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Failed States: A Threat to World Stability


When a government ceases to properly function, that country can become prey to both outside interference and lawless internal forces.

Somalia, January 1991: After years of fighting between government and opposition forces, the regime of President Siyaad Barre collapsed. The Horn of Africa nation was left without the normal structures of a state such as a military under civilian control and fuctioning government ministries. Quickly, Somalia became a fragmented nation controlled and torn apart by militias, warlords and terrorists linked to al-Qaida. Somalia became a "failed state," and remains one today.

Somalia is not the only country deemed a failure. Recently, the bi-monthly journal Foreign Policy, published by The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, issued an index of 60 nations that ranked them by the severity of government failure or the chance of collapse. The Foreign Policy “failed states” index looked at 12 factors, including human flight, uneven development, economic decline, public services and the behavior of that nation’s security apparatus.

Africa and Asia dominate the "Failed States Index"

Out of the 60 countries listed on the index, 23 are in Africa, 14 in Asia, nine in Latin America, eight in the Middle East, five in Eastern Europe and one – Haiti – in the Caribbean. The index lists Ivory Coast as the most troubled country, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Index Project Manager Krista Hendry says those and other African governments are beset with a number of developmental problems.

“The countries are still looking to build up legitimate governments that take in all segments of the society," she says. "And as these countries go through these growing pains, it takes time for these things to develop. We also have problems with single-economy states in Africa, and that is not very good for your sustainable economy, which is critical to sustainable security.”

Spillover conflicts help fuel the failure of adjacent states

Marina Ottaway, with The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says there is another reason why a number of these African states are on the list.

“When one state fails, its events have repercussions in the neighboring states, particularly when you are dealing with very small countries, for example, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and so on. Rebel groups that operate in one country very often end up operating from across the border, [which] in turn tends to destabilize the government in the neighboring country that was frail to begin with,” she says.

Internal politics are key to whether a state fails

While outside military interference, either by neighboring governments or rebels, and internal violence have contributed to the collapse of countries, Helle Dale at The Heritage Foundation in Washington says that political factors can be the most critical ones in whether a nation falls.

“Political collapse often then leads to security and economic collapse," she says, adding "A country cannot function unless it has the things that come from the political system, which are laws and courts. All these things depend on a central state that functions.”

Outside intervention to restore order, prevent total failure

When a failed state’s problems reach a critical level and threaten the stability of surrounding countries, outside intervention has, at times, taken place. James Dobbins at the Rand Corporation in Washington says such action has often succeeded, at least in restoring order.

“Namibia, Mozambique, Cambodia, El Salvador, Sierra Leone, East Timor – those are ones where the U.N.'s intervention led to what has been, to date, permanent peace. If you look at cases where the U-S was the lead, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and Grenada and Panama in the 1980s are all cases where you have had democratic governance since the intervention,” he says.

Healing a failed state comes from within

But Heritage Foundation analyst Helle Dale says it takes more than constructive intervention by peacekeeping forces to ensure lasting stability and effective governance.

“In order to fix a failed state," she says "I don’t think you can do it from the outside. You have to have the political willingness and the talent within the state itself to fix it. Then, you [outsiders] can help. But the leadership has to come from inside, or the state will remain failed.”

Power-sharing to bring opposition factions into government

The political rebuilding of a non-functioning state needs not only reliable and committed leaders, but also consensus among a large enough group of its politicians and people to put a new government together. Foreign Policy Index Project Manager Krista Hendry says it is crucial to coax political factions in failed states into coming together.

“Power sharing is what we have to get to so we can deal with these pressures of group grievance, of factionalized elites, of how the security apparatus is dealing with these groups of people and how the economy is developing along group lines. You have to have some kind of power sharing within the government, the economy, [and] social and public services for a country to have sustainable security,” she says.

But power sharing between a regime and rebels does not always bring peace and ensure good governance. For example, despite such an arrangement in Ivory Coast, the joint government is still considered by most observers to be incapable of properly functioning.

Elections, not conflict

Another aspect of political rebuilding is holding new elections. For instance, in Iraq, which is 4th on Foreign Policy's Failed States Index, and Afghanistan, which is 11th, elections have provided a means by which differences and grievances can be addressed without armed conflict. And it is expected that through future elections, stability can be bolstered by bringing more factions into the mainstream and away from participating in insurgency.

Nation-rebuilding is typically a slow, arduous and expensive process. But the world community has made it clear that the threat of internal violence, spillover regional conflicts and terrorist exploitation is so great that failed states cannot be ignored.

To read the Foreign Policy Failed States Index in its entirety, click here

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.

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