“State Failure” Has Failed. How About Giving “State Collapse” a Whirl?

Foreign Policy magazine recently published the 2012 edition of the Fund for Peace‘s Failed States Index (FSI), and the response in the corner of the international-studies blogosphere I inhabit has been harsh. Scholars have been grumbling about the Failed States Index for years, but the chorus of academic and advocacy voices attacking it seems to have grown unusually large and loud this year. In an admirable gesture of of fair play, Foreign Policy ran one of the toughest critiques of the FSI on its own web site, where Elliot Ross of the blog Africa is a Country wrote,

We at Africa is a Country think Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace should either radically rethink the Failed States Index, which they publish in collaboration each year, or abandon it altogether. We just can’t take it seriously: It’s a failed index.

As Ross and many others argue, the core problem with the FSI is that it defines state failure very broadly, and in a way that seems to privilege certain forms of political stability over other aspects of governance and quality of life that the citizens in those states may prize more highly. In a 2008 critique of the “state failure” concept [PDF] that nicely anticipated all of the recent sturm und drang around the FSI, Chuck Call wrote that

The ‘failed states’ concept—and related terms like ‘failing’, ‘fragile’, ‘stressed’ and ‘troubled’ states—has become more of a liability than an asset. Foundations and think tanks have rushed to fund work on ‘failing’ states, resulting in a proliferation of multiple, divergent and poorly defined uses of the term. Not only does the term ‘failing state’ reflect the schoolmarm’s scorecard according to linear index defined by a univocal Weberian endstate, but it has also grown to encompass states as diverse as Colombia, East Timor, Indonesia, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Iraq, and the Sudan.

In that essay, Call advocates abandoning the now-hopelessly-freighted concept of “state failure” in favor of a narrower focus on “state collapse”—that is, situations “where no authority is recognisable either internally to a country’s inhabitants or externally to the international community.” I agree.

In fact, in 2010, while still working as research director for the U.S. Government–funded Political Instability Task Force, I led a small research project that aimed to develop a workable definition of state collapse and coding guidelines that would allow researchers to know it when they see it. The project stopped short of producing a global, historical data set, but the coding guidelines were road-tested and refined, and I think the end results have some value. In light of the FSI brouhaha, I’ve posted the results of that project on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) in hopes that they might be useful to a broader audience.

In those materials—a concept paper and a set of coding guidelines—I argue that we can get to a more workable concept by moving away from Max Weber’s aspirational vision of modern states as legitimate and orderly bureaucracies. Instead, I think we get further when we recognize that real-world states are a specific kind of political organization associated with a particular realization of global politics. That realization—the “Westphalian order,” or just “the international system”—constitutes states and delegates certain forms of political authority to them, but national governments in the real world vary widely in their ability to exercise that authority. When internationally recognized governments cease to exist, or their actual authority is badly circumscribed, we can say that the state has collapsed. That kind of collapse can happen in two different ways: fragmentation and disintegration.

When the failure to rule involves the national government’s territorial reach, we might call it collapse by fragmentation. The ideal of domestic sovereignty presumes final authority within a specific territory and international recognition of that authority, so situations in which large swaths of a state’s territory are effectively governed by organized political challengers whose authority is not internationally recognized represent a form of collapse. In practical terms, these situations usually arise in one of two ways: either 1) a rebel group violently pushes state agents out of a particular area, or 2) a regional government unilaterally proclaims its autonomy or independence and becomes the de facto sovereign authority in that region. In either situation, the rival group directly and publicly challenges the national government’s claim to sovereignty and effectively becomes the supreme political authority in that space. State military forces may still operate in these areas, but they do so in an attempt to reassert control that has already been lost, as indicated by the primacy of the rival organization in day-to-day governance…

State collapse also occurs when the national government fails to enforce its authority in the absence of a rival claimant to sovereignty. This type of failure might be called state collapse by disintegration. The ideal of domestic sovereignty presumes that a central government is capable not just of making rules but also of enforcing them. Dramatic failures of a state’s enforcement capabilities are indicated by widespread lawlessness and disorder, such as rioting, looting, civil violence, and vigilantism. In the extreme, central governments will sometimes disappear completely, but this rarely occurs. More often, a national government will continue to operate, but its rules will be ignored in some portions of its putative territory.

