EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Early Signs of Decline: Failed States and Terrorism

After a half-century of forming new states from former colonies and from the breakup of the Soviet Union, the international community is now focusing on the disintegration of states. The term “failed states” is now part of our working vocabulary, describing countries where there is no longer a central government. As one study observes, “Failed states have made a remarkable odyssey from the periphery to the very center of global politics.” 72

Recognizing this increasingly common phenomenon, various groups concerned with economic development and international affairs have begun to identify failing or failed states and the indicators associated with their failure. The World Bank, for example, has constructed a list of 30 “low-income countries under stress.” Motivated by a similar concern, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development has identified 46 “fragile” states. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has constructed a list of 20 failing states. Most recently, the Fund for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have worked together to identify a list of 60 states, ranking them according to “their vulnerability to violent internal conflict.” 73

This analysis, published in Foreign Policy, is based on 12 social, economic, political, and military indicators. It puts Côte d’Ivoire at the top of the list of failed states, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Chad, Yemen, Liberia, and Haiti. Next in line are three countries that have been much in the news in recent years: Afghanistan, Rwanda, and North Korea. 74

Five oil-exporting countries make the top 60 list, including the two largest exporters and producers—Saudi Arabia (forty-fifth on the list) and Russia (fifty-ninth)—plus Venezuela (twenty-first), Indonesia (forty-sixth), and Nigeria (fifty-fourth). Two countries with nuclear arsenals are also on the list: Pakistan and Russia. 75

The three top indicators used in constructing the Foreign Policy scorecard are uneven development, the loss of governmental legitimacy, and demographic pressure. Uneven development typically means that a small segment of the population is accumulating wealth while much of the society may be suffering a decline in living conditions. This unevenness, often associated with political corruption, creates unrest and can lead to civil conflict. 76

Governments that fail to effectively manage emerging issues and provide basic services are seen as useless. This often causes segments of the population to shift their allegiance to warlords, tribal chieftains, or religious leaders. A loss of political legitimacy is an early sign of state decline. 77

The third top indicator is demographic pressure. All the countries in the top 20 on the Foreign Policy list have fast-growing populations. In many that have experienced rapid population growth for several decades, governments are suffering from demographic fatigue, unable to cope with the steady shrinkage in per capita cropland and fresh water supplies or to build schools fast enough for the swelling ranks of children. 78

Foreign investment drying up and a resultant rise in unemployment are also part of the decline syndrome. An earlier study by Population Action International showed that one of the key indicators of political instability in a society is the number of unemployed young men, a number that is high in countries at the top of the Foreign Policy article list. 79

Another characteristic of failing states is a deterioration of the physical 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, creating a downward economic spiral. 80

Among the most conspicuous indications of state failure is a breakdown in law and order and a related loss of personal security. In Haiti, armed gangs rule the streets. Kidnapping for ransom of local people who are lucky enough to be among the 30 percent of the labor force that is employed is commonplace. In Afghanistan it is the local warlords, not the central government, that 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. 81

Some of these countries are involved in long-standing civil conflicts. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, occupying a large part of the Congo River basin in the heart of Africa, has been the site of an ongoing civil conflict for six years, a conflict that has claimed 3.8 million lives and driven millions more from their homes. According to the International Rescue Committee, for each violent death in this conflict there are 62 nonviolent deaths related to it, including deaths from hunger, respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, and other diseases. 82

Some potential sources of instability are taking the world into uncharted territory. In sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV infection rates sometimes exceed 30 percent of all adults, there will be millions of orphans in the years ahead, as noted earlier. With the number of orphans overwhelming society’s capacity to care for them, many will become street children. Growing up without parental guidance and appropriate role models, and with their behavior shaped by the desperation of survival, these orphans will become a new threat to stability and progress. 83

Failing states are of growing international concern because they are a source of terrorists, drugs, weapons, and refugees. Not only was Afghanistan a training ground for terrorists, but it quickly became, under the Allied occupation, the world’s leading supplier of heroin. Refugees from Rwanda, including thousands of armed soldiers, contributed to the destabilization of the Congo. As The Economist notes, “Like a severely disturbed individual, a failed state is a danger not just to itself, but to those around it and beyond.” 84

In many countries, the United Nations or other internationally organized peacekeeping forces are trying to keep the peace, often unsuccessfully. Among the countries with U.N. peacekeeping forces are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Other countries with multinational peacekeeping forces include Afghanistan, Haiti, and Sudan. All too often these are token forces, not nearly large enough to assure stability. 85

Countries like Haiti and Afghanistan are surviving today because they are on international life-support systems. Economic assistance—including, it is worth noting, food aid—is helping to sustain them. But there is not now enough assistance to overcome the reinforcing trends of deterioration and replace them with state stability and sustained economic progress. 86

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72. Fund for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The Failed States Index,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2005, p. 56–65.

73. Ibid.

74. Ibid.

75. Ibid.

76. Ibid.

77. Ibid.

78. Ibid.

79. Richard Cincotta, Robert Engelman, and Daniele Anastasion, The Security Demographic: Population and Civil Conflict After the Cold War (Washington, DC: Population Action International, 2003).

80. Ed Stoddard, “Environment Looms as Major Security Threat,” Reuters, 1 March 2004.

81. Ginger Thompson, “A New Scourge Afflicts Haiti: Kidnappings,” New York Times, 6 July 2005; Madeleine K. Albright and Robin Cook, “The World Needs to Step It Up in Afghanistan,” International Herald Tribune, 5 October 2004; Desmond Butler, “5-Year Hunt Fails to Net Qaeda Suspect in Africa,” New York Times, 14 June 2003.

82. Abraham McLaughlin, “Can Africa Solve African Problems?” Christian Science Monitor, 4 January 2005; Marc Lacey, “Beyond the Bullets and Blades,” New York Times, 20 March 2005.

83. UNAIDS, op. cit. note 1, p. 191; AIDS orphans from Children on the Brink 2004: A Joint Report on New Orphan Estimates and a Framework for Action (Washington, DC: UNAIDS, UNICEF, and USAID, 2004), p. 29.

84. “Afghanistan: The Ignored War,” in Christy Harvey, Judd Legum and Jonathan Baskin, The Progress Report (Washington, DC: American Progress Action Fund, 2005); McLaughlin, op. cit. note 82; “A Failing State: The Himalayan Kingdom Is a Gathering Menace,” The Economist, 4 December 2004.

85. United Nations, “United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,” background note, at www.un.org/Depts/dpko/dpko/bnote.htm, 30 June 2005; Marc Lacey, “Congo Tribal Killings Create a New Wave of Refugees,” New York Times, 6 March 2005.

86. United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), “New Operation Provides WFP Food Aid to 550,000 Haitians,” news release (Rome: 5 May 2005); WFP, “India Helps WFP Feed Afghan Schoolchildren,” news release (Rome: 17 May 2005).


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