The failed index from hell*

We at Africa is a Country think Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace should either radically rethink the Failed States Index, which they publish in collaboration each year, or abandon it altogether. We just can’t take it seriously: It’s a failed index.

This year, pro forma, almost the entire African continent shows up on the Failed States map in the guiltiest shade of red. The accusation is that with a handful of exceptions, African states are failing in 2012. But what does this tell us? What does it actually mean? Frankly, we have no idea. The index is so flawed in its conception, so incoherent in its structuring criteria, and so misleading in its presentation that from the perspective of those who live or work in those places condemned as failures, it’s difficult to receive the ranking as anything more than a predictable annual canard issued from Washington, D.C. against non-Western — and particularly African — nations.

The problem is that there are any number of reasons why the Fund for Peace might decide that a state is failing. The Washington-based think tank has a methodology of sorts, but Foreign Policy insists on making the list accessible primarily through a series of “Postcards from Hell.” Flipping through the slide show, it’s impossible to shrug off the suspicion that the whole affair is a sloppy cocktail of cultural bigotries and liberal-democratic commonplaces — a faux-empirical sham that packs quite a nasty racialized aftertaste. How do we know if a state is failing or not? Old chestnuts like the rule of law are certainly considered, but also in play are things like economic growth, economic “success,” poverty, inequality, corruption, nonstate violence, state violence, human rights abuses, body counts, terrorism, health care, “fragility,” political dissent, social divisions, and levels of authoritarianism. And yes, we’ll be indexing all of those at once, and more.

The golden principle by which this muddle is to be marshaled oh-so-objectively into a grand spectrum of state failure coefficients is apparently the idea of “stability.” But is it really? Well, if you’re an Arab Spring country, then yes, it’s the “instability” of revolution or popular revolt that has put you in the red this year. Sorry about that. But if you’re North Korea (the paradigmatic failed state in the U.S. imagination — hence why Zimbabwe is often branded “Africa’s North Korea”), it’s because you’re far too stable. If stability is the key to all this, and yet there’s an imperative for places like North Korea still to be ranked as failures, then we’re in trouble. The cart has long ago overtaken the horse. It would be very difficult indeed to conceive of a more stable form of rule than having power descend smoothly down three generations of the same family over six decades and more (perhaps the Bushes will pull off something like this one day). And, of course, it helps if the names of overweening rulers are spelled correctly: Cameroonian readers of the slide show were startled to discover that they had been led for many years by someone by the name of “Paul Abiye,” of whom they had never heard (the spelling has since been corrected).

Clearly, the value of stability to any society is uncertain and subjective. Foreign Policy explains to its readers that Malawi (No. 36 on this year’s index) is to be considered a failed state on account of the 19 people killed by police during popular protests against Bingu wa Mutharika’s government a year ago. Yet such dissent is evidence of the strength of Malawian civil society and the determination of ordinary Malawians not to get screwed by their government. Malawi is undoubtedly better off for these protests, not worse. What makes the country’s listing as a failed state look even sillier is that Malawi recently endured a blissfully peaceful transition of power following Mutharika’s sudden death, with constitutional guidelines scrupulously adhered to despite the vested interests of many of the country’s ruling class.

One of our readers, the cartographer Jacques Enaudeau, called the index “a developmentalist ode to no-matter-what political stability and linear history.” He’s right, but as we’ve seen this stability fetish only applies to those states perceived as non-totalitarian. So how exactly can a democratic country like, say, Nigeria ever hope to satisfy the whimsical judgment of Foreign Policy magazine? The Occupy Nigeria movement that demonstrated against corruption and the removal of the country’s fuel subsidy in January was a peaceful mass movement that achieved major gains for working people. It was a thoroughly global protest, with Nigerians in the diaspora taking to the streets of Brussels, London, New York, and Washington, D.C., to demand better governance in Nigeria. Yet these protests are listed on the country’s “postcard” alongside terrorist attacks by Boko Haram as equal evidence of Nigeria’s “hellishness.” For some reason, the postcard neglects to mention the extraordinary spectacle of protesters in Nigerian cities standing guard outside each other’s places of worship — Muslims outside churches, Christians at the doors of mosques — so that each group could pray without fear of further bombings.

Many of the Postcards from Hell, in fact, simply show popular protests taking place, as though dissent and social demonstrations are themselves signs of state failure. What kind of half-baked political theory is this? Maybe protests are bad for business and troublesome, but for whom exactly? And are we ranking the state or the society? Or both at once?

