This is part one of a two-part article. The second part to be published next week. 

In modern politics, the phrase ‘failed state’ is on the tip of many tongues, used to describe states such as Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone. Supposedly, the term conjures up a very clear picture; a state in which its institutions have lost control of all political and economic life, leading to rampant drug trafficking and corruption, and a state which cannot provide citizens with any semblance of security or public services, leading to internal conflict and creating a hotbed from which terrorists can jeopardise the safety of neighbouring states.

However, despite this supposed clarity, could we not also apply the term ‘failed state’ to the situation in North Korea?  Indeed, the state rules political and economic life with an iron fist; its citizens need not fear internal conflict or terrorists. Yet equally, citizens have no democratic rights to speak of, and the state offers very few public services, leaving many to live and die in poverty.

Therefore the picture is evidently not as clear as some would have us believe, and the reality is that the phrase ‘failed state’ has entered into our vocabulary recently to describe, and brand, a vast range of states, often in wildly different situations to one another.

The first instalment of this article will begin to offer an overview of the varying definitions of state failure, exposing the issues relating to a single ‘catch-all’ definition of the concept.

The second instalment will continue analysis of the damaging nature of a single definition for ‘state failure’, before arguing that we must abandon attempts to create a unilateral definition, and  instead measure the challenges states face by reference to ‘state gap’s and redefine ‘failed states’ as ‘transition states’.

Problems in Defining a ‘Failure’

The term ‘state failure’ emerged after the Cold War to describe the events occurring within different post-Soviet Union states in an ad hoc manner. However, since the 9/11 attacks there has been a noticeable drive in literature on the topic to produce a universalist, or rather, monolithic definition of the concept. Although ‘state failure’ as a notion or an idea undoubtedly exists, there is no consistent and coherent concept. Many scholars, organisations and legislators have attempted to define the concept in a plethora of different ways but ultimately, a single definition is simply inadequate.

The first issue is that, in these analyses, there are various different interpretations of what ‘failure’ is. Rotberg, in his somewhat ‘textbook’ definition of state failure, argues that a state ‘fails’ when it cannot deliver public goods, most notably security, to persons living within its borders. His definition therefore emphasises security as a key indicator of a state’s success and thus North Korea would be considered a more successful state than Afghanistan, for example. By contrast, the OECD, despite also considering ‘state failure’ to be a state’s inability to deliver public goods, place far more emphasis on ideas such as capacity, for example, the provision of schools, hospitals and legitimacy; democratic accountability. By this definition, it might not be so easy to say that North Korea is more ‘successful’ that Afghanistan.

Indeed, alongside this, in developing a single definition of ‘state failure’ a great many different words are used to describe failure, which such a state perhaps described as ‘fragile’ or ‘weak’. Rotberg, for example, develops a spectrum ranging from ‘strong’ to ‘weak’, ‘failed’ to ‘collapsed’. The issue with this kind of academic exercise is that it is largely arbitrary: if you already have a preconception of what ‘failure’ is, replacing the words to denote it or creating a spectrum adds nothing to the debate.

What this analysis really reveals, is that we cannot truly develop a single definition of ‘state failure’ because, whenever we use the term ‘failure’, we bring with it our own loaded preconceptions and prejudices of what ‘failure’ means.

Cover image: Flickr/Abdullatif Anis