When States Fail: Causes and Consequences

Prof. Robert Rotberg
John F. Kennedy School of Government

September 24, 2003

The terms "failure" and "collapse" are often used synonymously to describe states in the midst of debilitating turmoil. This usage is erroneous. One may think of states as falling within four categories: strong, weak, failing (for which there are two subsets — failing and failed), and collapsed. Nor are these categories static. States move in and out of them fluidly, earning their label based upon their performance, which will vary with time. In this talk I will attempt to define state failure and to discuss how to prevent it and also how to deal with it after the fact. These points are the result of a large project that has been on going for five or six years and has included upwards of 30 collaborators.

The overarching criterion for determining the status of a given state is its ability to deliver political goods and services. States fail when such goods and services are not being supplied. Civil war is then a symptom of state failure, not a cause of it. The most important political good is the provision of national and international security and the preservation of order. Other goods include (in no particular order): implementation of the rule of law, existence of institutions of political freedom, regulation of arteries of commerce and communication, provision of an economic framework conducive to growth and prosperity, and such things as medical services, power, running water, and control of the environmental commons.

There is only one collapsed state at this moment, and that is Somalia. A collapsed state is a political black hole. The government, if it exists at all, provides no political goods of any kind, and to get by there requires either exposing oneself to all the risks of daily life or obtaining such goods privately from some non-governmental entity such as a warlord. Failed states, meanwhile, can be characterized as tense, conflicted, and dangerous, with government troops often battling armed resistance. Degrees of civil unrest vary widely, and there appears to be a threshold above which the state is failing. This is where the U.N. is plays a role, preventing conflicts from escalating to failure. Here it is not the intensity of violence that matters so much as it is the enduring nature of the violence.

Some of the more interesting cases of civil war or unrest are those of Indonesia, Colombia, and Sri Lanka. In these states political goods are being delivered to most of the state despite the violence, proof that violence does not necessarily correspond to failure (although it is often a good indicator). Civil wars are usually described as being rooted in inter communal enmity, which is worsened by disparities in access to resources. However the disparity itself is not a root cause of failure, as many weak states have just as much potential enmity. Neither does brutality or oppression of the less fortunate members of society cause failure. These phenomena are better described as possible triggers, but not root causes.

Other good indicators of failure besides violence are sharply rising inflation and a loss of GDP. Zimbabwe is an example of a state with all the indicators of failure except for violence. The link between these economic indicators and state failure is the predatory nature of the government in a failing state. Rulers almost invariably prey on their constituents, whether by diverting tax revenue to private accounts or by actually taking from citizens. However the best means of judging state failure is whether it can project power beyond its capital. Does the state have control over its borders, its countryside, its roads and rivers? Is highway robbery commonplace? Are the roads potholed? (By this standard, Cambridge is arguably a failed state.)

Weakness is a large category, which deserves attention because of the fear that weak states might slide down. As Kofi Anaan has argued when making the case for U.N. intervention, it is much easier help a state to reconstitute itself before it has failed than once it has already failed. In this respect states that tend to teeter between strength and failure, such as Paraguay, Bolivia, and Kyrgyzstan, are most important to understand. (Other weak states, for instance Haiti, are endemically weak.) In these cases outside help in establishing a security framework can sufficiently bolster a government to enable it to provide other political goods. The Syrians have provided such a security framework in Lebanon.

Human agency is at the root of state failure. All cases of failure which I have looked at can be traced back to an individual or group of individuals who "failed" the state. Sometimes, as was the case with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, an authoritarian regime causes tensions which lead to incipient failure, but the regime itself is strong enough to hold the state together and keep the problems from the view of the outside world. Now that Saddam is gone we easily see the tensions that he fueled. The same is probably true with the DPRK, though again we cannot see past the regime's facade. Either way, however, the usual mechanism of this human agency is the emphasis the ruler or ruling party places on regime security instead of state security. Classic examples include Siaka Stevens in Sierra Leone, whose pitting people against one another in an otherwise functional state is well documented, as well as Mobutu in Zaire. We should note in particular that the rulers who preceded the Taliban did this in Afghanistan.

What can we do? Intervention is a major tool, both for humanitarian reasons and to prevent state failure. Through our experiences in the twentieth century we have learned how to successfully reconstruct a state, so question becomes whether we have the political will to do so. There are always early signs of failure, but even if they are noticed it is rare that they are acted upon. The single most important measure is to provide security, which will become a platform for reconstruction. To that end, note that 800 British paratroops in Sierra Leone have been more effective than thousands of peacekeepers could ever have been. The important factor here is that the people must believe they are secure so that they have confidence to rebuild. Similarly money alone will not solve the problem in Afghanistan. Until there is a true security presence outside of the capital, warlords will continue to dominate the countryside.

Robert Rotberg is President of the World Peace Foundation and Director of the John F. Kennedy School of Government's program on Interstate Conflict, Conflict Prevention, and Conflict Resolution. He is author or editor of numerous books, including Ending Autocracy, Enabling Democracy: The Tribulations of Southern Africa, 1960 - 2000 (Brookings, 2002); Peacekeeping and Peace Enforcement in Africa: Methods of Conflict Prevention (Brookings, 2000); and Creating Peace in Sri Lanka (Brookings, 1999).

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