After a half-century of forming new states from former colonies and from the breakup of the Soviet Union, the international community is today focusing on the disintegration of states. The term”failing state” has entered our working vocabulary only during the last decade or so, but these countries are now an integral part of the international political landscape. In the past, governments have been concerned by the concentration of too much power in one state, as in Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. But today it is failing states that provide the greatest threat to global order and stability.

States fail when national governments lose control of part or all of their territory and can no longer ensure the personal security of their people. When governments lose their monopoly on power, the rule of law begins to disintegrate. When they can no longer provide basic services such as education, health care, and food security, they lose their legitimacy. A government in this position may no longer be able to collect enough revenue to finance effective governance. Societies can become so fragmented that they lack the cohesion to make decisions.

Failing states often degenerate into civil war as opposing groups vie for power. Conflicts can easily spread to neighboring countries, as when the genocide in Rwanda spilled over into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an ongoing civil conflict has claimed more than 5 million lives since 1998. The vast majority of these deaths in the Congo are nonviolent, most of them due to hunger, respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, and other diseases as millions have been driven from their homes. Within the Sudan, the killings in Darfur quickly spread into Chad.

Failing states can also provide possible training grounds for international terrorist groups, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen, or as a base for pirates, as in Somalia. They may become sources of drugs, as in Myanmar (formerly Burma) or Afghanistan, which accounted for 92 percent of the world’s opium supply in 2008, much of which is made into heroin. Because they lack functioning health care services, weakened states can become a source of infectious disease, as Nigeria and Pakistan have for polio, derailing efforts to eradicate this dreaded disease.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Among the most conspicuous indications of state failure is a breakdown in law and order and a related loss of personal security. In Haiti, kidnappings for ransom of local people lucky enough to be among the 30 percent of the labor force that is employed are commonplace. In Afghanistan the local warlords, not the central government, control the country outside of Kabul. Somalia, which now exists only on maps, is ruled by tribal leaders, each claiming a piece of what was once a country. In Mexico, drug cartels are taking over, signaling the prospect of a failed state on the U.S. border.

The most systematic ongoing effort to analyze failed and failing states is published annually in each July/August issue of Foreign Policy magazine. This analysis ranks countries according to “their vulnerability to violent internal conflict and societal deterioration.” Based on 12 social, economic, political, and military indicators, it puts Somalia at the top of the list of failed states for 2008, followed by Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Three oil-exporting countries are among the top 20 failed states — Sudan, Iraq, and Nigeria. Pakistan, number 10 on the list, is the only failing state with a nuclear arsenal. North Korea, number 17, is developing a nuclear capability.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Graph on Top 20 Failing States, 2008

Scores for each of the 12 indicators, ranging from 1 to 10, are aggregated into a single country indicator: the Failed States Index. A score of 120, the maximum, means that a society is failing totally by every measure. In the first Foreign Policy listing, based on data for 2004, just 7 countries had scores of 100 or more. By 2008 it was 14 — doubling in four years. This short trend is far from definitive, but higher scores for countries at the top and the doubling of countries with scores of 100 or higher suggest that state failure is both spreading and deepening.

Ranking on the Failed States Index is closely linked with key demographic and environmental indicators. Of the top 20 failed states, 17 have rapid rates of population growth, several of them expanding at close to 3 percent a year or 20-fold per century. In 5 of these 17 countries, women have on average more than six children each. In all but six of the top 20 failed states, at least 40 percent of the population is under 15, a demographic statistic that often signals future political instability. Young men, lacking employment opportunities, often become disaffected, making them ready recruits for insurgency movements.

In many of the countries with several decades of rapid population growth, governments are suffering from demographic fatigue, unable to cope with the steady shrinkage in cropland and freshwater supplies per person or to build schools fast enough for the swelling ranks of children.

Sudan is a classic case of a country caught in the demographic trap. It has developed far enough economically and socially to reduce mortality, but not far enough to quickly reduce fertility. As a result, women on average have four children and the population of 41 million is growing by over 2,000 per day. Under this pressure, Sudan — like scores of other countries — is breaking down.

All but 3 of the 20 countries that lead the list of failing states are caught in this demographic trap. Realistically, they probably cannot break out of it on their own. They will need outside help — and not just a scattering of aid projects but systemic assistance in rebuilding — or the political situation will simply continue to deteriorate.

Among the top 20 countries on the failing state list, all but a few are losing the race between food production and population growth. Close to half of these states depend on a food lifeline from the World Food Program. Food shortages can put intense pressures on governments. In many countries the social order began showing signs of stress in 2007 in the face of soaring food prices and spreading hunger. Food riots and unrest continued in 2008 in dozens of countries, from tortilla riots in Mexico to breadline fights in Egypt. In Haiti, soaring food prices helped bring down the government.

Another characteristic of failing states is a deterioration of infrastructure — roads and power, water, and sewage systems. Care for natural systems is also neglected as people struggle to survive. Forests, grasslands, and croplands deteriorate, generating a downward economic spiral. A drying up of foreign investment and a resultant rise in unemployment are also part of the decline syndrome.

Countries like Haiti and Afghanistan are surviving because they are on international life-support systems. Economic assistance, including food lifelines, is helping to sustain them. But there is not enough assistance to overcome the reinforcing trends of deterioration they are experiencing and replace them with the demographic and political stability need to sustain economic progress.

In an age of increasing globalization, the functioning of the global system depends on a cooperative network of functioning nation states. When governments lose their capacity to govern, they can no longer collect taxes, much less be responsible for their international debts. More failing states means more bad debt. Efforts to control international terrorism depend on cooperation among functioning nation states, and these efforts weaken as more states fail.

As the number of failing states grows, dealing with international
crises becomes more difficult. Actions that may be relatively simple in a healthy world order, such as maintaining monetary stability or controlling an infectious disease outbreak, could become difficult or impossible in a world with numerous disintegrating states. Even maintaining international flows of raw materials could become a challenge. At some point, spreading political instability could disrupt global economic progress, suggesting that we need to address the causes of state failure with a heightened sense of urgency.


Adapted from Chapter 1, “Selling Our Future” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), available on-line at