EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 1. Selling Our Future: Mounting Stresses, Failing States

After a half-century of forming new states from former colonies and from the breakup of the Soviet Union, the international community is today focusing on the disintegration of states. The term “failing state” has entered our working vocabulary only during the last decade or so, but these countries are now an integral part of the international political landscape. As an article in Foreign Policy observes, “Failed states have made a remarkable odyssey from the periphery to the very center of global politics.” 48

In the past, governments have been concerned by the concentration of too much power in one state, as in Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. But today it is failing states that provide the greatest threat to global order and stability. As Foreign Policy notes, “World leaders once worried about who was amassing power; now they worry about the absence of it.” 49

States fail when national governments lose control of part or all of their territory and can no longer ensure the personal security of their people. When governments lose their monopoly on power, the rule of law begins to disintegrate. When they can no longer provide basic services such as education, health care, and food security, they lose their legitimacy. A government in this position may no longer be able to collect enough revenue to finance effective governance. Societies can become so fragmented that they lack the cohesion to make decisions.

Failing states often degenerate into civil war as opposing groups vie for power. Conflicts can easily spread to neighboring countries, as when the genocide in Rwanda spilled over into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an ongoing civil conflict has claimed more than 5 million lives since 1998. The vast majority of these deaths in the Congo are nonviolent, most of them due to hunger, respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, and other diseases as millions have been driven from their homes. Within the Sudan, the killings in Darfur quickly spread into Chad. As The Economist observes, “like a severely disturbed individual, a failed state is a danger not just to itself, but to those around it and beyond.” 50

Failing states can also provide possible training grounds for international terrorist groups, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, or as a base for pirates, as in Somalia. They may become sources of drugs, as in Myanmar (formerly Burma) or Afghanistan, which accounted for 92 percent of the world’s opium supply in 2008, much of which is made into heroin. Because they lack functioning health care services, weakened states can become a source of infectious disease, as Nigeria and Pakistan have for polio, derailing efforts to eradicate this dreaded disease. 51

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 ruled the streets until a U.N. peacekeeping force arrived in 2004. While the security situation has improved somewhat since then, kidnappings for ransom of local people who are lucky enough to be among the 30 percent of the labor force that is employed are commonplace. In Afghanistan the local warlords, not the central government, 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. In Mexico, drug cartels are taking over, signaling the prospect of a failed state on the U.S. border. 52

Various national and international organizations maintain their own lists of failing, weak, or failed states. The most systematic ongoing effort to analyze failed and failing states is one undertaken jointly by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine, in an index that is updated annually and published in each July/August issue of Foreign Policy. This invaluable service, which draws on thousands of information sources worldwide, is rich with insights into the changes that are under way in the world and, in a broad sense, where the world is heading. 53

This analysis identifies 60 countries, ranking them according to “their vulnerability to violent internal conflict and societal deterioration.” Based on 12 social, economic, political, and military indicators, it puts Somalia at the top of the list of failed states for 2008, followed by Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Three oil-exporting countries are among the top 20 failed states—Sudan, Iraq, and Nigeria. Pakistan, now ranking number 10 on the list, is the only failing state with a nuclear arsenal. North Korea, seventeenth on the list, is developing a nuclear capability. (See Table 1–1.) 54

Scores for each of the 12 indicators, ranging from 1 to 10, are aggregated into a single country indicator: the Failed States Index. A score of 120, the maximum, means that a society is failing totally by every measure. In the first Foreign Policy listing, based on data for 2004, just 7 countries had scores of 100 or more. In 2005 this increased to 9. By 2008 it was 14—doubling in four years. This short trend is far from definitive, but higher scores for countries at the top and the doubling of countries with scores of 100 or higher suggest that state failure is both spreading and deepening. 55

Ranking on the Failed States Index is closely linked with key demographic and environmental indicators. Of the top 20 failed states, 17 have rapid rates of population growth, several of them expanding at close to 3 percent a year or 20-fold per century. In 5 of these 17 countries, women have on average more than six children each. In all but 6 of the top 20 failed states, at least 40 percent of the population is under 15, a demographic statistic that often signals future political instability. Young men, lacking employment opportunities, often become disaffected, making them ready recruits for insurgency movements. 56

