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Evaluating the Failed States Index and U.S. Africa Policy

Asch Harwood is the Council on Foreign Relations Africa program research associate. A version of this post originally appeared on Africa in Transition, a Council on Foreign Relations blog.

The Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy have released their 2012 Failed States Index. Fourteen of the twenty states listed as “critical” are found in sub-Saharan Africa. Among the highest scores (bad) are Somalia, DRC, Chad, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.

How predictive is the index? Well, it depends on how you define state failure. If you mean coup, clearly it’s not 100 percent accurate. Mali ranked number 79, which means that it is in danger, but not critical. And yet the country has been struck by interrelated crises—the coup in Bamako, Azawad’s secession and occupation, Tuareg mercenaries, jihadist camps—that fulfill most definitions of state failure. (Jay Ulfelder argues it is indeed possible to assess the likelihood of a coup, which could be considered one definition for state failure.)

But if you identify state failure not as a single incident but as a continuum of insecurity, alienation, and poverty, the Failed States Index provides a useful model.

The United States, therefore, might benefit by testing its foreign policy against the index’s findings, particularly for any “cognitive dissonance” between the USG’s image of a country that underpins that policy and the reality on the ground.

For example, such cognitive dissonance may be present when it comes to Nigeria, although this may be changing. The Failed States Index puts Nigeria in critical condition since the country struggles with Boko Haram in the North, MEND in the South, and sectarian violence in the middle belt—while Abuja’s finances dwindle. Yet, at least publicly, our stance does not always reflect this reality. (It does reflect Nigeria’s strategic importance to the United States, including oil.)

However, this dissonance becomes more troubling when you consider who is responsible for state failure. Daron Acemoblu and James Robinson write “these states collapse because they are ruled by what we call ‘extractive’ economic institutions, which destroy incentives, discourage innovation, and sap the talent of their citizens by creating a tilted playing field and robbing them of opportunities. These institutions are not in place by mistake but on purpose. They’re there for the benefit of elites who gain much from the extraction …at the expense of society.”

That sounds like what Nigerian critics say about their own elites. It is to be hoped that U.S. policymakers make use of sources such as the Failed States Index as they shape the bilateral relationship.



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