“The reasons for state weakness and failure are complex, but not unpredictable,” said J.J. Messner, one of the founders of the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index
, at the launch
of the 2011 version of report in Washington last month. The Index is an analytical tool that could aid policymakers and governments seeking to prevent and mitigate state collapse by identifying patterns of underlying drivers of state instability.
The Index ranks 177 countries according to 12 primary social, economic, and political indicators based on analysis of “thousands of news and information sources and millions of documents” and distilled into a form that is meant to be “relevant as well as easily digestible and informative,” according to the creators. “By highlighting pertinent issues in weak and failing states,” they write, the Index “makes political risk assessment and early warning of conflict accessible to policymakers and the public at large.”
Common Threats: Demographic and Natural Resource Pressures
The Index reveals that half of the 10-most fragile states are acutely demographically challenged. The composite “Demographic Pressures” category takes into account population density, growth, and distribution; land and resource competition; water scarcity; food security; the impact of natural disasters; and public health prevention and control. Additional population indices are found in “Massive Movement of Refugees or Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs),” and health indicators, including infant mortality, water, and sanitation, are spread across several categories.
Not surprisingly, some of the most conflict-ridden countries show up at the top of the list. The Index highlights some of the lesser known issues that contribute to their misery: demographic and natural resource stresses in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yemen (a list that would include Palestine, if inclusion in the Index were not contingent on UN membership); the DRC’s conflict minerals; and Somalia and Sudan’s myriad of environmental and migration problems, which play major roles in their continued instability.
Haiti, with its poor health and lack of infrastructure and disaster resilience, was deemed the Index’s “most-worsened” state of 2011. The January 2010 earthquake and its ensuing “chaos and humanitarian catastrophe” demonstrated that a single event can trigger the collapse of virtually every other sector of society, causing what Messner termed the “Humpty Dumpty effect” – while a state can deteriorate quickly, it is much harder to put it back together again.
The inclusion of natural resource governance within the social and economic indicators would render the Index a more complete analytical tool. In a 2009 report, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) found that “since 1990, at least eighteen violent conflicts have been fueled by the exploitation of natural resources,” and that effective natural resource management is a necessary component of conflict prevention and peacebuilding operations.
The Elephant in the Room: Predicting the Arab Spring
Why did the Index fail to predict the Arab Spring sweeping the Middle East and North Africa? Many critics assert that the inconsistent ranking of the states, ranging from Yemen (ranked 13th) to Bahrain (ranked 129th), demonstrates that the Index is a poor indicator of state instability. Particularly, critics argue that many of the countries experiencing revolutions were ranked artificially low.
“Of course, the Failed States Index did not predict the Arab Spring, and nor is it intended to predict such upheavals,” said Messner at the launch event. “But by digging down deeper into the specific indicator analysis, it was possible to observe the growing tensions in those countries.” The Index has consistently highlighted specific troubling indicators for the region, such as severe demographic pressures, migration, group grievance, human rights, state legitimacy, and political elitism.
Blake Hounshell, a correspondent with Foreign Policy (long-time collaborators with the Fund for Peace on the Index), wrote that the Index was never meant to be a “crystal ball” – even the best statistical data cannot truly encapsulate the complex realities that lead to inherently unpredictable events, such as revolutions. “It’s thousands of individual decisions, not rows of statistics, that add up to political upheaval,” Hounshell continued.
Demographer Richard Cincotta’s work on Tunisia’s revolution illuminates how the Index’s linear indicators can mask a complex reality. Whereas the Failed States Index simply measures “demographic pressure” as a linear function of how youthful a population is, Cincotta pointed out at a Wilson Center event that it was actually Tunisia’s relative demographic maturity that paved the way for its revolution and gives it a good chance of achieving a liberal democracy. Other countries in the region are much younger than Tunisia (Yemen being the youngest). The Arab Spring demonstrates that static indicators alone often do not have the capacity to predict complex social and political revolutions.
Sources: Foreign Policy, The Fund for Peace, UNEP.
Image Credit: Failed States Index 2011, Foreign Policy.