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Africa in Transition

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Guest Post: Evaluating the Failed States Index and U.S. Africa Policy

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
June 21, 2012

Policemen secure the scene of a landslide at the Mathare valley slum after boulders, rocks and mud tumbled down a hillside overlooking the slum, smashing into the houses and burying the occupants in Kenya's capital Nairobi, April 4, 2012. (Thomas Mukoya/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Asch Harwood. Asch is the Council on Foreign Relations Africa program research associate.

The Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy have released their 2012 Failed States Index. Fourteen of the twenty states listed as “critical” are found in sub-Saharan Africa. Among the highest scores (bad) are Somalia, DRC, Chad, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.

How predictive is the index? Well, it depends on how you define state failure. If you mean coup, clearly it’s not 100 percent accurate. Mali ranked number 79, which means that it is in danger, but not critical. And yet the country has been struck by interrelated crises—the coup in Bamako, Azawad’s secession and occupation, Tuareg mercenaries, jihadist camps—that fulfill most definitions of state failure. (Jay Ulfelder argues it is indeed possible to assess the likelihood of a coup, which could be considered one definition for state failure.)

But if you identify state failure not as a single incident but as a continuum of insecurity, alienation, and poverty, the Failed States Index provides a useful model.

The United States, therefore, might benefit by testing its foreign policy against the index’s findings, particularly for any “cognitive dissonance” between the USG’s image of a country that underpins that policy and the reality on the ground.

For example, such cognitive dissonance may be present when it comes to Nigeria, although this may be changing. The Failed States Index puts Nigeria in critical condition since the country struggles with Boko Haram in the North, MEND in the South, and sectarian violence in the middle belt—while Abuja’s finances dwindle. Yet, at least publicly, our stance does not always reflect this reality. (It does reflect Nigeria’s strategic importance to the United States, including oil.)

However, this dissonance becomes more troubling when you consider who is responsible for state failure. Daron Acemoblu and James Robinson write “these states collapse because they are ruled by what we call ‘extractive’ economic institutions, which destroy incentives, discourage innovation, and sap the talent of their citizens by creating a tilted playing field and robbing them of opportunities. These institutions are not in place by mistake but on purpose. They’re there for the benefit of elites who gain much from the extraction …at the expense of society.”

That sounds like what Nigerian critics say about their own elites. It is to be hoped that U.S. policymakers make use of sources such as the Failed States Index as they shape the bilateral relationship.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Jay Ulfelder

    Thanks for reading and linking to my FP piece. Two quick points of clarification:

    1. I do not claim to “predict” coups, only to be able to assess the likelihood of their occurrence with enough accuracy to be useful. That might seem like hair-splitting, but I want to be very frank about the limitations as well as the possibilities of forecasting from statistical models.

    2. As Fund for Peace says itself, the Failed States Index is not designed to predict, only to summarize recent conditions. I think your discussion of it as “a continuum of insecurity, alienation, and poverty” is more apt.

  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    Nigeria is big, very big (population 160 million).

    Nigeria is as big as 10 African nations combined, so classifying Nigeria as a “failed state” does not take into account the complexities of the nation.

    While it is true that Northern Nigeria is in free fall, there is a lot more to Nigeria than Northern Nigeria. The economy of Lagos State, for example, is as big as the KENYAN ECONOMY and is growing briskly.

    (Lagos isn’t largely dependent on the proceeds from crude oil revenue).

    In the Niger Delta, states like Akwa Ibom are building infrastructure for sustainable growth in future. States like Enugu in the south-east are attracting foreign investment and building infrastructure.

    I actually live in Lagos, and Lagos is far removed from the troubles of Northern Nigeria, at least for now.

    So the US policy is not one of “cognitive dissonance”, it comes from both listening to the business community and listening to academics (most of who wouldn’t recognise a business opportunity if it passed them by wearing bright red clothes).

  • Posted by aharwood

    Dear Jay,

    Thanks for the clarification. Your first point is extremely important, and one that I should have made clearer. As for the “predictive power,” admittedly that was partially a straw man intended to create the opportunity discuss why the index is a useful framework.


  • Posted by aharwood

    Dear Chike,

    Likewise, your point is terribly important. In fact, when the business community is talking about investing in Nigeria, they are usually talking about Lagos, a market of seventeen million people itself. The Failed States Index is just one lens among many. However, the USG’s formal relationship is with the government in Abuja, which is responsible for the entire country. Indeed, my understanding is that much of Lagos’ success comes from better local governance.


  • Posted by Zainab

    When it comes to the Failed States Index, I am quite ambivalent. On the one hand, I do agree with the description of the Index on this blog that state failure is not “…a single incident but… a continuum of insecurity, alienation, and poverty…” Indeed, I think state failure does not happen overnight, it is a slow, ongoing degenerative process, in a way, very much like decay — rot sets in gradually from within, if nothing is done to stop or reverse the process, then eventually, the whole structure would collapse, and once this happens, it cannot be reversed.

    That said, I think the 12 indicators employed as part of the Index’s methodology do not sufficiently capture some of the key factors that contribute to state failure. Of course as a Nigerian, I can only speak with respect to Nigeria, and in this case, the challenges obstructing the successful consolidation of Nigeria’s nationhood play a crucial role in the process of state failure which this Index, and many Nigerians believe to be on course.

    The fact that 52 years after Independence, and almost 100 years after the “creation” of Nigeria many Nigerians hardly feel any sort of bond, kinship or link with others of a different ethnicity or religion I believe is a key factor here. Some would argue that Nigeria is a forced colonial “contraption” which can never work, but what about other former colonies that aren’t “failing” relatively?

    The insecurity, poverty, unemployment, bad leadership and other ills have only served to make matters worse in Nigeria. Though these aspects of bad leadership and dearth of good governance have persisted in Nigeria for decades, however, Nigerians and Nigeria have endured and found a way to muddle through. In my opinion, Nigerians’ renown “endurance” despite all these shortcomings of the state is because Nigerians to an extent still believe in or “hope” for a better Nigeria. Things will change rapidly and dramatically when that “hope” and ability or willingness to endure weakens or seizes, and this seems to be happening rapidly these days.

    This is the dimension to state failure which I believe the Index doesn’t capture. You can read more about this in an article I wrote titled: “The Failed States Index and Nation-Building in Nigeria” here:

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