I have to believe that one of the least favorite jobs in Washington is being an author or contributor to one of the annual reports that make you a target of unhappy embassies. Whether it’s from the roll call of State Department publications, which includes Human Rights Reports, International Religious Freedom Reports, Trafficking-in-Person Reports, Advancing Freedom and Democracy Reports, or those from NGOs such as Reporters without Borders, Amnesty International, The Heritage Foundation, or any of the dozens of other national and international reports used by the Millennium Challenge Corporation in its selection criteria, being the messenger is no easy task.
Over the past decade, there is a special place of skepticism reserved for the annual Failed States Index (FSI) published by the Fund for Peace, now in its ninth year and increasingly detailed and sophisticated. The title is a bit misleading as the report is not a predictive tool of state failure but rather an assessment of more than 100 internal factors that affect a country’s stability. Of course, since the data is based on the calendar year, the first yellow flag is what has occurred following the six months it takes to prepare the report that could affect a country’s ranking. The natural inclination is to look at a country’s rating and then compare it to others, breathing a sigh of either relief or exasperation. But that’s not where the substance is, and those who take the time to read the key indicators grouped into 12 categories can benefit from the extraordinary analytical efforts the FSI involves.
What makes the FSI useful
Why am I a fan? Because I believe that the real benefit of FSI is as a tool to facilitate discussion among a country’s stakeholders about its ambitions, core values, and means of delivering credible governance and equitable opportunities. It is less important to be chagrined that the 2012 rankings have France and Portugal in better shape than the US, and more important to drill down into the social and economic indicators (demographic pressures, group grievance, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, human flight and brain drain, uneven economic development, poverty and economic decline) and political and military indicators (state legitimacy, public services, human rights and law, security apparatus, factionalized elites, and external intervention) to understand why.
In terms of methodology, the FSI relies on crunching tens of millions of pieces of information from around the world, which is then sorted into the 12 key indicators. “The content analysis is further triangulated with two other key aspects of the overall assessment process: quantitative analysis and qualitative inputs based on major events in the countries examined.” Final quality control is a review of the results and comparison with a “comprehensive set of vital statistics …as well as human analysis to ensure that the software has not misinterpreted the raw data.”
Lessons about state building
So what do we learn about state building from this year’s index? In the first instance, countries that work harder on capacity building over the long term are better able to withstand natural and man-made shocks that would drive weaker countries into crisis. It is a country’s ability to deliver a broad range of social services to greater numbers of its citizens while driving more equitable political participation that parallels the recommendations in the CFR report I mentioned last week.
Secondly, there are no magic bullets—not elections, not foreign assistance or intervention, nor increasing social benefits—that will reduce instability rooted in economic inequality, political marginalization, and degraded rule of law. Countries with large disparities in wealth, political access and influence, and public safety tend to be less stable than those that have fewer gaps (yes, Egypt was worse than Mali, but barely). In the section on the Arab Spring, it notes that the 2010 data “tells the story of a storm birthed in North Africa…indicators for Group Grievance and Human Rights were gradually and inexorably getting worse. In November 2010, there was a dramatic regional increase (not a good thing, the higher the score, the worse the ranking) in the State Legitimacy score…that has yet to come back down.”
Well, there may be a claim that this is all hindsight, and in fact the human analysis that is part of the process makes it inherently biased. Or one could take lessons from where the data and negative events have a high correlation, as in the example above, and draw analytical and policy lessons that increase our understanding of managing conflict before it become chaos or worse.
The FSI draws back the curtain on the complexities of state-building by enumerating the challenges, represented by the 100+ indicators that make up the profile of a country’s internal heartbeat. Rather than wait until the patient is in triage or functional failure, international donors and organizations can use this data and other sources to support dialogues with countries at risk to enable them to develop more robust strategies for reducing instability. Even isolated countries such as North Korea or far-away places like Somalia impact our lives. The FSI is a tool that helps us understand the caution flags that increasingly populate our mental maps of countries. It is this kind of solid data tied to the concurrence of values and interests that will enable policy makers and stakeholders to make the right choices.