To distinguish state collapse from other forms of political instability and disorder, we have to establish some arbitrary thresholds beyond which the failure is considered catastrophic. Saying focused on the core dimensions of domestic sovereignty—territory and order—I do this as follows:

A state collapse occurs when a sovereign state fails to provide public order in at least one-half of its territory or in its capital city for at least 30 consecutive days. A sovereign state is regarded as failing to provide public order in a particular area when a) an organized challenger, usually a rebel group or regional government, effectively controls that area; b) lawlessness pervades in that area; or c) both. A state is considered sovereign when it is granted membership in the U.N. General Assembly.

If you’re interested, you can find more specific language on how to assess challenger control and lawlessness in the coding guidelines.

Applying this definition to the world today, I see only a handful of states that are clearly collapsed and just a few more that might be. In the “clearly collapsed” category, I would put Libya, Mali, Somalia, and Yemen. In the “probably collapsed” category, I would put Afghanistan and Democratic Republic of Congo. Those judgments are based on cursory knowledge of those cases, however, and I would be interested to hear what others think about where this label does (Chad? Haiti? Ivory Coast? Sudan? South Sudan?) or does not (Afghanistan? Mali?) fit. Either way, the list is much shorter and, I believe, more coherent than the 20-country sets the Failed States Index identifies as “critical” and “in danger.”

More important, this is a topic that still greatly interests me, so I would love to have this conceptual work critiqued, put to use, or both. Fire away!

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Election-Watching in the Age of Global Connectivity

As someone who has studied the establishment and breakdown of democratic regimes for the past twenty-odd years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time evaluating the conduct of elections from afar. Based on that experience, I can say with some confidence that election-watching has been radically transformed by the global spread of digital connectivity.

Most significant, both the volume and quality of information about the conduct of elections has increased by orders of magnitude. Twenty-five years ago, few elections were monitored by international observers, and local and regional press accounts were sparse and hard to track down. Fifteen years ago, you could find a report from international observers on many elections, but those reports weren’t always reliable, and lots of elections–especially in Africa and Asia–still went without. Even five years ago, the roster of countries covered had grown a bit more, and online news services were providing access to a lot more local reporting, but shoddy infrastructure and censorship meant you still had to hunt and peck for informative nuggets, especially from poorer countries.

All that has changed dramatically in the past few years. Now, we can visit an NGO’s web site and scan thousands of tweeted accounts on today’s elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world. We can click over the Guardian‘s Middle East Live blog and catch the latest reports on today’s parliamentary balloting in Egypt. We can pick up the newspaper and read about how Russians are using their smartphones to record and share evidence of abuses in the build-up to that country’s upcoming vote–and then go to YouTube and see what they’re talking about.

All of this information is a tremendous opportunity, but it also poses some new challenges. When you’re on the lookout for electoral malfeasance, there’s almost always some noise to be found. Often, the closer you listen, the more noise you hear. The difficult part is turning all that noise into a signal, and that only gets harder when the information is, essentially, endless. (Do date-constrained Lexis-Nexis and Twitter searches on “Egypt” and “elections” and just try reading everything that comes up. I dare you.)

The only way to try to relate all of that information to some judgment about the nature of the regime the election produces is to start with a conceptual framework that connects election procedures and the context in which they occur to specific criteria about what constitutes democracy. In other words, you have to decide ahead of time a) what your standards are and b) what kind of evidence you’re going to use to decide whether or not those standards have been met. Even that turns out to be harder than it sounds.

As I see it, competitive elections are the procedural core of contemporary democracy. The notion of democracy is rooted in principles of participation, responsiveness, and accountability, and in large, modern states, regular elections have emerged as the most efficient and most effective way to translate these principles into action. Democracy is rooted in the idea of the rule of the people—the notion that a government is established by, of, and for the citizens of a particular state.  On the scale of the modern state, where citizens typically number in the millions, direct democracy is impractical, if not impossible, so citizens instead choose representatives who are empowered and expected to act on their behalf. Elections to select those representatives provide regular avenues for citizens to participate as voters, as partisan activists, and even as candidates. Elections also ensure that citizens have frequent opportunities to hold their representatives accountable for their actions in office. That mechanism of accountability, in turn, encourages representatives to be responsive to their constituents’ concerns, and it ensures that citizens may replace them if they are not.

