You're reading...
Africa, al-Qaeda, Burma, Conflict Prevention; Responsibility to Protect, Governance, Leadership, Singapore, Somalia, Zimbabwe

Failed and Weak States Defined

A failed state is a country with a government that
cannot or will not deliver essential political goods
(public services) to its citizens. The state, usually not
yet a nation-state, may hold a seat in the United
Nations and function as a sovereign entity in regional
and world politics, but as far as most of its
people are concerned, the state fails them by its inability
to perform state functions adequately. Thus,
failed states are those political entities in international
politics that supply deficient qualities and
quantities of political goods and, simultaneously, no
longer exercise a monopoly of violence within their

The Four Types of States. Failed states are one of
four types of state. Of the 193 members of the United
Nations, 60 or 70 are strong states. Those are the
nation-states that rank highest in the democracy
rankings of Freedom House, the human rights reports
of the US State Department, the anticorruption
perception indices of Transparency International,
the Human Development Index of the United Nations
Development Program, the competitiveness indices
of the World Economic Forum, and the Doing
Business surveys of the World Bank—the Finlands,
New Zealands, and Singapores of the world, plus
Canada, the United States, large portions of Europe,
and countries such as Brazil and South Korea.

After the strong states come those that are weak
according to the criteria set out below. At any time,
there are as many as eighty or ninety weak states:
some almost strong and some, at the very bottom of
the weak listing, tending toward failure and capable
of becoming a subtype called “failing.” Weakness
largely consists of providing many, but not all, of the
requisite political goods described in what follows.

Weak states are not intrinsically weak, or weak because
of geography or colonialism; they are weak
because they supply lesser or less-than-adequate
quantities of political goods, or poorer-quality political
goods, or both. Weak states range from Fiji,
with its many coups but its well-educated and prosperous
population, westward through the fractious
Solomon Islands and the violently corrupt Papua
New Guinea to Laos, Bangladesh, many of the Central
Asian polities, Lebanon, many of the Balkan
polities, and across the Atlantic to much of Central
America (barring Costa Rica) and parts of South
America (Ecuador, Paraguay), or south to Africa,
where nearly all of the sub-Saharan countries are
classified as weak.

Some donor agencies prefer to call this type of
state “fragile,” thus avoiding any taint of pejorativism
in the term “weak.” Th e World Bank once preferred
“Low Income Countries under Stress” for this
category. Weak, rather than strong, is what these
states are. “Fragile” is too gentle and too misleading

Some very weak states, the dictatorships, appear
strong. They mask their weaknesses through systematic
repression and therefore display a fake
strength. These states include North Korea, Turkmenistan,
Syria, Burma (before 2011), Equatorial Guinea, Uzbekistan,
and Belarus. Before 2011 this category also
encompassed Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia. Iraq under
Saddam Hussein was another such autocracy that
managed by terror to control dissent and provide
security of borders, project power throughout its
territory, curtail insurgency, and curb crime. These
states, however, provide almost no political goods,
and North Korea (and Cambodia earlier) savaged
and starved its own people. When the glue of
security within these mock states dissolves as their
legitimacy falters, so they regularly fail, just as
Saddam’s Iraq did after the United States invasion
of 2003.

Failed states do not perform well along a number
of lines, as this discussion will make clear. In
number, failed states are few, perhaps ten or twelve
at typical times. They fail the tests set out at length
below. In sum, failed states lack security, are unsafe,
honor rules of law in the breach, are robustly corrupt,
deny participation or voice most of the time to
most of their people, discriminate within their
countries against classes and kinds of citizens, off er
sustainable economic opportunity only to ruling
elites and other cronies, and provide human development
(educational and health services) sparingly
or not at all.

