EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 1. Entering a New World: Mounting Stresses, Failing States

States fail when national governments lose control of part or all of their territory and can no longer ensure the personal security of their people. When governments lose their monopoly on power, law and order begin to disintegrate. When they can no longer provide basic services such as education, health care, and food security, they lose their legitimacy. A government in this position may no longer be able to collect enough revenue to finance effective governance. Societies can become so fragmented that they lack the cohesion to make decisions.

Failing states often degenerate into civil war. As warring groups vie for power, they become a threat to neighboring countries when internal conflict spills over national borders. They provide possible training grounds for international terrorist groups, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, or they become sources of drugs, as in Myanmar (formerly Burma) or Afghanistan (with the latter accounting for 92 percent of the world’s opium supply in 2006). Because they lack functioning health care services, weakened states can become a source of infectious disease, as Nigeria has for polio. 45

In failed states, where governments are no longer in control, power is typically assumed by other elements in society. In Afghanistan, it is local warlords; in Somalia, tribal chiefs; in Haiti, street gangs. New governing groups may also include drug rings or organized crime.

In the past, governments have been concerned by the concentration of too much power in one state, as in Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. But today it is failing states that provide the greatest threat to global order and stability. As Foreign Policy magazine notes, “World leaders once worried about who was amassing power; now they worry about the absence of it.” 46

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimates the number of failing states at 20 or so. The British government’s international development arm has identified 46 so-called fragile states. The World Bank focuses its attention on 35 low-income countries under stress, which it also describes as fragile states. 47

The most systematic ongoing effort to analyze failed and failing states is one undertaken jointly by the Fund for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is updated annually and published in each July/August issue of Foreign Policy. This invaluable service, which draws on thousands of information sources worldwide, is rich with insights into the changes that are under way in the world and, in a broad sense, where the world is heading. 48

In this analysis, countries are graded on 12 social, economic, political, and military indicators, with scores that range from 1 to 10. Scores for each indicator are aggregated into a single country indicator: the Failed States Index. A score of 120, the maximum, means that a society is failing totally by every measure. 49

In the first Foreign Policy listing, based on data for 2004 and published in 2005, 7 countries had scores of 100 or more. In 2005 this increased to 9 countries, and in 2006 it was 12—nearly doubling in two years. This short trend is far from definitive, but both the rise in country scores near the top and the near doubling of countries with scores of 100 or higher suggest that state failure is increasing. 50

Most of the top 10 countries in 2006 (see Table 1–1) were near the top of the list in the two preceding years. In reviewing the data for 2006, Foreign Policy noted that “few encouraging signs emerged in 2006 to suggest the world is on a path to greater peace and stability.” The one bright spot was the improvement in Liberia, which moved from ninth in 2004, on the verge of state failure, to twenty-seventh in 2006. When Liberia, after years of turmoil, held an election that brought Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to the presidency in late 2005, it restored both a measure of political stability and hope for the country’s future. 51

Ranking on the Failed States Index is closely linked with key demographic and environmental indicators. Of the top 20 failing states, 17 have rapid rates of population growth, many of them expanding at close to 3 percent a year or 20-fold per century. In 5 of these 17 countries, women have an average of nearly seven children each. Viewed in terms of the demographic transition, these 17 countries are caught in the demographic trap. They have progressed far enough economically to reduce mortality but not far enough to create the economic and social conditions for fertility decline. 52

In all but 6 of the top 20 failing states, at least 40 percent of the population is under 15. Such a large share of young people often signals future political instability. Young men, lacking employment opportunities, often become disaffected, making them ready recruits for insurgency movements. 53

Not surprisingly, there is also often a link between the degree of state failure and the destruction of environmental support systems. In a number of countries on the list—including Sudan, Somalia, and Haiti—deforestation, grassland deterioration, and soil erosion are widespread. The countries with fast-growing populations are also facing a steady shrinkage of both cropland and water per person. After a point, as rapid population growth, deteriorating environmental support systems, and poverty reinforce each other, the resulting instability makes it difficult to attract investment from abroad. Even public assistance programs from donor countries are often phased out as the security breakdown threatens the lives of aid workers, forcing their withdrawal.

State failure is not neatly contained by national boundaries. It often spreads to neighboring countries, much as the genocide in Rwanda spilled over into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, eventually drawing several other countries into the war that claimed some 3.9 million lives in the Congo over several years. More recently, the killings in Darfur have spread into Chad. 54

As the number of failing states grows, dealing with various international crises becomes more difficult. Actions that may be relatively simple in a healthy world order of functioning nation states, such as controlling the spread of infectious diseases, could become difficult or impossible in a world with many disintegrating states. Even maintaining international flows of raw materials could become a challenge. At some point, spreading political instability could disrupt global economic progress, suggesting that we need to address the causes of state failure with a heightened sense of urgency.

Table 1–1. Top 20 Failing States, 2006

Source: Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Rank Country Score
1 Sudan 113.7


3 Somalia 111.1
4 Zimbabwe 110.1
5 Chad 108.8
6 Ivory Coast 107.3
7 Democratic Republic of the Congo 105.5
8 Afghanistan 102.3
9 Guinea 101.3
10 Central African Republic 101.0
11 Haiti 100.9
12 Pakistan 100.1
13 North Korea 97.7
14 Burma 97.0
15 Uganda 96.4
16 Bangladesh 95.9
17 Nigeria 95.6
18 Ethiopia 95.3
19 Burundi 95.2
20 Timor-Leste 94.9


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45. Carlotta Gall, “Opium Harvest at Record Levels in Afghanistan,” New York Times, 3 September 2006; Ania Lichtarowica, “Conquering Polio’s Last Frontier,” BBC News, 2 August 2007.

46. Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment, July/August 2005, op. cit. note 12.

47. World Bank, Global Monitoring Report 2007: Millennium Development Goals (Washington, DC: 2007) p. 5; Department for International Development, Why We Need to Work More Effectively in Fragile States (London: January 2005), pp. 27–28.

48. Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment, July/August 2005, 2006, and 2007, op. cit. note 12.

49. Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment, July/August 2005, op. cit. note 12.

50. Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment, July/August 2005, 2006, and 2007, op. cit. note 12.

51. Table 1–1 from Ibid.

52. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 10; Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment, July/August 2007, op. cit. note 12.

53. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 10; Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment, July/August 2007, op. cit. note 12; Richard Cincotta and Elizabeth Leahy, “Population Age Structure and Its Relation to Civil Conflict: A Graphic Metric,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Environmental Change and Security Program Report, vol. 12 (2006–07), pp. 55–58.

54. Lydia Polgreen, “In Congo, Hunger and Disease Erode Democracy,” New York Times, 23 June 2006; Richard Brennan and Anna Husarska, “Inside Congo, An Unspeakable Toll,” Washington Post, 16 July 2006; Lydia Polgreen, “Hundreds Killed Near Chad’s Border With Sudan,” New York Times, 14 November 2006.


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