High Alert! How effective is the Fragile States Index?

According to my admittedly oversimplified definition of a failed state, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia are all failed. But failure isn’t as simple as this; it exists in varying degrees. The Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index attempts to show this variation, and though it is a widely used measure of state stability, the Index is misleading.

The 2014 Fragile States Index describes Somalia as a very high alert state and Iraq and Syria as high alert states. Numerically they rank 2nd, 13th, and 15th in the world. The ranking system scores states based upon 12 indicators: demographic pressures, refugees, group grievance, human flight and brain drain, uneven economic development, poverty and economic decline, state legitimacy, public services, human rights and rule of law, security apparatus, factionalized elites, and external intervention. While the Index addresses many unarguably important internal factors, it fails to account for one other very important factor: external states’ relations.

I realize that in the above list of factors external intervention is included. The Fund for Peace describes external intervention as “when the state fails to meets its international or domestic obligations, external actors may intervene to provide services or manipulate internal affairs.” This definition is very different than considering the relationships a state has with its neighbors and the threats these relations pose to a state’s stability.

A Washington Post article from July 2014 provides an example of this Index shortcoming: the relationship between Ukraine and Russia. In 2013, Ukraine was ranked 117th on the Fragile States Index and was in the stable-low warning category. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine indicates that Ukraine had anything but a stable year. What’s the difference between the index and reality? It’s the failure to consider Russian foreign policy regarding Ukraine and the proximity between the two states.

While the Index provides a foundation for assessing state stability, wellness, and the likelihood of failure, it has no real predictive power because it is based largely on internal conditions. External states can greatly influence state stability, as seen in Ukraine, and could potentially contribute to a state failure; but they could also cause a state to become more stable. The failed states of Iraq and Syria, though not ranked in the highest alert level, are located in a highly volatile region and could become more unstable than they already are if goodwill declines between states in the region.

The Fragile States Index should not, and cannot, be used as the only measure of failing states. Go check out the index for yourself and see how informative you find it. It is both a helpful and unhelpful tool.

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