Most of all, failed states are violent. There are no
failed states that do not harbor civil wars. In other
words, a state may supply hardly any political goods
and may prey upon its people, as Zimbabwe was
doing in 2011, but without the presence of an ongoing
civil conflict (as in the conflicts in Sudan, the
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Yemen, and others), it cannot be considered
failed. In those cases, the state is classifi ed as
“failing” and very weak, but not exactly failed. In
other words, if a state is somehow holding together
(Zimbabwe), it is not failed. When there are one or
more hot insurgencies within the state, and when
other criteria (below) are met, we usually have a
failed state.

An extreme case of a failed state is a collapsed
state. That is, a state with borders but no single constituted
government, no governance per se (because
no government), many confl icts, and no physical
safety, is a collapsed polity. These statements describe
Somalia (but not Somaliland) in 2011 and
Sierra Leone, Liberia, Tajikistan, and Lebanon at
various tumultuous periods in their recent histories.
Just as all categories are fluid, however, with states
emerging from collapse and becoming weak (Sierra
Leone, Liberia, Tajikistan), or moving from strong to
weak to failure, as in the case of Cote d’Ivoire in the
first decade of the twenty-first century, states can
move up or down the strong-collapse scale with
effort and under good leadership once the key category
(below) of security is supplied externally by the
United Nations (as in Liberia), by individual patrons
(Syrian troops in Lebanon, British paratroopers
in Sierra Leone, and Russian soldiers in Tajikistan),
or from regional forces (the African Union in the
Comoros or Ethiopian and later Kenyan troops in

Objective versus Subjective Criteria. This article
and earlier writings set out very strict ways of
differentiating weak (sometimes called fragile) and
troubled and troubling states from states that fully
deserve to carry the label “failed.” The diff erentiation
depends on measurement, and measurement in
turn depends on establishing a set of criteria that
can distinguish quantitatively states that provide
reasonable levels of political goods for their people
from those that fail to achieve that goal in comparison
to their peers. The essential criteria are set out below
in detail. When the results of those tests are
combined with one overriding criterion—whether
a state is in confl ict with itself and has one or more
insurgencies on its soil—it is possible to separate
the truly failed states from those that are near
failure—are failing, but still are weak—and those
that are troublesome internationally, dangerous to
their own people, and very poor providers of political
goods but still are not failed states.

The label “failed” for those nation-states that no
longer serve their people remains powerful. It sharpens
policy considerations and singles out those
countries that should be of utmost concern to world
order. “Failed” also focuses attention on those nation-
states that may soon fail; those are the countries
most in need of external help. For such a
taxonomic classification to be policy effective, however,
it must distinguish surgically and objectively
between categories of countries at risk.
There are other ways of labeling states “failed.”
The prominent Fund for Peace policy think tank and
Foreign Policy magazine’s annual ranking of failed
states uses a subjective method and is based, as far
as their methods are public, on ratings by skilled
evaluators. This is the usual pattern of most kinds of
indices (but not the Index of African Governance).
That is, Freedom House, the annual Failed State
Index, most of the different World Bank indexes,
Transparency International, and so on ask capable
analysts to rank countries according to the perceptions
of the person doing the ranking. This method
obviously enshrines selection bias. The Index of
African Governance was created in order to employ
real numbers and reduce selection bias as much
as possible.

With regard to failed states, if such objective
methods are employed, and countries are ranked
quantitatively according to hard data obtained internationally
or nationally, then it is possible to separate
weak from failed states objectively and not just
to report on those states that disappoint observers
or that are seen as “bad” by sets of experts. For example,
there seems to be no rhyme or reason in the
2009 and subsequent Foreign Policy Failed States

Foreign Policy employed a worthy but subjective
scheme that was inherently dependent upon expert
or popular opinion. The categories, all good and reasonable
ones, demand a reliance on impressions. To
take a few by way of example, categories 5, “Uneven
Economic Development along Group Lines”; 7,
“Criminalization of the State”; and 10, “Security Apparatus
Operates as a ‘State within a State’” are rubrics
that ask that someone, presumably an expert,
should decide whether Burma or Haiti or Iraq scores
lower or higher than another state. Such assessments
depend on a “feel” for the country and a pooling
of the consensus views of outsiders (and
sometimes insiders). Every answer is by definition
subjective. Note, too, that Foreign Policy’s ranking
team has but a ten-point spread by which to score
each country, so that in 2009 in category 1, “Mounting
Demographic Pressures,” Liberia scored 8.6 while
Burkina Faso was 9.0. On what objective basis did
this numerical difference rely?

