Is the Fragile States Index ‘fatally flawed’?

Idyllic Mauritius is the only African country ranked in the favourable category of ‘more stable’ in the latest survey on state fragility. Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi

On June 27 2016 the eleventh edition of the Fragile States Index was published by the Fund for Peace. It came with the usual alarming findings from the developing world and brought back into memory the criticism that such surveys tend to be “fatally flawed” in their approaches.

The index ranks countries according to 12 social, economic, and political and military indicators. It then places each state into one of 11 categories of fragility, ranging from “very sustainable” (rank 178) to “very high alert” (rank 1). This means that the lower a country’s ranking on the index, the more fragile it is.

The Fund for Peace summarises its approach as follows:

The Fragile States Index is an annual ranking of 178 nations based on their levels of stability and the pressures they face … Millions of documents are analysed every year, and by applying highly specialised search parameters, scores are apportioned for every country based on 12 key political, social and economic indicators and over 100 sub-indicators that are the result of years of painstaking expert social science research.

This suggests ultimate scientific rationality and logic. As is the case with so many other global or regional surveys, the Fragile States Index seeks credibility by reference to reliable data.

But how sound are statistics and their interpretation when contrasted with social and political realities, or just with common sense?

The problem with statistics

Namibia is a higher middle-income country with an estimated annual per capita income of US$8,200 in 2013. This is perhaps where the difference between fact and fiction starts.

Hardly any Namibian citizens have such an income. Rather, some 5% to 10% have quite a bit more (well, some of them have plenty more!). But most people live in material circumstances bordering on destitution. According to United Nations Development Programme data in 2013, 44.9% of the population lives in multidimensional poverty and a further 19.3% is located near this category.

Twenty-six years into independence, Namibia is one of the most unequal societies in the world in terms of the Gini coefficient, which measures income discrepancy. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s 2013 Human Development Index, Namibia ranks at 127 of 187, with a Gini coefficient of 63.9. A value of 0 represents absolute equality; a value of 100 represents absolute inequality. South Africa is comparable, with a Human Development Index rank of 118 and a Gini co-efficient of 63.1. Despite such inequalities, both Namibia and South Africa are regularly ranked among the best-governed states in sub-Saharan Africa. But what might the shack dwellers or the rural paupers have to say, if someone would bother to ask them?

Fragility in Africa

Countries in the ‘very high alert’ category of the Failed States Index. The Fund for Peace's Fragile States Index.

Mauritius is the only African country classified in the index’s third most favourable category of “more stable”. At 147, the country is two ranks up on its previous ranking, despite some domestic policy hiccups during the year.

In the “warning” category, South Africa ranks at 108, behind Botswana (120) and the Seychelles (125), which are ranked as less fragile. Namibia appears at 103, under “elevated warning”.

Not surprisingly, the number of African states increases the closer one gets to the bottom of the index. At 16, in the “high alert” category, Zimbabwe shares territory with Burundi (15), Nigeria (13) and Guinea (12). At eight, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is with Chad (seven), Sudan (four), the Central African Republic (three), South Sudan (two) and Somalia (one) heading up the “very high alert” category.

Does that mean that we can write off these states and, more importantly, the people living there?

Questionable stability

The only “very sustainable” country is Finland, at the rank of 178. But Finland’s xenophobic climate produced notorious right-wing militant vigilantes roaming the streets to secure “law and order”.

The other Nordic countries follow in the category “sustainable”, with Norway at 177, Denmark at 175, Sweden at 171 and Iceland at 170. With the exception of Iceland, all these countries have nationalist parties with xenophobic tendencies that exercise influence on governance matters. For example, Danish border controls have started to implement the law, which is tantamount to the looting of refugees arriving with some savings or assets.

So, does a neoliberal authoritarian state reduce state fragility?

In the “very stable” category there is a country, ranked at 162, whose citizens have just been misled by populists to vote for exiting a common market of 27 other states. During the campaign, a parliamentarian was assassinated for her “remain” position. Many would reportedly now like to revert the vote, realising that their decision was based on a domestic party-political power struggle of egomaniacs sacrificing national interest and later abandoning responsibility. At least one federal member of what is called the United Kingdom is now determined to avoid collateral damage and separate because its citizens and government want to remain in the European Union. Not a fragile situation?

Another “very stable” country ranks at 159. This country is deeply divided by a presidential election campaign that has seen rallies turn violent. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been interrogating one candidate in a case of breach of confidentiality while being in office as foreign minister. The other candidate suggests building a wall on its border with a neighbouring country and expects that country to pay for it. He wants to prevent Muslims from entering the territory and claims that water-boarding is “peanuts”.

This makes one wonder how “fragility” is defined.

A ‘fatally flawed’ measure?

Harsh criticism has previously suggested that the Fragile States Index might be “fatally flawed”.

This was mainly motivated by the idea that the answer to global challenges and insecurities would lie in more state building. And this underlies the misleading belief of policymakers that:

external intervention can be a proper reaction to, rather than a cause of, state fragility.

Put differently, being classified as “fragile” might leave a state doomed because of externally motivated intervention that could lead to ultimate destruction. There is evidence of this in the current world crisis, in which many have been forced to leave their homes and seek survival elsewhere at the risk of their lives. Do the Western-led interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria and the millions of desperate people trying to escape from the subsequent wars into Europe ring a bell?

Claire Leigh from the British Overseas Development Institute suggested back in 2012 that the “annual compendium of failure” does not add “to the sum of the world’s useful knowledge”. She recommended moving the index “into the policy dustbin”.

While at best of dubious value – if not outright dangerous for the consequences in policy spheres – the Failed States Index should also be no substitute for common sense. It reinforces stereotypical Eurocentric perceptions and is at best another sign of patronising and paternalist worldviews.

It also abstains from self-critical soul searching as regards the fragility of Western democracies. The old adage ascribed to Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind. When asked about Western civilisation, he commented: “I think it would be a good idea.”