The challenge of failing states

By Martin Wolf

Financial Times

Published: February 23 2005

We can insist on unbridled sovereignty or we can promote widespread stability and prosperity but we cannot, it now appears, do both. The difficulty lies with failing or failed states - countries that are unable, unwilling or, more often, both, to provide their people with the core functions of a state: security, protection of property, basic public services and essential infrastructure. Such failed states are, it should be stressed, actual or potential sources of terrorism, organised crime, drugs, disease and refugees.

Which are these states? On this, inevitably, there is much disagreement. The UK's department for international development lists 46 countries, with an aggregate population of some 900m or 14 per cent of the world total, as fragile.* Among them are two giants: Indonesia, with a population of 212m, and Nigeria, with a population of 133m.

The World Bank uses a narrower list of "low-income countries under stress". The bank describes 11 countries as being in a particularly severe condition: Afghanistan, Angola, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Haiti, Liberia, Burma, the Solomon Islands, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. These had aggregate populations of 165m in 2003. Another 16 countries are "core" LICUS countries, with aggregate populations of 267m.

The consensus of the development community has been that aid should be concentrated on relatively well-run countries. But the DFID's fragile states contain 30 per cent of the people living on less than a dollar a day. From 1990 to 2002, their gross domestic product per head was broadly flat. Without economic growth, extreme poverty will not be eliminated from the world.

A report released last week by the strategy unit of the UK's cabinet office also suggests that the interaction between capacity and vulnerability drives instability. Capacity depends on the effectiveness and legitimacy of states. Poor countries always have under-resourced states. Semi-democracies, which are common in sub-Saharan Africa, seem to be particularly fragile. Yet autocracies can also turn into places of anarchy once the repression lifts. Meanwhile, a country's vulnerability depends, among other things, on its poverty, the presence of valuable natural resources and the scale of external economic shocks (see charts).

It is easy to see why the birth of so many new and desperately poor states has created fragility. It is also easy to see why the presence of valuable natural resources is a source of conflict. War has, after all, long been the pursuit of profit by other means.

Yet a deeper question is how far the rich world is itself causing the fragility. The argument is made by Mick Moore of the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex in a review of Francis Fukuyama's book on State Building (Cornell University Press, 2004).***

Professor Moore lists five sources of vulnerability that emanate directly from the rich world: the supply of convenient and well-hidden places to stash loot; the willingness of global powers to defend bad rulers of countries that supply valuable natural resources; the ease with which combatants can obtain weaponry; the vast wealth that can be generated by selling prized commodities (such as oil, diamonds or, worst of all, illegal drugs) to rich country markets; and the willingness of companies to bribe those in power in poor countries.

This is largely correct. And the analysis feeds naturally into any attempt to answer the biggest question: what is to be done? This is also the focus of the strategy unit's report, which rightly puts an emphasis on prevention, since the costs of cure are so massive. Five broad points seem to make sense.

First, we must accept the principle of qualified sovereignty. The strategy unit report endorses what it calls the emerging norm of a "duty to protect". By this it means that the rights of human beings to life and at least a degree of dignity and freedom are more important than the rights of more or less dysfunctional states to do what they wish with those they consider their own. States unable to perform the functions of a state do not deserve to be left alone.

Second, we must also embrace the principle of "do no harm". The rich countries should feel obliged to minimise the damage they do, often unwittingly, to the poor. There is a moral obligation to make payments of royalties transparent, end bribery, stop selling weaponry and change self-defeating policies of drug prohibition. In all such ways, we should try to make it more difficult for crooks and thugs to steal from - and brutalise - hapless populations.

Third, we should invest more in prevention. This requires identification of risks and of the interventions capable of reducing them. Those may be economic, political or military. The effort should be made to strengthen institutions and improve transparency in fragile countries. But it will also be necessary to help countries cope with adverse shocks.

Fourth, we need the ability to respond swiftly and decisively to crises. We failed in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and now in Sudan. The costs in all these cases were far bigger than they need have been.

Finally, we need to achieve full integration of development assistance with other actions, including security interventions, in fragile and failing states. Progress has been made on an ad hoc basis. But it needs to be made more systematically, within a politically legitimate framework. The obvious one is trusteeship under the auspices of the United Nations. But this will also require the creation of a more legitimate security council, by making it somewhat more representative of the world.

The challenge of failing states is not a minor feature of our world. It is central to how it will evolve in decades ahead. It is evident by now that without a far greater sense of mutual responsibility, we shall live in a world of abiding chaos, danger and misery. After empire we embraced sovereignty. Now we shall have to embrace shared responsibility. It will be hard to make this form of co-operation work. But all the alternatives are far worse.

* Why We Need to Work More Effectively in Fragile States, January 2005,;

** Investing in Prevention: An International Strategy to Manage Risks of Instability and Improve Crisis Response,;

*** Rich World, Poor World, Boston Review December 2004/January 2005,