Th e Foreign Policy scoring system for 2009 made
Zimbabwe the second-most-failed state, just ahead
of Sudan, Chad, Congo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Haiti
was twelfth, and Burma was thirteenth. Did Haiti
perform less well for its people than a dictatorship
such as Burma? Turkmenistan, one of the most repressive
places in the world, was fifty-ninth, and
Zambia, a democratic performer, was sixtieth. Why?
By the method set out below, a state either meets
the criteria for failure, or it does not.

The Provision of Key Political Goods. States were
created in post-Westphalian times to provide
collectively for persons living within designated
national boundaries services that individuals or
aggregations of individuals could only with immense
difficulty obtain for themselves. States exist,
therefore, to do for citizens what citizens cannot do
so easily by themselves.

The requisite political goods that citizens demand
from their governments fall into five critical
1. Security and Safety
Individuals cannot on their own secure national
borders from transnational attack nor can they
prevent nonstate actors from acquiring weapons
and followers within those national borders. States
do so. Indeed, this is a state’s prime mission. If it
cannot protect its denizens from harm and secure
its borders, it fails a fundamental test of statehood.
All failed states are insecure in the sense that either
they are unable to project state power beyond a national
capital, they cannot control all of their territory,
they harbor or are harboring one or more
insurgent groupings antagonistic to the state’s government,
or some combination of these.

It is the responsibility of a well-functioning nation-state
to prevent cross-border invasions and infiltrations,
and losses of territory. It must, likewise,
eliminate domestic threats to or attacks upon the
nation and its social structure. There can be no expectation
of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”
for citizens without all forms of state-provided

Likewise, once the borders are secure and there
are no insurgencies, a state is responsible for keeping
its citizens safe. Collections of individuals can do
so within gated communities and by hiring privately
financed guards, for sure, but for most inhabitants
of a modern, strong nation-state, safety is ensured
by governmentally provided operatives called police
officers or civil investigation departments. To deter
crime, agencies specifically deputed by governments
patrol the streets, repel smugglers, pursue and prosecute
wrongdoers, and so on.

A nation-state such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, or
South Africa may be secure against external threats
and successful in projecting power throughout its
territory, but it is not able to keep its citizens safe.
Murders are more common in those countries than
almost anywhere else, and other crimes are rampant.
Most secure nation-states rate highly in terms
of safety, but not those that have been unable for a
variety of reasons to curb crime or limit the sway of
criminal gangs. As a result, when nation-states are
ranked against their peers across this first dimension,
both aspects of security and of safety must be
evaluated. A finding of failure ultimately must be
judged on all aspects of a state’s performance.

2. Rule of Law and Transparency
States are responsible for enabling their citizens
to resolve their differences with the government
and with their fellow inhabitants without recourse
to arms, armed conflict, or other forms of physical
coercion. Modern, high-performing polities, hence,
offer predictable, recognizable, systematized methods
of adjudicating disputes and regulating both
the norms and the prevailing mores of their societies.
Th e result is a codified rule of law, as expressed
in an enforceable body of legislation and jurisprudence.
That collection of rules and regulations,
whether written or (rarely) oral, always includes
provisions safeguarding personal rights to property
and mechanisms and procedures to make contracts

