Wikipedia and the idea of a “Failed State”

Wikipedia is not dying

Photo credit: Niccolo Caranti (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

As a former university professor, I have heard wildly varying perspectives on the reliability of Wikipedia as a reference source. Some educators have so reviled the Web site that they have created the perception among some students that Wikipedia should never be used in academic work. Personally, I do not take such a hardline view on this information commons encyclopedia. I have found the site to be remarkably helpful, especially when dealing with more obscure topics that do not attract undue bias and controversy. Independent, systematic comparisons of Wikipedia and traditional encyclopedias have also given support to the former. And, over time, Wikipedia’s leaders – both formal and volunteer – have reigned in some of the worst abuses on entries related to well-known persons and organizations.

So, how does Wikipedia fare with respect to the idea of a “failed state”?** As for basic discussion, I would say pretty good. Here is a key excerpt:

A failed state is a state perceived as having failed at some of the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government. There is no general consensus on the definition of a failed state. The definition of a failed state according to the Fund for Peace [i.e. the organization responsible for the annual “Failed States Index”] is often used to characterize a failed state:

– loss of control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein

– erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions

– an inability to provide public services

– an inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community

My main point of argument with the above excerpt is the assertion of, “no general consensus on the definition of a failed state.” As one commenter on the associated Wikipedia “Talk” page points out, it is questionable whether a term without a widely accepted definition even deserves its own entry in an encyclopedia.

The authors are right to identify the Fund for Peace as a key reference point in discussions of failed states. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, the Washington D.C.-based think-tank enjoys disproportionate influence on this topic, partly because of the organization’s success in marketing their reports through the magazine Foreign Policy. Nonetheless, glossy, high-powered marketing does not necessarily mean that the analysis is the best available.

Unfortunately, the Wikipedia entry gives excessive prominence to the Fund for Peace publications. The entry does rightly note the charge that the term failed state is “sensationalist.” Over-use or over-application of a concept – as is annually done in the “Failed States Index” – tends to provoke a negative reaction to the core concept. Mis-application of a concept should not lead us to discard it, though.


** Note: Part of the genius (and the difficulty) of Wikipedia is its dynamism. Most content on the site can quickly be updated and revised. So, this review of the “failed state” entry on Wikipedia is simply based on the article content as it appeared on April 1, 2013.

Reflections on the “Failed States Index”

I find the Failed States Index interesting, since it comes out on an annual basis (published by Foreign Policy magazine), and it is a very influential survey. The details of the methodology used to produce the index are proprietary, however. The Fund for Peace, the creator of the index, does not allow other researchers to open up their black box. Compared to other surveys (e.g. by the Brookings Institute), The Failed States Index (FSI) definitely over-states the incidence of state failure.

Obviously, it is a difficult task to rate every state in the world in terms of “stability” or what political scientists refer to as “stateness” (i.e. effective governance and internal political legitimacy). That said, I wonder if the coding software used to compile the Failed States Index is deeply flawed from an epistemological perspective (“How do they know what they know?”). As I understand the FSI, it is the result of scanning and coding of tens of thousands of documents. Presumably, most of those are secondary documents, and therefore susceptible to the propagation of bias and error from primary sources and journalists. It is fair to say that the Failed States Index is, to a great extent, a survey that reports on perceptions of states. In many cases, there is systematic bias in (outsiders’) perceptions of some states. The Fund for Peace is not a large organization and they do not have the resources to empirically monitor key patterns globally on an annual basis. That is not to say their index is without value. Only that it must be received for what it is. Clearly there is validity in some of the FSI results. But enough cases are called into question that the index as a whole suffers. Its representation of Africa as a whole is deeply problematic.

For another view of “state failure,” see this 2008 report from the Brookings Institute. Yes, the Brookings report is now a few years old, but the methodology is far different from the FSI. And it provides a far different perspective on the geographic scope of state failure.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.