September 12, 2008

HARRISONBURG—Today in a guest column for the news service, Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, questions the “Failed State Index” (FSI) prepared by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace.

Now in its fourth year, the FSI uses twelve social, economic, and political indicators to rank the countries of the world for their state vulnerability or risk of violence; the higher the score, the greater the risks of being or becoming a “failed state.” However, Dr. Pham writes, “A closer examination of this year’s results—and a review of those reported in previous years—raises the question of whether the index forecasts failure or, however unintentionally, precipitates it. This is particularly germane in the case of African countries working to generate jobs and much-needed income through trade and investment.”

After noting the “downright puzzling” nature of some of the rankings—including Israel’s appearance among the sixty “weakest states” as well as the relative ratings for Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya—the essay takes issue with the listing of Uganda as more unstable than in the past despite the fact that the East African country, “far from being a candidate for failure, has been one of the most successful cases of a state turning itself around in the world, not just Africa,” with a poverty rate slashed in half, the effective ending of the long-running rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army, and contributions to international peacekeeping.

Dr. Pham concludes:

Moreover, since the publication of the current rankings, Uganda has been the subject of a number of negative press reports, many by media outlets which rarely cover Africa but which may have been influenced by the “potential failed state” tag to cast a look at the country in search of flaws allegedly indicative of its vulnerability to implosion. And because of the index’s methodology, these multiplying reports will, in turn, further adversely impact the country's ranking in next year’s index.

Unfortunately, the adage that bad news is better than no news may be true in Hollywood, but it certainly does not apply on the international stage. In transitioning societies, loose talk about state collapse being “just one disaster away” can heighten political tensions and scare away much-needed investment capital, bringing about the very failure that tools like the FSI are supposed to serve as timely alerts against. And for countries like Uganda, which has achieved considerable results despite the obstacles in its path, to be undercut like that would be doubly tragic.

To read the full text of the article “Africa: Does Index Predict or Produce Failed States?” click here.