A rule-of-law regime may be elaborately developed,
its clauses carefully and sensitively written,
and its letter and spirit broadly accepted, but tightly
composed rules of law nevertheless are often abused
wherever the linchpin of an independent judiciary
has not been enshrined in the national political culture.
Without judges who respect the law and put
law above political imperatives, rules of law become
weak, if not nugatory. Citizens cannot depend on recourse
to the national law if judges are partial or if,
in extreme cases, they take orders directly from political
masters. Failed states never have independent
judiciaries. Nor do many weak states.
Likewise, failed states are never transparent.
There is too much to hide. In particular, failed states
are always bastions of rampant corruption. As measured
by Transparency International, an NGO based
in Berlin, and the World Bank, the ten most corrupt
countries in the world include all failed states and
several weak ones. Indeed, it is very difficult for the
governments of failed and similar states to continue
to rule without ample supplies of the corrupt earnings
that in turn enable autocrats and others to pay
off their followers and neutralize opponents. Patrimonialism
and patronage is foundational within
failed states.

3. Participation and Respect for Human Rights
Another key political good enables citizens to
participate freely, openly, and fully in politics and
the entire political process, including running for
office, campaigning for candidates freely, and respecting
fundamental freedoms such as freedom of
speech, press, and assembly. This is the political
good that enables citizens to possess a voice and
to be represented in national political discourse
by persons of their own choosing. This safety valve
is rarely available in states that are failing or
failed. Many weak states, as well, offer low levels of
participation—the essence of this political good
and one of the key features that distinguishes strong
states from states that are weak, failing, and collapsed.

In classical failed states such as Afghanistan,
Burma (before 2012), the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan,
the Sudan, and Yemen, participation has
always been at best limited and at worst nonexistent.
Yet, the fact that such countries are not democracies
does not mean that they fail this third test
solely on that basis. Incomplete or insufficient democracies
may still provide some forms of participation
to their citizens, but the governments of
failed states almost never do. They cheat at elections;
give voice only to allied warlords or power
brokers; squelch citizen protests as long as possible;
ignore United Nations or Big Power entreaties to respect
human and physical rights; make decisions in
secret; are intolerant of dissent; harass, intimidate,
and assassinate opponents; and, in extreme moments,
descend into paroxysms of ethnic cleansing
and genocide.

4. Sustainable Economic Development
States enable their citizens to prosper and achieve
improved standards of living. Strong states do so by
adhering to sensible macroeconomic policies, including
openness to international trade, developing
a regulatory environment that stimulates economic
growth and keeps inflation low, and encouraging
foreign and domestic investment. This framework
provides a state-sponsored platform for Sustainable
Economic Development.

The extent to which a state is meeting this fourth
test of governance, and supplying the requisite political
goods, can be measured by examining a state’s
per capita gross domestic product (GDP); its year-to-
year GDP growth numbers over a ten-year period;
equality and inequality as measured by the Gini co-effi
cient; the length and quality of its roads, bridges,
railways, and harbor installations; the availability of
other arteries of commerce, such as land and mobile
telephones; access to the Internet; and the robustness
of its money and banking system, presided over
by a central bank and lubricated by a stable national
currency. All of these state-provided or state-mandated
services together comprise a beneficent fiscal
and institutional context within which citizens are
enabled to pursue their individual entrepreneurial
goals, and potentially prosper.

5. Human Development
The last category of political good by which state
strength or failure is measured is human development.
In the developing world certainly, and elsewhere
also, citizens call upon their states to provide
the highest possible quality educational and health
services. Privately provided schooling exists everywhere,
but the majority of citizens have long relied
on the state to supply educational opportunity, the
greater the quantity and the higher the quality the
better. Private clinics and medical providers also
exist side by side with those supplied by the state.
The better and more reliable those of the state are,
and the more citizens across classes rely on the
state, the stronger the state.

Results in this final large category of state delivery
are measured by standard indices of life expectancy
and maternal and child mortality. They are also
measured by such disparate, but important, subcategories
and variables as quantifying the persistence
of children (especially girls) in primary school and
from primary school to secondary school; availability
of treatment for and vaccines against common
afflictions such as HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis, measles,
and cholera; availability of potable water; numbers
of nurses and physicians per capita; and so on. Outputs,
not inputs, are as important here as in the
other categories. In other words, results (not budgets)
separate the strong from the weak states, and
the weak from those states that fail. (The Index of
African Governance employed fifty-seven analytical
variables to measure a nation’s strength across all
five categories.)

