Wealth, poverty and fragile states
MIFFed by misrule
A new category of countries mixes modest affluence with miserable governance
Jul 21st 2011 | from the print edition
MOST people think they know what a failed state looks like. An obvious one is Somalia, where an outbreak of famine in the south was formally acknowledged by the United Nations this week. Help has started to trickle in after the Shabab, an Islamist militia, lifted its ban on aid agencies that it once termed anti-Muslim. In most ways the afflicted region epitomises the collapse of authority: extremists control roads and markets; the government is powerless outside the capital; outsiders provide what little assistance exists.
But not all failed or fragile states look like Somalia. This month the World Bank issued its annual list of countries by income category: rich, middle, poor. Several African countries are faring rather better than Somalia; they have graduated from poor to middle-income status. Yet strikingly, some 15 of the 56 countries on the bank’s lower-middle income list (ie, over a quarter) also appear on the list of fragile and failed states maintained by the OECD, a rich-country club. They range from Côte d’Ivoire to Yemen; the most important of them are Pakistan and Nigeria. State failure, it appears, does not necessarily go hand in hand with other human woes, such as poverty.
Why should it matter that a group of countries has crossed some arbitrary line separating poor from middle-income status? Perhaps, some may say, it shows that state failure is an extremely elastic term, embracing both countries in total collapse (Somalia, Chad) and those which merely contain large ungoverned spaces. In fact, the emergence of a group of middle-income but failed or fragile states is more than a curiosity. The group—call them MIFFs—includes countries crucial to the future of west Africa and South Asia. The new state of South Sudan , which combines oil wealth with instability and underdevelopment, will surely join its ranks.