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Why describing African countries as ‘failed states’ always gets their goat

Wednesday June 26 2013


By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO [email protected] & twitter:cobbo3

It is that time of the year when the “Failed States Index”, which is prepared by the Washington-based think-tank, Fund for Peace, and published by Foreign Policy magazine, comes out.

And it is time for people in many countries that are rated poorly to get very angry.

The view among most people in Kenya seems to be that the country always gets a bad rap in the Failed States Index. This year was no exception.

Kenya is ranked among the world’s 20 most unstable countries. It is the worst performer in the East African Community, as Burundi is three places better at 20th.

Uganda is close by at 22nd; Rwanda a little better up the road at 38th, and Tanzania is in a league of its own at 65th.

That means Tanzania is in the class of China (66th), and Israel (67th). Finland, Sweden and Norway are deemed the world’s three most stable states. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Somalia is Number One – the most unstable.


There is a whole industry around criticising the Failed States Index. Some say it is racist and anti-African, and claim that like the International Criminal Court at The Hague, it targets African countries and lumps them in the worst category. Of course, in Africa itself, quite a few people think it is spot-on.

The more technical critics say the rankings are arbitrary, and that comparative degrees of instability cannot be measured scientifically.

As an indicator of how impassioned this debate can be, check the Daily Nation website.

The approved comments on the story after less than two days were nearly 600. If the commenting had been unmoderated, that number would have been over 1,000.

Among the few things that generate that kind of response are controversial Sunday Nation columnist Makau Mutua’s articles. Some of his pieces in which he pokes power in the eyes, bring in around approved 400 comments.

A friend, a very thoughtful Kenyan who follows these things closely, upon reading the story, wrote to me to say that the presence of conflict (an important element in deciding how failed a state is) is not an indication of failing states.

My friend’s view was that a better measure of the stability of states, especially in Africa, is the UN’s World Health Organisation’s Cholera Country Profile.

“The persistent presence of cholera is the best indicator that the state is failing those living under its watch”, he said. I had never heard of the WHO Cholera Profile, so I looked it up.

The WHO Cholera Country Profile is not good news for Kenya and Tanzania. Kenya, the data suggests, has had cholera outbreaks since 1971. Tanzania’s cholera profile is not brilliant either, but is slightly better than Kenya’s.

What might be surprising is that, in East Africa at least, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi have not had deadly cholera outbreaks in a long time now. Most times, their outbreaks are limited and there are no casualties.

There is no explanation for why this is the case, and looking at other data about sanitation levels and access to clean water doesn’t seem to explain it either.

Which brings us to other possible ways in which we might approach this vexed issue of failed or unstable states.

The best exposition I have ever run into was at a conference on “crisis states” at the London School of Economics.

There were a few chaps who were quite unhappy about how “post-conflict societies”, most of them in the Third World, were being defined. A bearded bloke from Pakistan was very vocal. He was passionate, but not persuasive.

Shortly after someone had spoken about biased Western scholarship, an unassuming British academic brought light to the subject, and calm into the room. He said open societies allow all sorts of ideas and policy choices to be put forward.

The debate, and sometimes fights, over which of them should carry the day are a sign of how healthy and democratic a society is. Therefore, a society that didn’t have any of these conflicts, would be a in very bad place.

The real test of state failure, we might conclude, should not be the presence or absence of conflict, but of the institutional ability to resolve the conflicts. An economist might say we should look at the outcomes, not the inputs.