‘Countries from hell’

Peace & Security05 Jul 2013Karlijn Muiderman

Despite economic growth and development progress Africa remains doomed: three-quarters of the continent is portrayed as ‘critical’, and the other quarter as ‘in danger’ or ‘borderline’. This is what the Failed States Index 2013, to be launched in Washington next week, claims. But is Africa really doomed? Critics are warning about an echo effect.

Ranking failure

The Failed States Index (FSI) is a joint project between the independent organization Fund for Peace and the magazine Foreign Policy to rank 178 nations on their levels of stability. Rankings are determined on the basis of 12 social, economic and political indicators, subdivided in sub-indicators. The index has found its way into politics, having its effect on policymaking, with many FSI board members being politically affiliated.

A report and interactive map will be launched, but have already been published. They show Somalia as the worst performer. According to the article ‘What were you expecting?’ on the FSI website, this could have been foreseen, as Somalia has not demonstrated a full recovery from conflict. But critics are warning about a self-fulfilling prophecy: countries branded as bad performers do not attract the investments and tourism needed to develop.

A failed continent

Since last year’s launch, criticisms of the index have not been mild. Claire Leigh from the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) complained about the index in The Guardian. She says that the FSI makes for depressing reading, especially as Foreign Policy published it alongside Postcards from Hell, a gallery of some of the world’s most troubled states. Leigh says that labelling these countries as failed restricts them from making progress. She rejects the destructive effects of the FSI on policy-making and consumer behaviour. Others criticize it for oversimplifying a complex situation. And then there are objections to the unconstructive usage of methodology to establish the index by the New-York-based World Policy think-tank, which is associated with Foreign Policy.

These critics argue that the danger of such an index is that it creates a false dichotomy between failed states and not failed states (World Policy). Leigh says that all indexes are difficult to establish, but the FSI in particular does not add anything to global knowledge by emphasizing countries’ failure. Its danger lies in lumping together too many different indicators, many of which are perception-based, without the interrelationships between them being made visible or the method of measurement being made clear. What then does the FSI really say about the entire African continent on the verge of failing?

It is likely quite problematic for countries like Ethiopia, which has not made a significant improvement since last year, to accept their performance being measured by a US-based partnership. After last year’s launch of the FSI, a spokesperson at the Pakistan embassy in Washington wrote a response to the Foreign Policy article on the index, on behalf of five countries, including Somalia.

Global suffering

The FSI’s main concern seems to be to show how dangerous the failing states are for other countries. The FFP says that the aim of the index is not only to provide an insight into the hazardous effects of failure on the states themselves, but also on the international community: ‘In today’s world, with its highly globalized economy, information systems and interlaced security, pressures on one fragile state can have serious repercussions not only for that state and its people, but also for its neighbours and other states halfway across the globe.’ It is as if they are justifying their organizations’ existence from Washington: ‘We suffer too you know.’

Are such indexes then completely useless? An earlier blog post on The Broker reviewed the negative framework and indicators of indexes that try to quantify security threats. According to last year’s criticisms in the World Policy Journal, the FSI needs to be reformed. But Leigh does not see any value in this. She believes that the FSI should go from the policy shelf to the policy dustbin. Neither suggestion has been taken up, and the FSI will be presented to us again next Tuesday.