South Sudan ranked lowest on the Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace 2014 Failed States Index, pushing Somalia off that uncoveted spot for the first time. The Deputy Speaker of South Sudan’s parliament, Mark Nyipuoc, protested, complaining, “Sometimes our people begin to wonder and question the credibility and the impartiality of these ranking institutions. [We] do not understand which indicators do these institutions use and where exactly do they get their sources of information.”

Given the extent to which the South Sudanese political elite squandered immense wealth and opportunity, using their country’s oil revenue for personal and political goods rather than public goods, it is tempting to dismiss such complaints. But we should not let the Failed States Index off without a more critical examination.

Three years ago, one set of countries, that includes South Sudan, challenged the framework of fragile and failing states. South Sudan took a leading role in the G7+ group that has sought to define an agenda for these countries on the basis of ownership of the goals and means of governance partnership by those states themselves. This led to the 2011 Busan conference on aid effectiveness and the “New Deal.”

South Sudan is a founding member of the G7+ and went through its own “fragility assessment” in 2012 and was scheduled to sign a Compact under the “New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States” in late 2013.

The self-assessment identified the country’s progress out of “crisis” to “rebuild and reform.” We can criticize any assessment that is based on a self-evaluation, but the South Sudanese who scored their country were often very frank. The problems lie elsewhere: in the indicators chosen and the credence given to official initiatives to overcome problems such as corruption and mismanagement.

In the self-assessment, we find indicators related to public finance management and service delivery, but these are optimistically assessed as at the stage of “rebuild and reform” rather than “crisis.” There is no mention of political factionalization. There is no mention of security sector reform or its correlates, such as the professionalism or cohesion of the armed forces or the fact that the SPLA payroll was far in excess of the numbers of troops that could turn out to fight. There is no candid assessment of the depths of corruption.

The Failed States Index and the Busan “New Deal” both derive from the frameworks for state-building developed on the basis of Douglass North’s institutional economics and the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report, Conflict, Fragility and Development. They assume that the path to state-building lies through institution building and that the transition from a less institutionalized political order (typically based on patronage) to one founded on rule-based institutions can be achieved by design. The G7+ “New Deal” and the conventional state-building approach, both seek to build institutions without explicitly addressing the political-economic structures that sustain non-institutional modes of governance in the first place.

Another critique of the Failed States Index, came from Ethiopia. This was a more radical critique, that applied equally to the Busan approach. The late Meles Zenawi refused to have anything to do with the G7+, which he dismissed as an intellectual and political dead end that merely accepted and domesticated the neo-liberal approach.

For Meles, fragile states politics and economics were defined by pervasive rent-seeking. That is, all members of the political class conduct political affairs with a view to obtaining and maximizing rent. This rent is for both personal consumption (corruption including illicit financial flows) and for patronage or factional-political purposes. The formal structure and appearance of institutions is less relevant than the political function to which they are put. Current indices for fragile states fail to capture rent-seeking in the political sphere, and current international economic and security policies fail to tackle the problem of rent-seeking and may indeed exacerbate it.

It would be possible to construct an alternative index for state fragility based on rent-seeking, using indicators such as the government’s “political budget” and the demands on it by the political elite. This would certainly be a more sensitive and proximate indicator of political crisis, though there would be formidable challenges in gathering the necessary data.

But all country-based state crisis indicators fail to capture the way in which the current global economic and political order generates and sustains certain sorts of political fragility. South Sudan’s political economy was a creation of international interests, including in oil, security cooperation, aid and the role that the United States likes to see itself playing in certain of the world’s trouble spots. Its functioning cannot be separated from those global forces and how they incentivize and facilitate certain kinds of elite behavior. Global patronage systems, in which South Sudan was a deeply embedded, underpin much of the rent-seeking and associated political pathologies that lie at the root of state failure.

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2 Responses to Is South Sudan “the World’s Most Failed State?”

  1. Alex,
    Thanks for the analysis. By the way, the Index was renamed earlier this year to the “Fragile States Index” – here’s an article about it.
    J.J.

  2. Catherine Dom says:

    Thank you for this insightful short note. It very much resonates with what I thought of the compact/New Deal process in South Sudan, and yes, in contrast, Meles wouldn’t give a damn, and focus his energey and intellect in home-grown ways of trying to tackle fragility (history will say how long his solution will be able to last and/or how in future others will continue to make the model evolve – I cross fingers tight)… And yes, the New Deal framework assumes benevolent international partners, and governments that are at least (on the whole) interested in their population’s welfare – and in developing the institutions that we hold necessary to deliver this. Entirely true that the self-assessment was by and large frank, but limited by what it looks and doesn’t look at.

    Again, thanks.

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