What Is a Failed State? Definition and Examples

Syrian refugees from the town of Kobani walk besides their tents near Suruc on the Turkish-Syrian border, 2014 Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images
Syrian refugees from the town of Kobani walk besides their tents near Suruc on the Turkish-Syrian border, 2014 Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images. Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

A failed state is a government that has become incapable of providing the basic functions and responsibilities of a sovereign nation, such as military defense, law enforcement, justice, education, or economic stability. Common characteristics of failed states include ongoing civil violence, corruption, crime, poverty, illiteracy, and crumbling infrastructure. Even if a state is functioning properly, it can fail if it loses credibility and the trust of the people.

Key Takeaways: Failed States

  • Failed states have become incapable of providing the basic functions of government, such as law enforcement and justice, military defense, education, and a stable economy. 
  • Failed states have lost the trust of the people and tend to suffer from civil violence, crime, internal corruption, poverty, illiteracy, and crumbling infrastructure.
  • Factors contributing to state failure include insurgency, high crime rates, overly bureaucratic processes, corruption, judicial incompetence, and military interference in politics.
  • As of 2019, Yemen was considered the world’s most-failed state, followed by Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria.

Defining a Failed State

Because of its subjective nature, there is no single, agreed upon definition of the term “failed state.” Much like beauty, “failure” is in the eye of the beholder. However, a state is generally considered to have “failed” when it is no longer able to consistently and legitimately enforce its laws or provide its citizens with basic goods and services. Typical factors contributing to a state’s failure include insurgency, high crime rates, ineffective and impenetrable bureaucracy, corruption, judicial incompetence, and military interference in politics.

Developed by professor Charles T. Call, one of the most widely accepted definitions dismisses the subjective concept of “failure,” for a more objective one he calls the “gap framework.” The framework identifies three gaps or service areas the state can no longer provide when it begins to fail. These gaps are capacity, when the state cannot effectively deliver basic goods and services to the people; security, when the state is unable to protect its population from armed invasion; and legitimacy when a "significant portion of [the state’s] political elites and society reject the rules regulating power and the accumulation and distribution of wealth."

A little girl carries jerrycans filled with clean water from a charity pump during a continuing clean water crisis in Yemen
A little girl carries jerrycans filled with clean water from a charity pump during a continuing clean water crisis in Yemen. Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

Also critical of the subjective nature of the overarching term “failed states,” professors Morten Boas and Kathleen M. Jennings argue that a heightened sense of insecurity after the September 11, 2001 attacks and the subsequent war on terror have caused Western governments, in particular, to view “failed states” as threats to world peace. However, Boas and Jennings contend that this perception is over-politicized and based on a misdirected understanding of the exact nature of the state’s failure. Instead, they suggest that a more relevant analysis is not whether the state is failing, but instead “For who is the state failing and how?”

In all assessments of a state’s degree of failure, both quantitative and qualitative measurements are typically applied. 

Quantitative Measurements

In making quantitative measurements of state failure, social and political scientists create rankings such as the State Fragility Index (SFI) of 178 states published annually by Foreign Policy Magazine. The FSI and other rankings similar to it evaluate each state’s weaknesses and level of development according to four key indexes—social, economic, political, and cohesiveness—each composed of three indicators as follows:

Social Indicators

  • Demographic pressures (food supply, access to safe water, etc.)
  • Refugees or internally displaced persons
  • External Intervention (the influence and impact of covert and overt external actors)

Political Indicators

  • State legitimacy (representativeness and openness of government)
  • Basic public services
  • Human rights and the rule of law

Economic Indicators

  • Economic decline
  • Uneven economic development (income inequality, etc.)
  • Human flight and brain drain

Cohesion Indicators

  • Security apparatus (ability to respond to threats and attacks)
  • Factionalized elites (fragmentation of state institutions)
  • Group grievance (divisions between groups in the society)

According to the 2019 State Fragility Index, Yemen ranked as the most fragile state, followed by Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Among the total 178 states examined, the United States ranked as the 153rd most stable country, followed by the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Malta, and Japan.

Qualitative Measurements

Most qualitative measurements of state failure involve the assessment of theoretical frameworks, like Charles Call’s “gap framework.” Assuming state failure to be a process, qualitative methods categorize threatened states according to various stages of failure. For example, the “stage model” developed by German researcher Ulrich Schneckener, considers three core elements of each state: a monopoly of control, legitimacy, and rule of law. Based on these core elements, states are assessed as being consolidated and consolidating, weak, failing, and collapsed or failed. In stable consolidated states, all core functions are operating properly. In weak states, the state’s monopoly on control is intact, but legitimacy and rule of law are defective. In failing states, the monopoly of force has been lost, while the other two core functions are at least partially intact. Finally, in failed states, none of the three core functions operate properly.

