EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Early Signs of Decline: Mounting Stresses, Failing States

After a half-century of forming new states from former colonies and from the breakup of the Soviet Union, the international community is today focusing on the disintegration of states. Failing states are now an integral part of the international political landscape. As the Fund for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observe, “Failed states have made a remarkable odyssey from the periphery to the very center of global politics.” 70

As noted in Chapter 1, these groups have together identified a list of 60 states, ranking them according to “their vulnerability to violent internal conflict and societal deterioration.” This analysis, published in Foreign Policy, is based on 12 social, economic, political, and military indicators. It puts Sudan at the top of the list of failed states, followed by Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and Chad. Three oil-exporting countries are among the top 20 failing states— Sudan, Iraq, and Nigeria. Indonesia and Iran are farther down the list. Pakistan, now ranking number 12 on the list, is the only failing state with a nuclear arsenal. 71

Three of the dozen indicators used in constructing the Foreign Policy scorecard are uneven development, the loss of governmental legitimacy, and demographic pressure. Uneven development typically means that a small segment of the population is accumulating wealth while much of the society may be suffering a decline in living conditions. This unevenness, often associated with political corruption, creates unrest and can lead to civil conflict. 72

Governments that fail to effectively manage emerging issues and provide basic services are seen as useless. This often causes segments of the population to shift their allegiance to warlords, tribal chieftains, or religious leaders. A loss of political legitimacy is an early sign of state decline.

A third indicator is demographic pressure. In many countries that have experienced rapid population growth for several decades, governments are suffering from demographic fatigue, unable to cope with the steady shrinkage in cropland and fresh water supplies per person or to build schools fast enough for the swelling ranks of children. 73

Sudan, which heads the 2007 list of failing states, is a classic case of a country caught in the demographic trap, a situation where it has developed far enough economically and socially to reduce mortality, but not far enough to quickly reduce fertility. As a result, women on average have five children, well beyond the two needed for replacement, and the population of 39 million is growing by 2,400 per day. Under this pressure, Sudan—like scores of other countries—is breaking down. 74

All but two of the 20 countries (Zimbabwe and North Korea) at the top of the list of failing states are caught in this demographic trap. They probably cannot break out of this trap on their own. They will need outside help or the political situation will simply continue to deteriorate. 75

Foreign investment drying up and a resultant rise in unemployment are also part of the decline syndrome. An earlier study by Population Action International showed that one of the key indicators of political instability in a society is the number of unemployed young men, a number that is high in countries at the top of the Foreign Policy list. 76

Another characteristic of failing states is a deterioration of the physical infrastructure—roads and power, water, and sewage systems. Care for natural systems is also neglected as people struggle to survive. Forests, grasslands, and croplands deteriorate, creating a downward economic spiral.

Among the most conspicuous indications of state failure is a breakdown in law and order and a related loss of personal security. In Haiti, armed gangs rule the streets. Kidnapping for ransom of local people who are lucky enough to be among the 30 percent of the labor force that is employed is commonplace. In Afghanistan it is the local warlords, not the central government, that control the country outside of Kabul. Somalia, which now exists only on maps, is ruled by tribal leaders, each claiming a piece of what was once a country. 77

Some of these countries are involved in long-standing civil conflicts. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, occupying a large part of the Congo River basin in the heart of Africa, was the site of civil war from 1998 to 2003 and has since suffered from numerous outbreaks of violence. This ongoing conflict has claimed nearly 4 million lives and driven millions more from their homes. According to the International Rescue Committee, the vast majority of deaths are nonviolent, including those from hunger, respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, and other diseases. 78

Failing states are of growing international concern because they are a source of terrorists, drugs, weapons, and refugees. Not only was Afghanistan a training ground for terrorists, but it quickly became, under the Allied occupation, the world’s leading supplier of heroin. Now Iraq, number two on the 2007 failing states list, is number one on the terrorist training list. Refugees from Rwanda, including thousands of armed soldiers, contributed to the destabilization of the Congo. As The Economist noted in December 2004, “like a severely disturbed individual, a failed state is a danger not just to itself, but to those around it and beyond.” 79

In many countries, the United Nations or other internationally organized peacekeeping forces are trying to keep the peace, often unsuccessfully. Among the countries with U.N. peacekeeping forces are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Other countries with multinational peacekeeping forces include Afghanistan, Haiti, and Sudan. All too often these are token forces, not nearly large enough to ensure stability. 80

Countries like Haiti and Afghanistan are surviving today because they are on international life-support systems. Economic assistance—including, it is worth noting, food aid—is helping to sustain them. But there is now not enough assistance to overcome the reinforcing trends of deterioration and replace them with state stability and sustained economic progress. 81

In an age of increasing globalization and economic integration, the functioning of the global system and thus the well-being of individual states depends on a cooperative network of functioning nation states. When governments lose their capacity to govern they can no longer collect taxes, much less pay off international debts. More failing states means more bad debt. Efforts to control international terrorism depend on cooperation among functioning nation states, and these efforts weaken as states fail.