In many of the countries with several decades of rapid population growth, governments are suffering from demographic fatigue, unable to cope with the steady shrinkage in cropland and freshwater supplies per person or to build schools fast enough for the swelling ranks of children. 57

Sudan is a classic case of a country caught in the demographic trap. It has developed far enough economically and socially to reduce mortality, but not far enough to quickly reduce fertility. As a result, women on average have four children, double the two needed for replacement, and the population of 41 million is growing by over 2,000 per day. Under this pressure, Sudan—like scores of other countries—is breaking down. 58

Table 1 - 1. Top 20 Failing States, 2008
Rank Country Score  
1 Somalia 114.7  
2 Zimbabwe 114.0  
3 Sudan 112.4  
4 Chad 112.2  
5 Democratic Republic of the Congo 108.7  
6 Iraq 108.6  
7 Afghanistan 108.2  
8 Central African Republic 105.4  
9 Guinea 104.6  
10 Pakistan 104.1  
11 Côte d’Ivoire 102.5  
12 Haiti 101.8  
13 Burma 101.5  
14 Kenya 101.4  
15 Nigeria 99.8  
16 Ethiopia 98.9  
17 North Korea 98.3  
18 Yemen 98.1  
19 Bangladesh 98.1  
20 Timor-Leste 97.2  
                                            Source: See endnote 54.

All but 3 of the 20 countries that lead the list of failed states are caught in this demographic trap. Realistically, they probably cannot break out of it on their own. They will need outside help—and not just a scattering of aid projects but systemic assistance in rebuilding—or the political situation will simply continue to deteriorate. 59

Among the top 20 countries on the failing state list, all but a few are losing the race between food production and population growth. Close to half of these states depend on a food lifeline from the WFP. 60

Food shortages can put intense pressures on governments. In many countries the social order began showing signs of stress in 2007 in the face of soaring food prices and spreading hunger. Food riots and unrest continued in 2008 in dozens of countries—from the tortilla riots in Mexico to breadline fights in Egypt and tempeh protests in Indonesia—and signaled the desperation of consumers trapped between low incomes and rising food prices. In Haiti, soaring food prices helped bring down the government. 61

In Pakistan, where wheat flour prices had doubled, an armed soldier escorted each grain truck lest it be stolen or used to illegally haul scarce wheat across the border into Afghanistan. In Kandahar, Afghanistan, market vendors were robbed at gunpoint by thieves who made off with sacks of grain. In Sudan, 110 grain-laden trucks delivering food for the World Food Programme were hijacked during 2008 before reaching the Darfur relief camps. 62

 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, generating a downward economic spiral. A drying up of foreign investment and a resultant rise in unemployment are also part of the decline syndrome.

In many countries, the United Nations or other international bodies are trying to keep the peace, often unsuccessfully. Among the countries where U.N. peacekeeping forces are deployed are Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Côte d’Ivoire. Other countries supplied with multinational peacekeeping forces include Afghanistan, Haiti, and Sudan. All too often these are token forces, large enough to avoid immediate collapse but not large enough to ensure the stability needed for long-term development. 63

Countries like Haiti and Afghanistan are surviving because they are on international life-support systems. Economic assistance, including food lifelines, is helping to sustain them. But there is not enough assistance to overcome the reinforcing trends of deterioration they are experiencing and replace them with the demographic and political stability need to sustain economic progress. 64

In an age of increasing globalization, the functioning of the global system depends on a cooperative network of functioning nation states. When governments lose their capacity to govern, they can no longer collect taxes, much less be responsible for their international debts. More failing states means more bad debt. Efforts to control international terrorism depend on cooperation among functioning nation states, and these efforts weaken as more states fail.