Some scholars have rightly cautioned against tying the concept of democracy too tightly to elections, a mistake Terry Lynn Karl famously characterized as the “fallacy of electoralism.” Nevertheless, nearly every major definition of democracy put forward in recent decades identifies elections as one of, if not the, critical procedural element of democracy today.  As Samuel Huntington put it in The Third Wave, “Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non.”

Of course, the occurrence of elections alone is hardly enough to make democracy. Some of the world’s most oppressive regimes have held regular elections with high turnouts, yet governments such as the USSR’s or Iraq’s under Saddam Hussein could hardly be characterized as responsive or accountable. To judge the presence of democracy, we have to examine the qualities of the electoral process and, to some extent, the broader context in which those elections occur.

When I’m looking at observer reports, news stories, and now online streams of information about the conduct of elections, I’m thinking of democracy as a form of government in which a free citizenry fairly chooses and routinely holds accountable its rulers. In practice, this occurs when four general conditions hold:

  • Elected officials rule. Representatives chosen by citizens actually make policy, and unelected individuals, bodies, and organizations cannot veto those representatives’ decisions.
  • Elections are fair and competitive. The process by which citizens elect their rulers provides voters with meaningful choice and is free from deliberate fraud or abuse.
  • Politics is inclusive. Adult citizens have equal rights to vote and participate in government and fair opportunity to exercise those rights.
  • Civil liberties are protected. Freedoms of speech, association, and assembly give citizens the chance to deliberate on their interests, to organize in pursuit of those interests, and to monitor the performance of their elected representatives and the bureaucracies on which those officials depend.

In practical terms, that means looking for evidence that helps answer the following questions:

1. Are the officials who actually rule chosen through elections?

  • The head of government is chosen directly or indirectly by popular election, or he/she is the constitutionally designated successor to an elected head of government who has resigned, died, or become incapacitated while in office.
  • The members of the legislature are chosen by popular election.
  • No unelected individual, body, or organization—domestic or foreign—wields veto power across a range of national policy issue areas.

2. Are those elections competitive?

  • At least two independent political parties field candidates for most or all national offices, including the head of government in cases where that office is filled directly by election.
  • Independent news media exist and are accessible to most citizens.
  • Processes of voter registration and identification and lists of registered voters are not manipulated, restricted, or impeded on a large scale to partisan advantage.
  • State resources are not used directly and extensively in political campaigns to the advantage of incumbent officeholders.
  • The vote-tallying process is not subject to abuse or fraud that is widespread or sufficient to change either the balance of power in the legislature or the outcome of a direct election for head of government.

3. Is the political process broadly inclusive?

  • Citizens may form independent political parties or associations without substantial interference or impediment by the state.
  • Nearly all adult citizens may stand as candidates for office.
  • Elections are based on the principals of universal and equal suffrage.

Those criteria still leave a lot of room for subjective judgment (e.g., when does the use of state resources on behalf of incumbent office-holders become “extensive”?). Even so, I think they’re specific enough to allow us to make sharper judgments about specific cases. For example, applying these criteria to today’s elections in Egypt, we can see that even wonderfully fair and competitive elections would not qualify that country as a democracy (yet) because a self-selected council of military officers continues to serve as Egypt’s executive authority, giving us a “no” to the first question. In DROC, it’s the reverse; rulers will claim an electoral mandate, but those elections won’t have been sufficiently competitive to qualify the resulting regime as a democracy.

Of course, those are not natural facts; they are my personal judgments, based on a specific idea of what democracy is, and what brings it into being. However you define democracy, though, the broader point holds. Information about the conduct of elections may no longer be scarce,  but it’s still impossible to make sense of all that noise without stepping away from the live streams long enough to develop some clear ideas about the concept of democracy it’s all meant to express.

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