Failed states are a complex problem of domestic and international politics.  This video will define what a failed state is, discuss the challenges they pose for the international community, and outline the challenges of intervening to either prevent or rebuild after state failure.

What are failed states?

There is no single definition of what a failed state is, although they do tend to share a few common characteristics.

As Robert Bates argues, failed states tend to be defined by the loss of the monopoly over the use of force within a territory.  There is a large overlap between cases of state failure and civil wars, but they aren’t precisely the same thing – failed states are characterized by the collapse of the central government, but civil wars may also be regional insurgencies fighting against a still-organized central state.  Failed states typically feature higher levels of violence than weak or strong states, but that violence may not rise to the level of a full-scale civil war.

Sometimes the collapse of the central state is very literal and obvious, as in the case of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.  With the end of the Cold War, these countries broke apart into their federal units (what we in the United States would call “states”) and violence broke out in areas where national boundaries did not coincide with state boundaries.  We are still dealing with the consequences of this, for example in Ukraine, where Russia took over the Crimea and supports paramilitary forces in the eastern part of the country, both of which historically have had Russian-speaking (rather than Ukrainian) populations.

Somalia is traditionally considered to be the archetypal case of a failed state (it’s famous in the United States in part because of the death of several U.S. soliders in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, dramatized in the book and movie Black Hawk Down).  In the early 1990s, an armed insurrection overthrew the central government and different clans began competing for influence and territory in the power vacuum that followed.  While intense fighting declined by the late 1990s, efforts to re-establish a central state have remained elusive.  Rather, pockets of stability (as in the northern informal state of Somaliland and areas in the south controlled by certain clans) coincide with areas of violence, today primarily organized by al-Shabaab, an Islamic extremist group.

Afghanistan may offer a better, current example of a failed state.  It had been engaged in civil war since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 and its communist-controlled central government collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.  In the 1990s, the Taliban gained control over much of the country, but the Northern Alliance retained control over much of the north and west of Afghanistan.  The U.S.-led invasion in 2001 removed the Taliban from power, but did not consolidate control throughout the country.  Instead, the United States left the warlords who contributed to the invasion in power in most parts of the country. 

Why do we care?

The examples of Somalia and Afghanistan demonstrate why the international community cares so much about failed states (and why it was the thing to study in the 2000s).  Failed states have terrible consequences for the lives of their citizens, but the problems do not remain within their borders.  The Taliban famously provided a training ground for the al-Qaida members who participated in the September 11 attacks, while al-Shabaab was responsible for the 2013 attack on an upscale shopping mall in Kenya that killed 62 civilians and wounded hundreds more.

Aside from the link with transnational terrorism, failed states produce large numbers of refugees and migrants.  While Syria is more a case of a civil war than a failed state, the conflict there has produced almost 7 million refugees and another 6 million internally displaced persons.  The influx of Syrian refugees has strained social services in neighboring countries and contributed to anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.

What can we do?

Identifying solutions to the problem of failed states has been difficult, however.  The general principles usually first involve stabilization – ending fighting through negotiations and an international peacekeeping force of some form – then support for new institutions.  As we have seen, however, building state capacity is not easy and efforts to intervene often have the opposite effect of what is intended – what are called perverse consequences.

For example, studies of international aid in sub-Saharan Africa have shown that international aid more often damages state development than promotes it.  While war may not be the reason states collect taxes today, tax collection and revenue management remain key elements of state development.  When states are able to rely on international aid for revenue instead of their own populations, they tend not to build institutions to manage revenues, but rather focus on finding more aid (a case of rent-seeking). 

And in Afghanistan, the massive influx of aid funding into what was one of the poorest countries in the world after 2001 led to massive corruption by Afghans and international officials – it was difficult to track where the money was going and much of it disappeared into pockets.  It was a case of too much, too fast.

Cases of successful U.S.-led state building and post-conflict reconstruction are available – most notably, reconstruction in Germany and Japan after WWII – but these may have succeeded because they built on pre-existing political institutions that had not been completely destroyed by war. 

The answer to this problem is not to just have countries fend for themselves – asking a country with high levels of poverty to just tax those people more is not going to either solve revenue problems or reduce poverty.  Countries with weak central governments may not even have the basic structures in place to start gathering revenue and delivering services.  But finding the right way to reduce suffering while incentivizing growth and independence has been tricky.

Contemporary “success stories” in international development tend to come from strategies such as those adopted by the Millennium Challenge Corporation – a U.S. assistance agency that funds countries that meet certain criteria (such as basic service delivery), includes comprehensive reform requirements along with aid delivery, and provides a definite time limit on aid delivery.  While several countries recovering from civil war, including El Salvador and Cote d’Ivoire, received MCC aid, the selection criteria meant that funds will not be directed to the worst-case countries.

I offer this to you not to be discouraging, but to highlight that this is an area where new ideas and innovation are needed and would find fertile ground to thrive.