Failed States in Action. Failed states are judged
and classified as indicated in the previous section.
But what do persons in failed states endure?

Failed states are tense, deeply conflicted, dangerous,
and contested bitterly by warring factions. Most
failed states are the settings for armed revolts and
other hostile conflicts between the central government
and one or more insurgencies, as in Afghanistan,
the Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the
Congo. The violence is usually directed at the regime
in power or at a temporary occupying force. It is the
demands for shared governance or autonomy that
rationalize or justify waves of violence or perpetual
civil war in the minds of the key rebels.

The civil wars that characterize and populate
failed states are rooted in ethnic, religious, linguistic,
or other intercommunal enmities. The fear of the
other and the consequent security dilemma that
drives so much conflict within failed states stimulates
and fuels hostilities among governments and
nonstate entities. Avarice also drives antagonism;
greed is magnified if there are real resources to be
secured for nonstate victors. Petroleum deposits, alluvial
diamond-mining areas, valuable growths of
timber, and rich grazing lands suitable for cattle all
stimulate the intrastate wars of this century.

No failed states exist without antagonism among
communities. Yet, the fact that favored and disfavored
groups exist together within the same countries
and that many of the newer states, especially in
Africa, are plural and heterogeneous in terms of ethnicity,
language, religion, and culture, does not specify
cause. Many nonfailed states in Africa and Asia
exhibit similar mélanges of peoples without developing
debilitating confl icts or descending from
weakness into failure. State failure is not simply the
inability to build nations from a congeries of diverse
ethnicities. Nor is it merely the result of oppression
of minorities by a majority or majorities by minorities.
That could be a contributing factor, and it often
is, but it is never the decisive cause.

The etiology of state failure is diff erent and more
complex. Human agency is a critical variable. Th ere
are no instances of states failing without the active
assistance of a political leader. Witness what the
presidents Siaka Stevens in Sierra Leone, Mobutu
Sese Seko in Zaire/Congo, Charles Taylor in Liberia,
Gaafar al-Nimeiry and Omar al-Bashir in the Sudan,
Jean-Bertrande Aristide in Haiti, and Gulbuddin
Hakmatyar in Afghanistan did to destroy their states
to boost their own power and the power of their
clans and lineages, and to harvest available resources
and grow wealthy. They discriminated in
favor of close cronies, falsified elections, preyed in
cruel ways on opponents and presumed enemies,
voided free speech and press freedom, and locked
up and killed presumed critics. Robert Mugabe in
Zimbabwe, a failing but not yet failed state, drove
his once-wealthy state into poverty throughout the
first decade of the twenty-first century while enriching
himself and his ilk and rigging or miscounting
electoral results. Thousands died at the hands of his

The typical weak or failing state descends into
failure when ruler-led and ruler-designed repression
and discrimination provokes—after years, even decades,
of despair—a reaction on the part of disenfranchised
or disadvantaged ethnic groups or
coalitions. New insurgent leaders emerge. They
become peaceful agitators or sometimes morph
into militant warlords.

When states can no longer secure their peripheries,
when crime and corruption proliferate and looting
is the order of the day, when infrastructures
crumble and potholes proliferate, when particular
elites rule obviously for themselves and not for all
components of the nation, when rule of law is conspicuously
absent, when all political institutions bar
the executive are defunct, and when infl ation rises
and life expectancies plummet, then a country has
palpably lost “the mandate of heaven.” For protection,
citizens seek safety and security not in the state
but in their own ethnicities and their own new warlords.
This breakdown occurs rapidly when states no
longer deliver essential services to their people or
deliver them only to relatives of the ruling elite.
When the objective numbers within the five categories
collapse and other indicators slide, then anarchy
replaces order, and a single large state such as
Congo becomes, in effect, many small states, with
fluctuating allegiances.

