A Failed Index


The Fund For Peace released the 2014 edition of its Failed States Index late last month, changing its name to the less pejorative “Fragile States Index.” Reviewing the extensive criticism the index attracts from academics and policymakers, Lionel Beehner and Joseph Young discuss some ways in which it could be improved:

For the tool to be useful, it should be predictive. Can we sort countries based on their susceptibility to certain undesirable outcomes? Yes, and probably better than just doing back-of-the-envelope guesses, which is what this arbitrary ranking essentially is. A look back at Ukraine’s 2013 score, for instance, gives no evidence that the country was about to be carved up. In 2010, states like Syria, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia fell into the same bracket as Brazil, Turkey, and Russia.

Another way perhaps to avoid its perennial failure at anticipating events is for the index to examine provinces, given the vast amount of sub-variation within countries. That might require a messier map of the world, but at least it would be more accurate (and account for what anthropologists call “alternatively governed” spaces).

A better a way forward might be to think about clustering countries.

The differences among countries may be ordered but any kind of exact ranking obscures the reality of the situation as the South Sudan/Somalia example demonstrates. Most reasonable people would say both states have serious internal (and external) threats, but ranking them reminds us of the obscure debates historians have over who was worse: Hitler or Stalin.  Those dictators might be in a category or cluster, which includes Pol Pot or Idi Amin, but ranking them is nonsensical.

Miles Evers argues that the FSI’s ahistorical, quantitative approach “misleads policymakers to believe that external intervention can be a proper reaction to rather than a cause of state fragility”:

The flaw with the FSI isn’t terminology. It is that its methodology masks the painful lessons of the past in a stale, numerical ranking of present circumstance. Claire Leigh rightly criticizes, “It gives us no clue why certain countries have the dubious distinction of topping the chart. It offers no policy prognoses or prescriptions.” With recent crises like the current ISIS incursion into Iraq putting the issue of unilateral intervention back on the table and giving think tanks greater currency in policy circles, this lacuna threatens to repeat history to the detriment of our own national interests, regardless of whether or not we call it a Failed or Fragile State. FSI’s name change serves as a reminder of how incomplete analyses can lead us to strategic blunders of the Vietnam and Iraq-type.