Although it has a slightly different secondary meaning in countries such as the United States, in a global political context, the term state is essentially a synonym for country. For example, the United Nations includes 195 sovereign states: 193 fully recognized countries and two non-member observer states. A failed state is the term used to describe a state whose government has lost control of its territory, economy, and people. A state that is unstable but has not yet fully failed is called a fragile state.
Failed states are often among the world's least-developed countries, with a low Human Development Index score. Many are also war torn or currently at war, and frequently rank among the world's most dangerous countries. As a result, failed states are often considered some of the world's worst countries to live in or to visit. A failed state struggles to implement public policies, build effective infrastructure, and protect civil liberties and human rights. Residents of a failed state have little physical security and lack the benefits that come from stable political and economic systems.
Characteristics of a failed state:
There is no official, universally accepted definition of a failed state. However, most every definition includes certain common, often intertwined characteristics:
- Decreased ability to defend national boundaries — Territory can be taken over by criminal gangs, rebellious insurgents, or invading military forces from another state.
- Decreased ability to police its territory — Government no longer holds a monopoly on the use of physical force to deter crime and protect the public. Corruption, crime, and lawlessness often increase.
- Decreased public services — State-sponsored services deteriorate, including health care, public education, infrastructure such as roads and utilities, and police/fire departments.
- Decreased economic stability — Unemployment rises, inflation skyrockets, currency loses value both domestically and internationally, tax revenue is lost and economic crimes often go unpunished.
- Decreased legitimacy — Overall trust in the government and its ability diminishes, both domestically among the state's citizens and internationally among other states.
Not all failed states cease to exist. While many failed states are absorbed into another, more stable state, many more are either reformed with a stronger government or manage to linger for years, even generations, during which time living conditions for their citizens often continue to deteriorate. This possibility, combined with the lack of an official definition of a failed state, means there is no universally accepted list of which states are failed states and which are not. In fact, at least a few analysts argue that the very idea of a failed state, much like the idea of race, is a fictional concept invented for political/social gain.
That said, one of the most well-known methods of determining whether a would-be country is a failed or fragile state is the Fragile States Index (FSI) published by the non-profit Fund for Peace. To create the FSI, the Fund for Peace measures each country's performance in more than 100 sub-indicators, which it compiles into a dozen indicators including Security Apparatus, Economic Decline, Human Rights and Rule of Law, and Public Services. Those twelve metrics are then combined into a single score that ranges from 0 (least fragile) to 120 (most fragile). The FSI stops short of designating a specific score at which a state goes from fragile to failed, but assigns a failure warning to any country whose score is between 60 and 89 and places an alert on countries that score 90 or higher.
Top 10 Failed States by FSI Score (2022)*:
|Rank||State||2022 FSI Score|
|5||Central African Republic||108.1|
*For a full list of the entire FSI, see the table that follows this text.
Reasons why states become failed states
States can fail for a number of reasons. One major cause of state failure is a predatory and/or corrupt government, which acts in the best interests of a small group of people (the ruling class) rather than the citizenry as a whole. Additional possible reasons include civil wars (particularly those driven by religious extremism), genocide, and ethnic violence.
Some of the states most in danger of failing due to government corruption include Nicaragua, Brazil, Sudan, and North Korea. States including Libya, Iraq, Pakistan and Siberia are in danger of failing due to civil unrest and rebellion. Nigeria and Nepal are at risk because of democratic collapse, and states including Iraq, Yemen and Turkey are in danger because of ongoing religious and ethnic conflicts.