In addition, protecting endangered species almost always requires close international cooperation. In countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where government agencies have collapsed, hunger is widespread, and chaos reigns, the population of mountain gorillas has dropped precipitously. This story is being repeated over and over again in Africa, where so many of the world’s remaining large mammal species are concentrated. 65

As the number of failing states grows, dealing with various international crises becomes more difficult. Actions that may be relatively simple in a healthy world order, such as maintaining monetary stability or controlling an infectious disease outbreak, could become difficult or impossible in a world with numerous disintegrating states. Even maintaining international flows of raw materials could become a challenge. At some point, spreading political instability could disrupt global economic progress, suggesting that we need to address the causes of state failure with a heightened sense of urgency.

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48. Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy, “The Failed States Index,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2005, pp. 56–65.

49. Ibid.

50. Lydia Polgreen, “In Congo, Hunger and Disease Erode Democracy,” New York Times, 23 June 2006; International Rescue Committee, Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: An Ongoing Crisis (New York: January 2008), p. ii; Lydia Polgreen, “Hundreds Killed Near Chad’s Border With Sudan,” New York Times, 14 November 2006; “A Failing State: The Himalayan Kingdom Is a Gathering Menace,” The Economist, 4 December 2004.

51. “The Indian Ocean: The Most Dangerous Seas in the World,” The Economist, 17 July 2008; U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report 2009 (Vienna: June 2009), p. 34; Ania Lichtarowica, “Conquering Polio’s Last Frontier,” BBC News, 2 August 2007.

52. Neil MacFarquhar, “Haiti’s Woes Are Top Test for Aid Effort,” New York Times, 31 March 2009; U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, at www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook, updated 26 June 2009; 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; Emilio San Pedro, “U.S. Ready to Aid Mexico Drug Fight,” BBC News, 2 March 2009.

53. Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy, “The Failed States Index,” Foreign Policy, July/August issues, 2005–09.

54. Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy, “The Failed States Index,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2007, pp. 54–63; Table 1–1 from Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy, “The Failed States Index,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2009, pp. 80–93.

55. Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy, op. cit. note 53.

56. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 5; Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy, July/August 2009, op. cit. note 54; Richard Cincotta and Elizabeth Leahy, “Population Age Structure and Its Relation to Civil Conflict: A Graphic Metric,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Environmental Change and Security Program Report, vol. 12 (2006–07), pp. 55–58.

57. Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy, July/August 2009, op. cit. note 54.

58. Ibid.; U.N. Population Division op. cit. note 5.

59. Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy, July/August 2009, op. cit. note 54; U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 26.

60. Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy, July/August 2009, op. cit. note 54.

61. Financial Times, op. cit. note 21; Carolyn Said, “Nothing Flat about Tortilla Prices: Some in Mexico Cost 60 Percent More, Leading to a Serious Struggle for Low-Income People,” San Francisco Chronicle, 13 January 2007; Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani, “Egypt: Rising Food Costs Provoke Fights Over Subsidised Bread,” Inter Press Service, 26 March 2008; Raphael Minder, John Aglionby, and Jung-a Song, “Soaring Soybean Price Stirs Anger Among Poor,” Financial Times, 18 January 2008; Joseph Delva and Jim Loney, “Haiti’s Government Falls after Food Riots,” Reuters, 12 April 2008.

62. Keith Bradsher, “High Rice Cost Creating Fears of Asian Unrest,” New York Times, 29 March 2008; Kamran Haider, “Pakistani Troops Escort Wheat Trucks to Stop Theft,” Reuters, 13 January 2008; Nadeem Sarwar, “Pakistan’s Poor, Musharraf Reeling Under Wheat Crisis,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 14 January 2008; Carlotta Gall, “Hunger and Food Prices Push Afghanistan to Brink,” New York Times, 16 May 2008; U.N. World Food Programme, “Almost 6 Million Sudanese Await WFP Support in 2009,” at www.wfp.org, 5 March 2009.

63. United Nations, “United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,” background note, at www.un.org/Depts/dpko/dpko/bnote.htm, viewed 8 June 2009; North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “NATO in Afghanistan,” at www.nato.int/issues/Afghanistan/index.html, updated 27 March 2009.

64. U.N. World Food Programme, op. cit. note 26.

65. Stephanie McCrummen, “In an Eastern Congo Oasis, Blood amid the Greenery,” Washington Post, 22 July 2007.


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