Foreign Policy’s Failed State Index Misses the Mark in Latin America

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Foreign Policy’s latest Failed States Index presents a flawed picture of regional stability in Latin America, largely due to an overly comprehensive understanding of state failure.

Foreign Policy magazine, in collaboration with the Fund for Peace, has published the eighth annual Failed States Index for 2012. The index uses a series of social, economic and political indicators to rank countries in ascending order based on their risk of collapse and violence. Foreign Policy then groups into five categories: “critical,” “in “danger,” “borderline,” “stable” and “most stable.”

Unsurprisingly, most of the states with the highest rankings are in Africa, with Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan taking the lead. However, this year’s index unexpectedly includes three Latin American countries in the same “critical” category as these besieged African nations. According to the index, Haiti, Colombia and Bolivia are all at risk of state failure, and place 7th, 52nd and 62nd on the list respectively.

While extreme poverty and lawlessness in Haiti unquestionably justify its high ranking, Bolivia and Colombia are not generally thought of in the same category. This is a new development. In both the 2010 and 2011 indices. Haiti was the only country in the Western Hemisphere to be classified as with a “critical” rating. The reasons for Colombia and Bolivia’s upgrade are unclear.

While Colombia is still in the midst of a decades-long internal conflict with Marxist guerrillas, and there is evidence to suggest that the number of rebel attacks increased in 2011 by some 10 percent, the overall security situation in the country is slowly improving. The largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), remains consigned to remote areas of the country, a far cry from their peak in 2002, when they controlled an area the size of Switzerland in the southeast of the country. In just the last year they have also lost considerable amounts of support to their bases in Venezuela and Ecuador, with the governments of both countries promising to crack down on guerrilla presence. The various neo-paramilitary groups which the government calls “bandas criminales” (BACRIMs), while still a threat, have seen the capture or assassination of several high-level leaders like Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” and Juan de Dios Usuga, alias “Giovanni.” The government’s successes against these organizations have been rewarded with a significant drop in homicides. In 2011, the homicide rate in Colombia reached its lowest point in 27 years.

Bolivia’s high rating is even more perplexing. It is true that the country has been plagued by political instability for much of its recent history, but this has improved since President Evo Morales took office in 2006. Demonstrations by indigenous groups, unions, and most recently by police officers have racked major cities throughout the country since then, but in each of these instances the government has intervened to reach some kind of settlement. While protests have contributed to the resignation of members of his cabinet, such mass mobilizations are something of a tradition in the country and have not brought President Morales anywhere close to stepping down, as occurred to presidents in 2003 and 2005.

There seems to be no good reason for Foreign Policy to describe Bolivia or Colombia as in critical danger of state failure, much less why those two are ranked higher than other countries in the hemisphere. Honduras, where police corruption is rampant, the homicide rate is the highest in the world and journalists are regularly targeted by organized crime, is perhaps at a higher risk of state failure than either South American country. Another potential contender would be Suriname, where convicted drug trafficker and former dictator Desi Bouterse is president. Bouterse, who may have been involved in drug trafficking as recently as 2006, was recently able to pressure the Surinamese legislature to pass a bill granting him a blanket amnesty from prosecution and ending investigation into allegations that he killed 15 opposition figures in 1982.

But even these rely on broad definitions of state failure, which is one of the main problems with the Failed States Index. The twelve indicators used by the Fund for Peace in their initial analysis include such factors as “uneven economic development,” “demographic pressures” and “human flight and brain drain,” issues that lie beyond traditional conceptions of state failure involving the deterioration of the rule of law. This methodology proves limited in its applicability to other countries in the region as well. Chile, for instance, is described as one of “Latin America’s success stories” in the overview of the Index, but the country has actually seen the sixth largest drop in its score compared to 2007. Ultimately, while the Fund for Peace claims that its “systematic integration of a wide range of data sources” is a strength of the Index, in the case of Latin America it appears to blur more than it reveals.

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