The Fault Lines of Failed States

Can social science determine what makes one state fail and another succeed?


All countries possess innumerable and at times dramatic social, economic, and political fault lines. In Africa, the result of these divisions is all too often catastrophic failure: The Rwandan genocide and Nigerian civil war (which each cost several hundred thousand lives), the Sudanese civil war and Darfur conflict (at least another million), various Congolese conflicts (anywhere between 1 million and 5 million), the imbroglio in Ivory Coast, and so on.

Africa, however, is far from alone. From Yemen to India, Brazil to China, Sri Lanka to Guatemala, Israel and Palestine to Afghanistan and Iraq, fault lines exist. In many they produce conflict; in others, they are better managed. India, for example — a state with 21 classical languages of many nations, categories, castes, classes, and religions — has generally managed its fault lines well, as does Canada. With war between states now exceptionally rare, violence within countries is today the chief manner in which people kill each other in large numbers. But we don’t very well understand why it happens in one place but not another or why it breaks out at certain times but not others.

While every country and societal division is unique, we have, working with a group of scholars on a larger project, identified three critical issues that determine the contours of fault lines and the prospects for mass violence: governance, democratization, and globalization.


The primary measure that national leaders and the international community can take to prevent fault-line violence is to prevent too powerful a "constituency of losers" from developing. That is, if the number of people who feel aggrieved because resource allocation is unfair, biased, and corrupt is relatively low, they will usually be unable to initiate violence that is self-sustaining. Within the context of developing countries, the exact level of wealth in the economy usually doesn’t make a difference, and in fact, no other measure is nearly as powerful or consistent in preventing fault-line violence — whether you’re talking about divisions in Kenya or Pashtuns in southeastern Afghanistan.

Institutions and practices that ensure checks and balances, accountability, and transparency are essential so that no group thinks resorting to violence is the only alternative. There may be particular opportunities for countries facing fault lines to improve good governance — including the creation of capable institutions encouraging transparency and accountability, security-sector reform, independent media, effective local policing — given the spread of democracy worldwide. Creating a domestic tax system and base is critical in building state capacity and improving conditions of governance, and it simultaneously serves to strengthen the link of accountability between electorates and leadership. While good governance is now rightly accepted as a sine qua non for development, its role in preventing fault-line violence has not been nearly as well acknowledged.


In the vast majority of cases, societal fault lines are played out in a democratic context or at least one where regularly scheduled elections — albeit of enormously varying quality — are held. As recently as 1989, elections, much less democracy, were uncommon in the developing world and especially rare in highly divided societies. Today, elections are held almost everywhere, with only a few holdouts like Eritrea. Even authoritarian leaders like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar Hassan al-Bashir in Sudan hold elections, though their validity is usually challenged. Indeed, elections are commonly seen, as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and East Timor, as part of the solution to societal faultiness, in sharp contrast with previous notions that fault lines had to be solved before elections and democratic institutions could gain traction.

But do elections really heal societal divides? No doubt, working democratic institutions such as in Canada can play a critical and constructive role. But in parts of the world that lack them — with weak parliaments, dysfunctional courts, a hamstrung media, and real fears among the populace that whoever "wins" the election (itself often of contested legitimacy) will never give up power — elections can actually make things worse, for several reasons.

First, elections have an "us vs. them" dynamic that often aggravates societal conflicts as politicians try to mobilize supporters around differences, as in Kenya in 2007, where the post-election violence shocked many who did not perceive the festering fault lines. If voters do not think that the initiation of elections will usher in the routine rotation of leaders, as is often feared in poor countries with no previous democratic history, social tensions can rise. Inevitably, the elections are fought on one or relatively few dimensions and therefore cannot address the complexity of the divisions in society. For instance, because it remains easier to mobilize around ethnic differences, there have been, historically, few examples of parties in Africa based explicitly on a cross-ethnic peasant constituency, though smallholders are a large portion of the population.

Further, given the prominence attached to elections, political contests may actually allow leaders to continue to hold on to power and distance themselves from the population and the violence that is happening on the ground. In Congo, for instance, international assistance to the government, much of it focused on elections or dependent on the holding of votes, has become so great, and the government so dependent on it, that Kinshasa is more orientated to presenting an acceptable face to donors than it is to being responsive to its own population.

Other aspects of democracy are arguably more important than elections. Federalism — the devolution of power to regional or local authorities — is an important structural innovation that might promote peace in Congo or other African countries. Of course, federalism is usually the product of complicated negotiations between national and subnational leaders and only comes into effect over a long period of time. It therefore lacks the immediate drama of elections, but may be more important over the long term, at least in the management of fault lines. While national elections in Nigeria have often been problematic and governance is still poor, the devolution of some power to the states has sufficiently eroded and blurred the divisions that caused the enormous loss of life in the civil war between 1967 and 1970. A recurrence of that battle is not imaginable today.


Globalization is now recognized as a near-universal process. But its effect on domestic fault lines has not been fully understood, in part because each of these conflicts is usually driven by domestic factors. Despite globalization’s spread, external agents have to recognize the limits of their power in managing fault lines.

One effect of globalization is that those in the developing world often know the West much better than the other way around. They understand what pushes Western buttons, which makes it easier for those involved in conflicts to adroitly play Western audiences. Autocrats are quick to embrace elections and other symbols familiar to Washington, Paris, and Berlin because they know that such contests give them a certain amount of legitimacy, even if the actual execution of the political contests leaves much to be desired.

In addition, the laws of political gravity still apply. If Kabul, for example, cannot find the political means to bring its restive southern Afghan provinces under its writ, how are international forces going to achieve this? External powers cannot manufacture internal consensus. Change has to come from within. We also know that the international community seldom has the will, finances, and strength to impose its solutions on international problems as varied as those in Cyprus, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East, in spite of an enormous amount of effort and expense and in spite of, at times, only minimal and nonviolent resistance.

Military solutions in which one side simply annihilates the other are increasingly rare, though Sri Lanka provides a recent example. Instead, most societal conflicts seem to immediately involve a host of international mediators who attempt to avoid a military solution, as in Congo or Kenya. Indeed, one of the most important consequences of globalization is the supply (oversupply?) of mediators. It seems that every country threatened by conflict has one or more esteemed individuals, a country or set of countries, one or more international organizations, and a plethora of NGOs that are willing to intervene. This partly reflects the international community’s deeply held assumption that there are solutions to almost all domestic fault lines.

But the amount of influence that outside mediators bring to bear varies enormously from country to country and is in any case limited by the fact that the world’s supply of peacekeepers is much lower than the demand. For instance, using the CIA’s estimate of 68.7 million Congolese, it would take about 1.4 million peacekeepers to supply the same density of peacekeeping in Congo as was provided in Kosovo. No one, of course, is going to provide anything like that, or even one-tenth of that number.

The world has learned a great deal about fault-line violence in the last 30 years, and there is often a hunger in divided societies for "lessons learned" so that they do not have to go through the same painful processes as others. We have learned that what appears to be irrational violence on television screens is propelled by reactions to profound political and economic processes that have often played out over many years. To date, the world has often been more motivated to undertake efforts at "conflict resolution" once violence occurs or appears inevitable. However, it is more subtle and sustained efforts at reducing the forces that aggravate divisions in the first place that will yield a better return in helping divided societies. Most of all, these solutions will have to come from local actors who understand the situation the best, have the greatest motivation to address the issues, and will still be in country long after the next crisis grabs the world’s attention.

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