It baffles us that a U.S. magazine that prides itself on attempting to offer smart, detailed, historically rich analysis of other countries should so rejoice in deliberately rejecting nuance and complexity, offering a single emotive image as the representation of “what living in a failed state looks like.” The decision to recycle old photographs (a quick glance indicates that Mozambique’s, for example, is from 2010, while Madagascar’s is from 2009) suggests that some of these states have stubbornly refused to look sufficiently like failed ones for quite a while. So who loses out when Foreign Policy does something like this? We don’t think the answer is as obvious as it might first appear. Another of our readers, Sara Valek, writes, “There is so much more to a country than one photograph. I feel sorry for the people viewing this article who now only have this image in their brains about Mozambique, as opposed to the beauty that I know and love.”

The Postcards from Hell also insist that there are no white people in this year’s story of state failure — not even the people of Greece, who are informed — surely to their incredulity — that they are living in one of the 40 most stable nations in the world. Egypt is ranked 31st, but nowhere in the account of “just how it came to be that way” is there a mention of the annual $1.3 billion of U.S. military aid (recently reinstated) that continues to complicate attempts to establish parliamentary democracy in the country. European colonialism and the Cold War are scarcely mentioned, yet the reader is somehow expected to form an adequate understanding of the problems faced today by a country like Angola. Is late 20th-century history too far back in the past for Foreign Policy to bother itself with?

Flicking through the Postcards, we can’t help wondering what can possibly be gained through this bombastic annual display of geopolitical smugness. Why not choose to be self-critical instead of blithely rubbishing faraway countries every summer?

There will never be a Postcard from Hell that bears a picture of an American street. But what if there were? What would go on there? Might it not apply the very same criteria that condemns much of Africa and lament the deeply corrupt political system that makes legislative progress virtually impossible, inhibits the establishment of truly pluralistic multiparty politics, places the bulk of power in the hands of unaccountable corporations, and offers only the very rich the chance to pursue successful political careers? It might make mention, too, of the baffling lack of affordable public health care, the rapidly growing inequality that can only foment social unrest, or the way in which young men of color continue to be harassed by state police. Maybe we could refer to these police officers as “security forces loyal to the current regime.”

Nor must we forget the enduring popularity of capital punishment, the country’s ongoing program of extrajudicial detention and killing that proceeds without any substantial accountability, and the nation’s vast stockpile of nuclear weapons, which proliferates in shameless contravention of the international commitments made by the United States. America’s Postcard might add that, in recent years, its soldiers, humanitarians all, have become notorious around the world for choosing to record footage of the atrocities they commit on mobile devices, in order to share these images with friends and colleagues. It would certainly bemoan the beatings and intimidation meted out to the many Occupy protestors who demonstrated peacefully in American cities last fall. Perhaps the picture could be of the moment last year when a police officer seized a U.C.-Berkeley college professor by the hair and flung her to the ground.

* This post first appeared on

5 thoughts on “The failed index from hell*

  1. It is would be preposterous to label Zimbabwe as Africa’s North Korea (for many reasons) but still the article is spot on. In my view there’s no such thing as a ‘failed state’. The criteria is far too difficult, or rather impossible to define and the index has many loop holes. Besides I don’t really know if anyone can define a ‘failed state’ without pursuing and furthering a certain agenda. How can you say Somalia is more failed than Sudan or Afghanistan. It’s absurd. Zimbabwe, to me surprisingly 9th on the failed state list, has the highest literacy rate in Africa, undoubtable peace and security, has the highest GDP growth rate average for the last 3 years in world outside RIC(not even SA or Brazil has that %), is leading in poverty reduction through land redistribution and economic empowerment, has better infrastructure as compared to many other African nations, has fewer social divisions as compared to many (like its southern neighbours, Nigeria, USA, Europe, Russia, etc.), is a democracy by definition, is proudly anti imperialist. The list is hogwash and unfortunately a good numeber holds that list true and reliable.

  2. Agreed! Mo Ibrahim’s prize could arguably be characterised in a similar way. E.g. Who was the worst leader: Tony Blair, George Bush or Thabo Mbeki? Mbeki won’t get the prize, which is basically supposed to encourage African leaders to behave like their supposedly reputable Western counterparts (can someone find one of these?).

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