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Failed States, Dubious Rankings

I spent some time yesterday and today trying to figure out Foreign Policy magazine's ranking of failed states. Somalia, Zimbabwe, and Sudan got first, second, and third place--no surprises there. But what initially piqued my interest was the high ranking given to Kenya, a country where I just spent two weeks (on a trip sponsored by the International Reporting Project, based at Johns Hopkins). Kenya placed 14th in the study--higher than totalitarian states like North Korea and Equatorial Guinea, on the one hand, and also higher than countries like Sri Lanka (which recently concluded a bloody civil war) and Lebanon (which seems to be ever on the brink of another one). And it was just one spot below Burma (which, in addition to being a totalitarian state, is host to an ongoing ethnic insurgency). This struck me as odd.

Don't get me wrong: Kenya has a lot of problems. It is just 18 months removed from a spasm of ethnic violence that followed a disputed election. And the coalition government patched together by international mediators in order to stem the violence--the ostensible winner became president; the loser became prime minister--has proven totally dysfunctional. With 42 different ethnic groups vying for political power, plenty of Kenyans will tell you that the country could easily erupt again at any minute. As for the poverty, both rural and urban--I'm not sure how to describe it in a single sentence, except to say that it is soul-crushing.

Still, Kenya is a relatively free place. It's a democracy, with regular elections and a vigorous press that lambastes the government for transgressions large and small on a daily basis. The current government may not be a particularly impressive operation but it a) exists (unlike in Somalia); b) isn't throwing dissidents in prison (unlike North Korea, Sudan, Burma, etc); and c) was more or less chosen by the people it rules (unlike a good chunk of the governments on this list).

So when I saw the rankings (on which Foreign Policy collaborates with The Fund for Peace), my initial reaction was: What kind of metric for ranking states could possibly yield results like this? At first, I reminded myself that the term "failed state" was not synonymous with the term "cruel state." If you define the term literally--i.e., a state that is in danger of crumbling--you can see how Kenya might outrank North Korea. Given a choice, we would probably all opt to live in Nairobi over Pyongyang; but that doesn't mean the Kenyan state is more stable than the North Korean regime. In fact, it is probably less stable, since North Korea seems to have a tragically good grip on its populace. But if stability is the metric, then how does the Burmese government--which also, sadly, seems to be in no danger of collapsing--outrank Kenya? And how does North Korea, where the central government actually controls the entirety of its territory, outrank a state like Lebanon where a decent chunk of the country is controlled by a militia that takes its orders from a foreign government?

The conceptual problem with the rankings, I eventually realized, was that different criteria were pulling in opposite directions. Each state was given scores in 12 categories, then the scores were totaled. North Korea accumulated a lot of points in categories like human rights and "deligitimization of the state"--but precisely because the state allows its citizens no rights and does not care whether they find it to be legitimate, it scores relatively low on indicators like "factionalized elites" (no factions are allowed in North Korea) and "refugees" and "human flight" (few are allowed to enter or exit the country). Contrast that with a country like Kenya, which is relatively free (and therefore has a better score on human rights than most other states near the top of the list) but also has all the problems you might expect from an unstable, tottering, developing-world democracy. You could certainly argue that both states are failing. But they are failing for opposite--indeed mutually exclusive--reasons. Arranging them according to a single measure of "failure" isn't just an exercise in futility. It's completely meaningless.

Foreign Policy concedes this problem (sort of), writing that, "as Tolstoy might have put it, every failing state is failing in its own way. ... Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are failing because their governments are chronically weak to nonexistent; Zimbabwe and Burma are failing because their governments are strong enough to choke the life out of their societies." But why present states that essentially suffer from opposite problems on the same continuum at all? The only even semi-plausible argument I can think of is that the presence of human rights violations in a state like North Korea or Burma makes it more likely that the state is eventually going to fail--by creating discontent and causing people to rebel against their government. Unfortunately, an oppressive state's willingness to abuse human rights probably makes it less likely to become chaotic or weak. After all, keeping their own people in a state of constant fear is how the North Korean and Burmese regimes have survived for so long.

The appeal of these rankings lies in the comforting sense of empiricism they convey--the sense that you can remove ideology from the equation and just rank countries based on numerical indicators of how bad things look. But that's exactly the problem: Ideology--what principles a state uses to organize itself--matters a great deal. Does it really tell us anything useful about the world to say that a strong totalitarian state that would do its people a great favor by collapsing (Burma) is marginally more "failed" than a weak democracy riven by ethnic tensions that we wish would succeed (Kenya), which is itself marginally more failed than another strong state one hopes might collapse (North Korea), which is itself more failed than another weak democracy that we hope will succeed (Georgia)? Rankings are fun and can be illuminating, but this comparison of apples and oranges doesn't make any analytical sense.

--Richard Just