Impact on the International Community

Since the dawn of the age of global terrorism, the consequences of state failures on the international community have become more damaging than ever. Due to their lack of internal control and porous borders, failed states often serve as safe havens for terrorist organizations. For example, the al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks were based and trained in Afghanistan.

Failed states also tend to be hotbeds for a variety of other international threats. Small arms flow worldwide from Central Asia. Afghanistan’s economy depends almost solely on narcotics exports. The Balkans and the Republic of the Congo are now bases for the human trafficking of women and children. Refugees flow from Sudan, as do AIDS and malaria from failing Sub-Saharan African states. Proceeds from sales of conflict or “blood” diamonds illegally mined in Liberia are used to finance corrupt governments, guerilla militias, and insurgencies in neighboring states.

The international community can and does—though often at a sizeable cost—help rehabilitate failed states by promoting democracy and respect for human rights within their borders, and by providing them with long-term security protection. However, global security experts increasingly warn that in the worst cases, the major world powers and the United Nations must be willing to refuse to recognize or support failed states until they voluntarily disarm and restore some degree of internal stability. 

Historical Examples

Some examples of the world’s most notorious failed and failing states, along with the factors contributing to their instability, include:

Somalia

Widely considered the world’s most failed state, Somalia has been without a functional government since the devastating Somali civil war in 1991. Notorious for its abuses of human rights, warring political factions, and lack of security, the country is filled with displaced refugees. Besides over a million of its own displaced people, Somalia faces an insurgency of al Qaeda affiliated Al Shabaab Islamic jihadist terrorists.

Victims of the famine resulting from Somalia's civil war.
Victims of the famine resulting from Somalia's civil war. Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

South Sudan

Plagued by refugees, factional grievances, lack of human rights, questions of state legitimacy, lack of public services, and threats from external actors, South Sudan has been the scene of almost constant fighting since becoming independent in 2011. After a bloody all-out civil war in 2013, a peace agreement was signed in 2015, but no transitional unified government was formed. Over 18% of the country’s population was displaced by the war, with hundreds of thousands left at risk of starvation.

Yemen

A child walks among graves of people who were killed in the ongoing war at a cemetery in Sana’a, Yemen.
A child walks among graves of people who were killed in the ongoing war at a cemetery in Sana’a, Yemen. Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

Since 2015, an ongoing brutal multi-sided civil war has allowed the ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorist groups to make significant gains in Yemen. At the same time, direct intervention by Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf nations have resulted in widespread chaos and disaster throughout the state. About 11% of the population, or over 2.8 million people, remain internally displaced, while 59% of the population faces food insecurity or starvation.

Afghanistan

Since U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan ended in December 2014, the country has grown more fragile due to a lack of security and public services, and foreign intervention. Though having been purportedly ousted in 2001, the Taliban has made worrisome gains in its insurgency against the Afghan government and the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, delaying the complete U.S. withdrawal from the country after 15 years of U.S.-led nation-building.

Syria

With its society fractured by a multi-sided civil war, Syria remains little more than a pawn in an ongoing battle between the Syrian Arab Republic led by its brutal, autocratic President Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, and various domestic and foreign forces opposing both the Syrian government and each other. Despite direct intervention by the United States and Russia, over 9 million Syrians have become refugees or internally displaced people since March 2011.

Sources and Further Reference

  • “What Does ‘State Fragility’ Mean?”. The Fund for Peace, https://web.archive.org/web/20150104202014/http://ffp.statesindex.org/faq-06-state-fragility.
  • Boas, Morten and Jennings, Kathleen M. “Insecurity and Development: The Rhetoric of the ‘Failed State’.” European Journal of Development Research, September 2005.
  • Call, Charles T. “The Fallacy of the ‘Failed State’.” Third World Quarterly, Volume 29, 2008, Issue 8, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228346162_The_Fallacy_of_the_'Failed_State'.
  • Rotberg, R. “When States Fail. Causes and Consequences.” Princeton University Press (2004), ISBN 978-0-691-11671-6.
  • Patrick, Stewart. “'Failed' States and Global Security: Empirical Questions and Policy Dilemmas.” Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (2008), https://www.jstor.org/stable/4621865?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.