Protecting endangered species almost always requires close international cooperation too. In countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where government agencies have collapsed, hunger is widespread, and chaos reigns, the population of lowland mountain gorillas has dropped precipitously. This story is being repeated over and over in Africa, where so much of the world’s remaining large mammal species are concentrated. 82

Or consider the international network that controls the spread of infectious diseases, such as avian flu, SARS, and polio, or of diseases that affect animals, such as mad cow and hoof-and-mouth disease. In 1988 the international community launched an effort to eradicate polio, an effort patterned after the highly successful one that eliminated smallpox. The goal was to get rid of the dreaded disease that used to paralyze an average of 1,000 children each day. By 2003 the disease had been eradicated in all but a few countries, among them Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. 83

In 2003, religious leaders in northern Nigeria began to oppose the vaccination program on the grounds that it was a plot to spread AIDS and sterility. As a result, the number of cases of polio in Nigeria increased rapidly, tripling over the next three years. Meanwhile, Nigerian Muslims making their annual pilgrimage to Mecca may have spread the disease, bringing it back to some countries, such as Indonesia, Chad, and Somalia, that were already polio-free. In response, Saudi officials imposed a polio vaccination requirement on all younger visitors from countries with reported cases of polio. 84

As of late 2007 the disease is still endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan, with cases still being reported in a total of 10 countries. With infection reoccurring in failing states, the goal of a world that is polio-free, already reached in some 190 countries, could be slipping away. If the international community cannot effectively address the failing state phenomena, the prospect of reaching other goals could also fade. 85

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70. Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The Failed States Index,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2005, pp. 56–65.

71. Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The Failed States Index,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2007, pp. 54–63.

72. Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment, op. cit. note 70.

73. Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment, op. cit. note 71.

74. Ibid.; U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2.

75. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2.

76. Richard Cincotta, Robert Engelman, and Daniele Anastasion, The Security Demographic: Population and Civil Conflict After the Cold War (Washington, DC: Population Action International, 2003).

77. Ginger Thompson, “A New Scourge Afflicts Haiti: Kidnappings,” New York Times, 6 July 2005; Madeleine K. Albright and Robin Cook, “The World Needs to Step It Up in Afghanistan,” International Herald Tribune, 5 October 2004; Desmond Butler, “5-Year Hunt Fails to Net Qaeda Suspect in Africa,” New York Times, 14 June 2003.

78. Abraham McLaughlin, “Can Africa Solve African Problems?” Christian Science Monitor, 4 January 2005; Marc Lacey, “Beyond the Bullets and Blades,” New York Times, 20 March 2005; “World Refugee Day: Testimony of Anne C. Richard, International Rescue Committee,” before US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, Washington, DC, 20 June 2007.

79. “ Afghanistan: The Ignored War,” in Christy Harvey, Judd Legum, and Jonathan Baskin, The Progress Report (Washington, DC: American Progress Action Fund, 2005); Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment, op. cit. note 71; McLaughlin, op. cit. note 78; “A Failing State: The Himalayan Kingdom Is a Gathering Menace,” The Economist, 4 December 2004.

80. United Nations, “United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,” background note, at www.un.org/Depts/dpko/dpko/bnote.htm, 31 July 2007; “US Official Calls for NATO Flexibility in Afghanistan,” Agence France-Presse, 6 September 2007; Marc Lacey, “Congo Tribal Killings Create a New Wave of Refugees,” New York Times, 6 March 2005.

81. U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), “New Operation Provides WFP Food Aid to 550,000 Haitians,” news release (Rome: 5 May 2005); WFP, “India Helps WFP Feed Afghan Schoolchildren,” news release (Rome: 17 May 2005).

82. Stephanie McCrummen, “In an Eastern Congo Oasis, Blood amid the Greenery,” Washington Post, 22 July 2007.

83. Roland Ogbonnaya, “Polio Pandemic...Is Nigeria Winning the Fight?” This Day (Lagos), 22 July 2007.

84. David Brown, “A Blow to Anti-Polio Campaign,” Washington Post, 10 May 2005; Donald G. McNeil, Jr., “Muslims’ New Tack on Polio: A Vaccine en Route to Mecca,” New York Times, 20 August 2005; Nigerian polio cases tripling from “Wild Poliovirus 2000–2007,” in WHO Global Polio Eradication Initiative, “Wild Poliovirus Weekly Update,” at www.polioeradication.org, updated 2 October 2007.

85. “Wild Poliovirus 2000–2007,” op. cit. note 84; number of polio-free countries estimated from Celia W. Dugger, “Nigeria and India Cited in Rise of Polio Cases,” New York Times, 13 October 2006.


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