‘failed state’ as a failed concept

One can only speculate about the political motives for inventing an incoherent concept like “state failure.” It gave Western states (most notably the US superpower) much more flexibility to intervene where they wanted to (for other reasons): you don’t have to respect state sovereignty if there is no state. After the end of the Cold War, there was less hesitation to intervene because of the disappearance of the threat of Soviet retaliation. “State failure” was even more useful as justification for the US to operate with a free hand internationally in the “War on Terror” after 9/11.

These political motives are perfectly understandable, but they don’t justify shoddy analysis using such an undefinable concept.

It’s time to declare “failed state” a “failed concept.”

William Easterly and Laura Freschi, “Top 5 reasons why ‘Failed state’ is a failed concept”, Aid Watch, 13 January 2010.

NYU economist William Easterly is co-editor (with Jessica Cohen) of What works in development: Thinking Big and Thinking Small (Brookings, 2009).


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