Fragile States Index 2016: A Review

from Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
Published on 30 Nov 2016 View Original


By Derek Verbakel and Marie Pavageau Research staff, IPCS

Since its inception in 2005, the annual index produced by the Washington DC-based Fund for Peace has ranked 178 countries based on measures of their stability and the pressures they face. The vast amount of information acquisition and interpretation involved in such a project is no small task and the commendable objective of the Fragile States Index (FSI), aimed at policymakers and the wider public, is to inform political risk assessment and better policy responses. Called the Failed States Index when the IPCS last issued a report on it, the FSI has generated lively debate in South Asia and further afield. While it has received some qualified praise, it has also faced wide-ranging arguments by numerous scholarly and policy critics. The term 'failed state' and the FSI more broadly have been variously regarded as excessively biased and politicised, overly simplistic, and lacking analytical precision and predictive utility.

Conceptual Challenges

The title was amended in 2014, yet the term ‘failed state’ continues to be used in the text. The term replacing it in the title, “Fragile,” remains little less problematic. There is a lack of clarity about what is meant by ‘fragile’, how a state is rendered fragile, or whether fragility is relative or absolute. It is uncertain whether such a condition is measurable in any meaningful way, particularly in relation to establishing security, providing services and other public goods, maintaining the rule of law, and other presumed state functions. Leaving aside that no universal understanding exists as to what exactly constitutes a state, the FSI presupposes a neat, linear, ideal-type, and assumes as straightforward the complex interface and interplay between state and society. As a result of persisting criticism for presenting an overly grim and sensationalist image of a world going up in flames, the FSI has in recent years de-emphasised rankings to allow greater appreciation of individual country contexts and adjusted their ‘Heat Map’ to incorporate cooler colours into their maps and rankings spectrum.

Situating the FSI

Worth noting is the political baggage on which the Fragile States Index rests. The FSI embodies a continuity of ‘failed states’ discourse formerly influential in US foreign policy-making circles in the mid-1990s to late-2000s. Fixated on security threats emanating from weak or ‘failed’ states, this called for US-led external interventions to address said threats through undertaking liberal democratic state-building projects. While its message has served to legitimise the exercise of US power abroad, the FSI has simultaneously worked to occlude the historical and contemporary impacts of external interventions affecting many states that it has depicted as ‘failed’ or ‘fragile’. In identifying the problems it seeks to address, the 2016 FSI claims: ''Since the end of the Cold War, a number of states have erupted into mass violence stemming from internal conflict.'' Yet almost all of these states were formerly colonised and/or destabilised by the superpower struggle, and so presenting given conflicts as simply arising endogenously is misguided.

The FSI only offers interpretations rooted in its particular US-centric provenance, and therefore any objectivity claimed by the FSI is unattainable. The text insists on its diagnostic and predictive utility, and the FSI model attempts to shed light on a common set of characteristics that engender a condition of state fragility or failure. According to this logic, the identification of patterns in terms of factors likely to precipitate specific problems could then lead to predicting emerging threats and creating policies to address them.

However, there are inherent difficulties in slicing and dicing the social world into variables slotted into such models, and there are methodological issues aplenty related to the 12 indicators comprising the FSI. Abstract indicators such as Group Grievance and State Legitimacy defy easy, intelligible measurement, and the sources and scoring methods for all 12 indicators are not transparent. Inter-relationships between indicators are left unexplored and it is unclear whether the indicators are adequately attuned to the impact of factors such as democratic processes, both formal and informal, which are stretched across or fall into the gaps between indicators. The equal weighting of all 12 indicators raises questions about whether such a one-size-fits-all approach fails to capture the contextual nuances of 178 diverse countries.

In simplistically categorising states, the FSI also fails to illuminate differentiations within states. For instance, in terms of governance at the provincial level, more capable states may have poorly managed provinces and less capable states better-run provinces. Unapparent too can be the reasons behind movements in the rankings, which are no more clearly due to state strengthening or weakening than to unfolding political vicissitudes. Consider the reduction of pressure on dissidents in Myanmar or Iran engaging in nuclear talks. It is not evident if these states become stronger or weaker, more or less fragile in each case. The FSI also struggles to account for the blurriness of some borders and transnational dynamics affecting states, such as amorphous, decentralised groups perpetrating terrorism. The FSI also slips into a tautological trap in presenting violence as an indicator to predict violence.

Issues and Implications Moving Forward

As such, is the FSI helpful in finding context-sensitive solutions to addressing instability and conflict?
Or does it lend too readily to unhelpful generalising in place of more tailored, nuanced approaches to promoting sustainable security? Can a poor ranking lead to reprioritising, legislative change, or policy adjustments in a given country? Can or should the FSI be re-engineered?

As is to be expected, debate in various circles surrounding the Fragile States Index continues to be vibrant and vigorous. The following series of contributions offer timely and unique engagements with conceptual and empirical issues concerning the Fragile States Index 2016 as it relates to complex political, economic, and social dynamics in South Asia and beyond.