The Hall of Shame

For millions, life in a failed state is a daily dose of misery. Here are seven countries that stand out for their wretchedness.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

Every failed state, to borrow a formula from Tolstoy, is failed in its own way. For some countries, instability is a chronic condition; for others, a single catastrophe can undo years of hard-earned progress. Teasing apart and quantifying the various factors that have contributed to state failure over the past year is a difficult job, and the Fund for Peace has again met the challenge with its Failed States Index (FSI).

What the index can’t do, however, is put into relief the human tragedies behind the statistics. A lack of public services isn’t merely a source of national shame — it’s often a cause of unnecessary disease and death. A national government that lacks popular legitimacy isn’t just fodder for revolution — it’s an injustice that sometimes expresses itself through cruelty and repression. As an abstraction, ethnic conflict sounds bad, but it only barely suggests the traumas of watching one’s family slaughtered without warning.

Here’s a glimpse at what it means to actually live in some of the world’s most desperate societies.



FSI 2011 rank: 22

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it’s officially known, is distinguished among its fellow failing states for the cruelty of its criminal justice system. According to Amnesty International, more than 200,000 North Koreans are held in a secret network of political labor camps, with little pretense of due process and often for dubious ideological crimes like “disloyalty” — a charge that includes the singing of a South Korean pop tune in one’s own home. Prisoners are kept in a deliberate state of starvation. Escaped inmates report that to stay alive, prisoners inevitably make raw earthworms and rats a staple of their diets. Torture and violence at the hands of prison guards are also routine. Only 40 percent of detainees survive their internment, according to one former detainee.

Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images 


FSI 2011 rank: 4

It is with good reason that the DRC bears its reputation as the “Rape Capital of the World.” According to the United Nations, about 200,000 women have been raped there since armed conflict between various militias began in the late 1990s. In the disputed eastern part of the country, it is still commonplace for soldiers to perpetrate sexual violence against innocent villagers. According to a particularly gruesome report by, a number of clinics in eastern Congo exist almost solely for the purpose of “patching up women whose genitals and internal organs have been torn apart.”

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


FSI 2011 rank: 7

Corruption is endemic throughout Afghan officialdom: In the words of one aid worker writing for the New York Times, it is the very “framework” of social life in the country. In 2010, 59 percent of Afghans polled reported that corruption was the greatest problem facing their country — even more than security (54 percent) and unemployment (52 percent). According to the United Nations, Afghans paid an estimated $2.5 billion in bribes last year — about a quarter of the country’s GDP. A passenger in a taxi wants to skip security checks on the way to the airport? $20. Need a driver’s license, but no time for a driving test? That’ll be $180. Want to free your son who’s in prison on drug-smuggling charges? The going rate is $60,000.

John Moore/Getty Images


FSI 2011 rank: 15

The public education system of this West African state is in catastrophic shape. The average Nigerien child only attends school for 4.3 years, the shortest duration in the world; at any given time, only 27 percent of the country’s school-age children are enrolled in school. Unsurprisingly, the literacy rate among adults is only 29 percent, second-lowest in the world and far below the regional average of 71 percent.

Part of the problem is simply that some parts of the country don’t have access to any schools at all. And given the poor state of the country’s economy, many families need their children to work. But the poor reputation of Niger’s government among its own population also plays a role in the lack of school attendance; parents are often reluctant to hand their kids over to authorities, educational or not. In the 1960s, when the government sent the army to rural villages to compel school attendance, villagers reportedly hid their children, fearful of what would happen to them. More recently, parents simply don’t register their children’s births to avoid later school enrollment.



FSI 2011 rank: 2

Sanitation facilities are a rarity in Chad: According to UNICEF, nearly 90 percent of the country defecates in the open, for lack of functioning toilets. Even buildings administered by the government often lack basic provisions for hygiene: Only 14 percent of schools in Chad have lavatories.

The result of these dire statistics is the country’s acute lack of drinkable water. Only 45 percent of Chadians have access to safe water, the lowest rate in the region, and outbreaks of water-borne diseases like hepatitis are common. The situation is especially disastrous among the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees who live in camps in eastern Chad.

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images


FSI 2011 rank: 3

Many countries have domestic conflicts, but only Sudan has Darfur. Violence has recently spread to other parts of the country, most notably Abyei and Southern Kordofan, but residents of Sudan’s restive western region live perpetually on the edge of slaughter directed by the central Sudanese government. The United Nations estimates that 300,000 Darfuris have been killed and another 2.7 million forced from their homes since fighting began there in 2003, pitting rebels against government forces and militias. The warfare is chaotic and often erupts without warning, and the methods employed are brutal. One Darfuri eyewitness to an attack in 2004 recounted how 100 militiamen mounted on horses surrounded her village and announced their intention to “kill them all.”

“They slaughtered 50 members of my family,” she said. “Then they burned the bodies.”

The fighting is crudely split along ethnic and religious lines (the Muslim government forces against Christian rebels); indeed, it is the only extant conflict that the U.S. government has termed a “genocide.”



FSI 2011 rank: 8

Westerners may take their iPhones for granted at this point, but in the Central African Republic they are an unfathomable luxury. Even basic technology is unbelievably scarce throughout the country: As late as 2008, according to UNICEF, only four out of every 100 residents of Central African Republic had a telephone. Zero out of 100 were Internet users. The dire state of the country’s communications infrastructure is a reflection of the broader economic problems that plague it, as well as the central government’s failure to make any productive investments for the future. The Central African Republic spends only 1.3 percent of GDP on education, putting it among the bottom five of all countries in the world. Meanwhile, government health-care expenditures are 1.5 percent of GDP; there is only one doctor for every 3,000 people, and one nurse for every 1,000. Almost 20 percent of children die before age 5.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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