This story appears in the September 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.
It can happen after one fateful event—a civil war, natural disaster, or brutal takeover—or insinuate itself gradually, like a cancer that eats away at a country for decades. But when a nation is failing, you see it in the eyes of its people.
Over a billion people live in countries in danger of collapse. Some leaders lose control over their territory and cling to their capitals while warlords rule the provinces. Many governments are unable or unwilling to provide the most basic of services. Most are hobbled by corruption and environmental degradation. Such unstable states are dangers not just to themselves but also to the whole world. They incubate terrorism, criminal organizations, and political extremism—because when your country is falling apart around you, any way out can seem like a good way out.
Geography can make a country more vulnerable to instability. Just finding itself in a bad neighborhood puts a country at risk; the war in Iraq, for instance, sent a flood of refugees into neighboring Syria. Crowded nations with huge populations, like Bangladesh, face special challenges. But so do vast countries like Chad, whose very size defeats infrastructure. Landlocked nations with poor soil and little water struggle for self-sufficiency. Yet countries rich in natural resources, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, don't always come out ahead. In what is called the resource curse, abundant oil or diamonds can breed competition among elites for control of those lucrative assets.
Historical and cultural tensions can dog nations as well. Nowhere is this more evident than in Africa, home to the top five countries in this year's Failed States Index, compiled annually by the Fund for Peace. "The colonial drawing of arbitrary borders across ethnic and even topographic lines created artificial states," says the Fund's president, Pauline H. Baker. Such regimes often devote more energy to consolidating authority than to fostering national identities and robust government institutions.
One African country that has prevailed over its colonial legacy is Senegal. "It's benefited from enlightened leadership," says Baker. Indeed, the most important factor for ensuring a state's stability is good governance, says Davidson College political scientist Ken Menkhaus. Establishing the rule of law, with institutions to support it, "allows for a predictable investment climate and discourages the rise of armed insurgencies."
Assistance from organizations like the World Bank and United Nations has a mixed record of staving off failure. The most dramatic success stories are countries like India and South Africa that reformed themselves from within. As the United States' recent experiences in "nation building" illustrate, promoting political stability with outside military intervention is far from easy. Iraq and Afghanistan currently rank as the sixth and seventh most precarious states on the planet.
Then there is Somalia, a country whose geography, history, and clan dynamics give it the grim distinction of topping the index for two years in a row. Beyond Somalia, there's little agreement on what a high score on the index really means for a country's future. Colombia, for example, lacks control over parts of its territory. So, has Colombia failed? The bloody aftermath of Kenya's 2007 elections caused the country to go from 26th to 14th in this year's index. But does this backslide foretell failure for Kenya, with its vibrant entrepreneurial class?
Scholars caution against judgment. University of Hawaii professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka says it's easy to forget that many countries have had troubled histories. "The United States was built out of chaos, out of civil war. And now we expect the rest of the world to adopt our institutions but do it without violence in a short period of time."
In the end, the question of whether a country is failing may best be answered by its own people. If their eyes say "we have been deserted," the verdict has been rendered.