Change Is the Only Constant

This year's Failed States Index might look like it's more of the same, but a few wild swings tell us some surprising things.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/GettyImages
Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/GettyImages

Upon first glance, it could be easy to assume that there is very little new to be found in the 2012 Failed States Index. After all, Finland has managed to win first place back-to-back this year and last, and Somalia now has the ignominious distinction of five-straight worst-place finishes. Nine of the "worst" 10 countries in 2012 are the same as in 2011, and at the other end of the Index, the "best" 10 are the same countries as last year. So, nothing has really changed, right?

Wrong. In fact, this year’s list saw some of the most dramatic shifts since the Index was first published in 2005. In the past eight years, three of the five most significant "worsenings" occurred in 2012. Prior to this year’s Index, the most significant decline had been Lebanon in 2007 — which rose by 11.9 points — coinciding with the conflict with neighboring Israel. (A higher score and ranking indicate poorer pe Messner rformance.) This year, two countries managed to top that record, and both for very different reasons.

Unsurprisingly, the greatest worsening was that of Libya, which moved 16.2 points from its 2011 score, as the country endured a civil war, sustained NATO bombing, and the overthrow and assassination of its reviled leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. After finishing 111th on the 2011 Index, Libya now finds itself at 50th.

When we think of state fragility and susceptibility to collapse, we often think of poor and embattled countries — those with corrupt, undemocratic leaders. It therefore is somewhat surprising that 2012’s second-most dramatic worsening — and, coincidentally the second-largest move up the list in the history of the Index — was the world’s third-largest economy and a democratic state at that: Japan. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the country on March 11 and the resultant catastrophic meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor overwhelmed the government, undermining its ability to respond adequately to the natural disaster and its effects. This was somewhat reminiscent of the shock felt by many Americans at the response of their government to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Though Japan is in no danger of state failure —  indeed, it still ranks 151st, only a single point outside of the "sustainable," or top-scoring range, on the Index  —  it nevertheless demonstrates that no country, however advanced, wealthy, and democratic, can consider itself immune from pressure and significant shocks.

Among the 10 most significant "worsenings" in 2012, six were experienced by Arab countries — Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen — as a result of the turmoil that followed the Arab Spring. Three Western countries were also among those 10. Aside from Japan, both Norway and Greece found themselves in this group. The bombing and mass shooting by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway demonstrated how a single, nationally traumatic event can negatively impact an otherwise highly stable country. Norway, which held the top position on the Index for its first six years, now finds itself behind four other countries, though still within the sustainable bracket. Greece, somewhat unsurprisingly, rounds out the top 10 biggest sliders for 2012. The epicenter of much of the European economic crisis, Greece has hit new heights on the Index, the result of a long-term trend of continual decline in six out of the past seven years.

However grim this may seem, there are some bright spots to be found in this year’s Index. In 2011, Kyrgyzstan was the second-most worsened country, when it fell by 3.4 points as a result of the mid-2010 revolution and the fall of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. In 2012, however, Kyrgyzstan not only rebounded from that drop, but actually registered its best score since 2006. This improvement came largely as a result of the rapid reform program of interim President Roza Otunbayeva and the generally free and fair elections that ensued.

The second-most improved country for 2012, Cuba, experienced a 3.5-point improvement due in part to the continued — albeit glacially paced — reform program that has eased many internal economic restrictions. The third-most improved country, Haiti, continues to languish in seventh place. But this is a significant improvement over its fifth-place finish in 2011 as a result of the catastrophic earthquake the country saw in 2010. Although Haiti improved by a solid 3.1 points in 2012, this should be interpreted merely as a partial return to pre-earthquake levels, recognizing the harsh conditions Haitians experienced even after the calamity of natural disaster. Though Haiti did improve in 2012, we should not forget that it was the most-worsened country for 2011.

While much has changed for individual countries in the 2012 Index, many major problem areas have not changed. This year’s FSI color-coded map of the world, where green represents sustainable nations and red represents the most insecure states, appears nearly identical to the 2011 map — and every preceding year’s. Much of the red is still concentrated in Central Africa and South Asia, while much of the green is found in Western Europe, along with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. As individual countries move — even sometimes quite dramatically — within the Index’s "alert," "warning," "moderate," and "sustainable" bands, it is sadly rare that countries, or regions for that matter, move across bands.

At the worst end of the Index, Somalia continues to endure widespread lawlessness, ineffective government, terrorism, insurgency, crime, abysmal development, and rampant piracy. Indeed, beyond continuing to occupy the top spot on the Index, Somalia actually managed to score worse than last year, registering a 1.5 point increase to make a total of 114.9. This represents Somalia’s worst-ever score, eclipsing the 114.7 it scored in 2009. The country’s 2012 score also represents the highest in the history of the Index. For those among us who look at Somalia and think it could not possibly get worse, the 2012 Index demonstrates that, yes, actually it can, and did.

At the sustainable end of the Index, Finland has again claimed top spot after displacing Norway for the first time in 2011. Scandinavia as a region has continued an unbroken streak of claiming the best three places, though for the first time this triumvirate does not include Norway, which fell out of the best three places to fifth, displaced by its Scandinavian cousin, Denmark.

Notably, the best 18 nations are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and 16 of the top 20 are Western European countries (the exceptions being Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States). Japan, Singapore, and South Korea continue to be the lone Asian representatives on the successful end of the Index, with the next best, resource-rich Mongolia, finishing far behind at 129th. Meanwhile, Latin American success stories Chile and Uruguay continue to lead the region, even though both countries failed to move forward in 2012. 

The performance of the BRICS countries continued to be strong in 2012. Each of the five countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — has improved its position between seven and 19 places in the rankings in a span of only three years. Still, the actual position of the BRICS countries on the Index is more varied. China, India, and Russia rank toward the higher end of the Index, at 76th 78th, and 83th respectively. Meanwhile, at 115th and 123rd, Brazil and South Africa find themselves in significantly more stable positions.

Special mention should also be made of South Sudan, which has joined the FSI for the first time. Although South Sudan received a score this year (108.4), it has not been formally ranked, as it became an independent nation only halfway through the year and met our criteria of U.N. membership for only four months. If South Sudan had been formally ranked this year, it would have entered the Index at fourth, only slightly better than its northern neighbor and estranged twin, Sudan. Hardly an auspicious entrance for the world’s newest nation.

Looking toward the 2013 Failed States Index, and given the events of 2012 so far, it is fairly safe to assume that Syria and Yemen will worsen significantly, much in the way Libya did on this year’s Index. The coup in Mali this past March is also likely to impact that country’s performance negatively in 2013. On the other hand, one can likely expect rebounds from Japan and Norway, both otherwise stable countries that experienced sharp shocks during 2011. The Failed States Index illustrates once again that every country, no matter how developed, is subject to pressure in multiple forms and to many degrees; in essence, continued pressure on states is what stays constant.

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