Every observer of the situation in West Africa will answer that yes, Mali is a disastrously failed state: it was rotten to the core and collapsed a year ago with expected alacrity.

But the established indices of state fragility and governance tell a different story: Mali scores in the mid range for developing countries, usually better than its neighbors and peers.

On the Fund For Peace/Foreign Policy “failed states index” for 2012 Mali’s rank is 79 out of 177 (lower ranks being less desirable: Somalia being number 1 and Finland 177). Its rank was adjacent to China (76), Algeria (77), India (78), Bosnia-Hercegovina (tied at 79), Turkmenistan (81), and Venezuela (82). Compare next-door Niger, which ranked 19 and Chad which ranked 4. Faced with similar problems of restive Saharan populations and proximity to Libya and the spillover effects of mercenarism and radicalism, Niger and Chad have managed well. Mali has not.

The Brookings Index of State Weakness in the Developing World was published in 2008 and ranked Mali at 52 out of 141 (lower ranks indicate greater weakness: Somalia was number 1).

According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Index of African Governance for 2012, Mali ranked 20 out of 53 countries—that is, better governed than average. Mali scored 55, above the African average of 51.2, rising over the previous year to overtake Mozambique. Niger and Chad ranked lower: 28 and 50 respectively.

World Bank Country Policy and Institutional Assessment (CPIA) score ranges from 1-6, the higher numbers and ranking representing the better-run countries. Mali in 2011 ranked number 10 out of 38 sub-Saharan countries, scoring 3.6, above the average of 3.2, and putting it ahead of Niger (3.4) and far ahead of Chad (2.4). Mali’s CPIA score fell very slightly from 2006-11.

So what does Mali tell us about the measurement of state fragility? I suspect it tells us something that practitioners of political crisis management have known for a while, which is that these indices don’t tell us anything useful.


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One Response to Is Mali a failed state?

  1. Seth Kaplan says:

    You are correct. But that does not mean we cannot measure fragility. It just means that these indicators are not using the right tools.

    State fragility depends on things like social cohesion, political geography, history, infrastructure, geography (mountains, jungles, etc.), the relationship between various elites, the institutionalization of the state (something quite different than what governance indicators show us), and so on.

    Unfortunately, most of these issues are ignored by those making such indicators, partly because they do not fit Western concepts of what makes states work and partly because they are hard to measure.

    I touch upon some of these questions here:

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