And, let us not forget, just as with congestion at the top of the Index, as Myanmar improves, it will encounter its own traffic jam of countries that are already at a more advanced stage.

Equally important in eschewing the CNN effect is to recognize countries that do not make the headlines. Though countries like the Central African Republic and Guinea Bissau may almost never be mentioned in the morning news bulletins in Washington or London, it does not mean that the states are thus stable or that their populations are not suffering. At the other extreme, though Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste are almost never on the front pages, that fact should not subtract from the steady progress that both of those countries have made over the past decade as they recover from conflict.

In essence, that is what the Failed States Index allows us to do – assess the relative performance of countries, free from the influence of pundits and the 24-hour news cycle.

Though the rankings are definitely of interest – after all, it is an Index – the real value of the analysis is to be found in the scores, and the trends over time. A country can have what appears to be a poor score, but the real conversation we should be having is whether that country is improving or worsening over time. And even then, the numbers should only be the beginning of the conversation. The numbers themselves should not the be all and end all, but rather should be the beginning of us collectively working out how we are going to improve things on the ground. Let us not forget that when we talk about the pressures in Somalia, though the ranking of number 1 and the score of 113.9 are important numbers to recognize, the most important number of all is the 9.557 million people whose daily reality is instability.

But hopefully by being able to quantify susceptibility to state failure, and determine trends over time, we can then better identify problem areas so that policy makers can more effectively address them.

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Ultimately the Failed States Index teaches us to be realistic about state fragility and, to an extent, to be patient about development and improvement. Certainly, countries can decline both rapidly and gradually. Without significant capacity and a high-level of resiliency, however, the road to recovery will be a long and rocky one, filled with potholes and setbacks.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Failed States Index, the discourse should not be about where a country ranks, but rather, is that country better off than it was last year? Or ten years ago? Is a country facing rising pressures or diminishing capacities? By asking questions such as this, the international community can best help alleviate pressures in the short term and strengthen capacity in the longer term. Ultimately, that is the purpose of the Failed States Index.

We look forward to answering your questions after the expert panel.

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