Why States Fail

“When we ask for the abolition of the State and its organs we are always told that we dream of a society composed of men better than they are in reality. But no; a thousand times, no. All we ask is that men should not be made worse than they are, by such institutions!”―Peter Kropotkin

While failed states are not a new phenomenon, they present a persistent issue for the international community. In addition to the geopolitical consequences failed states present, they also present a significant financial burden. As such, it is in the interest of the international community to understand why states fail, because in doing so they can strive to prevent, or at least mitigate, future failures. While there is no one type of state that fails, all state failures are the result of the state’s inability to provide basic public services to its citizenry. Therefore, state failure is the result of human decisions and not an accident of history or geography. Through failing, states cease to hold up their end of the social contract, which erodes the sovereignty of the state, as other actors — internal or external, begin to provide services. Since the state uses institutions to provide services to the people, the institutions define and shape the character of the state and ultimately determine whether or not a state fails.

Max Weber defined the state as “a human community that successfully claims the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” To achieve a monopoly on violence and be legitimate, a state must enter into a social contract with the people. While these contracts differ from state to state, the basic premise of the contracts is the same: individuals pledge allegiance to a state and in exchange the state secures their basic rights. This agreement between the state and the people is the basis of a state’s sovereignty, a critical component of their ability to claim a monopoly on the use of force. To maintain sovereignty a state must develop and maintain institutions.

Douglass North defines institutions as “humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic, and social interaction,” all of which are necessary for successful states. Since states are comprised of man-made institutions, it follows that state failure is man-made and not an accident of geography, the environment, or external factors. According to Robert I. Rotberg, “leadership decisions and leadership failures have destroyed states and continue to weaken the fragile polities that operate on the cusp of failure.” The notion that state failure is the result of human choice, debunks the theories that posit geography or colonialism as the causes of state failures.

In addition, there is no correlation between regime type, geography, or external pressures and the likelihood of state failure. Of the top 20 countries in the failed index, there are fully functioning democracies, authoritarian regimes, and hybrid regimes. The geography of the countries is similarly disparate, with the nation’s defined by islands, deserts, mountains, and jungles. Lastly, most of the countries listed on the index likely suffer from little external pressure as they are surrounded by countries that are either too weak to exert pressure or too strong to bother. The dissimilarity of these countries underscores the idea that the institutions, and the people that run them, are responsible for the failure of the state. The only common thread amongst the countries is the presence of weak, non-existent or, non-accessible institutions. This is confirmed by Marie L. Besancon’s study on relative resources, which illustrates the positive impact that access to institutions has on the severity of conflicts.

Furthermore, the persistence of state failure outlined by Foreign Policy in their Failed States Index, illustrates the problems are systemic and deep seated. The systemic nature suggests that these are issues caused by the institutions of the state. According to Rotberg, “nation states fail when they are consumed by internal violence and cease delivering positive political goods to their inhabitants.” Institutions provide the political goods he refers to and institutions need to be strong, free of corruption, and unencumbered by political machinations. The role institutions play in a state’s failure is extensive. Of the ten issues listed by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson as reasons for state failure, six are directly tied to weak institutions that are unable to effectively provide public services: lack of property rights; no law and order; a weak central government; political exploitations; forced labor; and bad public services. Moreover, the remaining four — a tilted playing field, big men get greedy, elites block new technology, and fighting over the spoils — are the result of people exploiting functioning institutions.

Therefore, while there are myriad states, each with its own unique set of unique political, geographic, and economic concerns, ultimately they will fail if they do not have strong institutions that can provide public services to the people. Since people devise institutions they are the ultimate determinant of the success or failure of a state. The creation and maintenance of strong institutions that can uphold the social contract between the state and the citizenry is critical for a state’s survival.