Because citizens depend on the regimes that
govern entities such as states to secure their persons,
enable prosperity, off er educational and medical
opportunity, free them from fear of the unknown,
and provide large measures of hope about the future—
when regimes cease regarding and treating
all peoples within a nation equally—the state rapidly
loses legitimacy almost everywhere within its
borders and disorder dominates. Th at is the saga
of failure.

Note: Two paragraphs of this article were originally
written at the request of Foreign Policy as a commentary
on its 2009 rankings (June 2009). Foreign Policy
edited the commentary for length.

B i b l io gr a p hy
Patrick, Stewart M. Weak Links: Fragile States, Global
Th reats, and International Security . (New York, 2011).
Rotberg, Robert I. “Th e Challenge of Weak, Failing, and
Collapsed States.” In Leashing the Dogs of War: Confl ict
Management in a Divided World , edited by Chester A.
Crocker , Fen Osler Hampton , and Pamela Aall ,
pp. 83–94 . (Washington, D.C.: 2007).
Rotberg, Robert I. “Disorder in the Ranks.” Invited commentary
on “Th e Failed States Index.” Foreign Policy,
July–August 2009, p. 91.
Rotberg, Robert I. “Failed States in a World of Terror.”
Foreign Aff airs 81 (2002): 1–13.
Rotberg, Robert I. “Th e Failure and Collapse of Nation
States.” In Staatszerfall und Governance , edited by
Marianne Beishem and Gunnar Folke Schuppert , pp.
59–97. (Baden-Baden, 2007).
Rotberg, Robert I. “Th e New Nature of Nation-State Failure.”
Washington Quarterly 25 (2002): 85–96.
Rotberg, Robert I. State Failure and State Weakness in
Time of Terror . (Washington, D.C., 2003).
Rotberg, Robert I. When States Fail: Causes and Consequences
. (Princeton, N.J., 2004).
Rotberg, Robert I. , and Rachel M. Gisselquist . Strengthening
African Governance: Th e Index of African Governance.
(Cambridge, Mass., 2007, 2008, 2009).

This article, somewhat updated and revised in 2013, originally appeared as “Failed States,” an entry in Joel Krieger (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Comparative Politics (New York, OUP, 2012),  383-389




11 thoughts on “Failed and Weak States Defined

  1. It is a shame that there are no comments. This article is very good and hits the nail on the head. Can’t imagine why there are no comments.

    Posted by Jeff ferguson | February 11, 2013, 6:42 pm
  2. The best explanation of the classification of states.I was lucky this popped up on Google. Thank you so much. Permanent bookmark!

    Posted by Norman | May 26, 2014, 11:35 am
  3. A good article. It has helped me on research on political science.

    Posted by kenneth bulbul | November 9, 2014, 2:56 am
  4. Good explanation and I need more time to study and read again

    Posted by Tin | March 19, 2015, 2:02 am
  5. This is really good it gives a comprehensive understanding and distinction among different types of states

    Posted by Andrew nkata | January 13, 2016, 1:13 am
  6. thank you for making me understand. actually I was doing political science as my measure but I could not understand about the state

    Posted by kwanele | March 30, 2016, 3:01 am
  7. Yes it is very helpful information for me…

    Posted by Rinku Sharma | July 9, 2016, 4:28 pm
  8. Couldn’t agree more,,,,best article! bookmarked forever,Muchas Gracias.

    Posted by Sia Peter | June 11, 2017, 1:54 pm


  1. Pingback: ¿Estados fallidos o concepto fallido?, por Trajan Shipley « Sociología en la Red de la UNJFSC - December 11, 2017

  2. Pingback: ¿Estados fallidos o concepto fallido?, por Trajan Shipley – Sociología en la Red – Divulgación, Innovación y Tecnología para la UNJFSC - February 17, 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.