IPCS Review

Failed State Index Fails Sri Lanka

01 Aug, 2013    ·   4063

Kaushalya Ruwanthika Ariyathilaka deconstructs the Failed State Index vis-a-vis Sri Lanka's position

Sri Lanka has slipped down to the 28th position in the 9th Failed States Index (FSI) after being identified as the 29th  state in the 2012 Index. This year’s drop owes to Sri Lanka’s poor performance in seven of the categories: Group Grievance, rise of Poverty and Economic Decline, Delegitimization of the state, Human Rights and Rule of Law, Fractionalized Elite and External Intervention.

Currently, Sri Lanka is in poor company, along with eighteen other countries including North Korea and Syria, and has been designated to the “Alert” category. With the exceptions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sri Lanka’s South Asian neighbors have fared better than Sri Lanka in the Index. 

The FSI ranking indicates how policymakers still find the ‘failed state’ concept to be important, despite being widely rejected by scholars. Policymakers find it convenient to have at least a rough empirical estimate at a global level to group countries into categories according to their performance as states. Supposedly FSI is to be a guideline for policymakers that are concerned about state failure; yet FSI fails insofar as it is applied for this purpose.

FSI attempts to measure 12 social, political and economic indicators from somewhat empirically measurable demographic pressure, human rights and external intervention to highly abstract and subjective measures such as group grievances and state legitimacy. Thus begins the manifold methodological flaws of the Index at its very conceptual level.

One of its conceptual flaws is the failure to distinguish between ‘state’ and ‘government.’ Data collected for FSI may indicate that a government is failing to provide basic public services, yet that does not necessarily translate into a failure of the state, for the state is much more than politics and economics. Just as one can find pockets of strong governance in so called failed states, zones of failure can be found in stronger states.

The current Sri Lankan government has indeed performed poorly in the last year across a variety of sectors that adds into the FSI categories. Nonetheless, can the Sri Lankan state be delegitimized just because the current government has underperformed?  The ordinary Sri Lankan still feels and recognizes a strong state, even with the economic decline and weak Rule of Law, making it imprudent to group Sri Lanka with the likes of Syria.

Another flaw is that the Index confuses the concepts of the causes and the end results. Lack of law and order, weak central state and the inability to provide public service are end results of what the Index attempts to conceptualize as failure rather than the causes for that failure. Consequently, the Index is marred in tautology. If FSI identifies a strong sense of group grievances and delegitimization of the state in Sri Lanka, can the Index predict what lies ahead in the Sri Lankan political climate? Given FSI’s failure to even come close to predicting the Arab Spring, one would think this is too much for FSI to handle. 

What matters most in an FSI is a country’s performance given its history and political legacy, rather than its individual position. In its only mention of Sri Lanka, the Index compares the progress made by Japan after its 2011 triple crisis of the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown with Sri Lanka’s reconstruction progress after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Japan had a per capita GDP of USD 36,100 and was one of the most stable and peaceful countries in the world when it faced the triple crisis. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, had a per capita GDP of USD 1063 and was engulfed in a disastrous civil war. Does the practicality of the FSI boil down to comparing Sri Lanka’s and Japan’s post disaster management, when several other factors makes the point of comparison absurd?

Does North Korea, one of Sri Lanka’s ‘Alert fellows,’ suffer from similar ailments as Burundi, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka? Yes, Sri Lanka has underperformed in many economic and socio political sectors, but has it done worse than Bangladesh where bitter political rivalries and incompetent public institutions scar the everyday lives of ordinary citizens? This is not to imply that Sri Lanka has not experienced a weakening of upholding the Rule of Law or has not experienced economic decline or does not have continuing ethnic and religious tensions. Sri Lanka indeed has many weak institutions that need genuine performance boosters.

There is nothing empirical or objective about the FSI. Un-failed states may demonstrate similar kinds of stories and evidences, yet ‘failed states’ are failed in their own individual ways. The Index fails to contextualize underlying historical causes for states’ inability to or weaknesses in performing in a certain category, and to comprehend the nuances of governance within a state. The only derivable utility of the Index is to serve as a guide to those policy makers that are waiting to construct a rationale for saving those who are failing. 

Nonetheless, Sri Lanka is at least not alone in its misery. According to the FSI half the world is failing.