When Government Stops Working: “Failed States”

Banana Republic, puppet state, Absurdistan, collapsed state or collapsing state: there are many expressions that are used to say that a state does not work. They are often idioms used to criticize a government, poor services or weak or corrupt politicians. Although these expressions are often exaggerations, failed states really exist and are indeed increasingly observed at a geopolitical level.

What is a failed state

A state becomes bankrupt when the capacity of the government ceases to function. But what distinguishes a government that works from one that doesn’t is a matter of debate. According to the German philosopher Max Webera state is such when the government has the monopoly of violence, that is, it is the only subject capable of using force on its territory. If a government is no longer the only one capable of doing this then the state has failed.

In more recent times, however, this concept has been expanded to other fields. Other scholars like Ulrich Schneckenerfor example, they say that in addition to the monopoly of violence a state must be legitimate (i.e. recognized by its citizens) and capable of making laws and applying them fairly. In other cases it is said that in addition to violence, a failed state is not capable of guaranteeing some essential services to its citizens such as education or healthcare.

An example of a failed state that is often used is that of Somalia, which after the fall of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991 entered into a civil war that has lasted to the present day. Another often cited example is that of Yemenwhere since 2014 the collapse of Saleh’s regime has opened a season of instability with a war between different factions.

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Criticism and fears about failed states

The concept of a “failed state” is not without its problems. There are essentially two criticisms. The first is that the concept is too generic and brings together very different situations. The second is that seems to be a “political” conceptthat is, used by other states (often Western ones) to isolate a country or justify military interventions within it.

Despite the problems in the definition and the controversies, states often fail at the center of attention of the international community. The fear regarding this phenomenon is that the absence of governments in some geographical spaces could benefit actors such as large criminal organizations and terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and it Islamic state. In fact, these uncontrolled territories can push these types of actors to replace the state and use the vast ungoverned territories to plan attacks against other nations.

In addition to the presence of large criminal organizations, the main problem linked to failed states is that of instability, that is, of the anarchy that is created after their failure. In fact, in the territories where failed states are located there are mass violations of human rights and illicit trafficking thrives. All factors that pose moral and strategic problems for members of the international community who in recent decades have worked to prevent the failure of states or at least to reduce the effects of their failure with military operations or economic aid.