Terminology twist: from failed states to fragile states
1 Jul 2014|

A man waves the flag of South Sudan on the country's day of independence, 9 July 2011. South Sudan is listed as number one on the Fund for Peace's most recent Fragile States Index, previously the Failed States Index.The annual Failed States Index was released last week—with a verbal twist. This year’s Index–the 10th since 2005–discarded the term ‘Failed States’ and was rebranded as the ‘Fragile States Index’. The Index compiled by the Fund for Peace and in collaboration with Foreign Policy examines 178 countries using 12 social, political and economic indicators to assess pressures on states that affect stability. That seemingly small change is a timely reminder about the importance of accurate terminology.

According to the Fund for Peace, the name change more appropriately reflects the ‘continuum’ of state development. That is, failed ‘suggests a certain degree of finality’ where states are permanently subject to instability. This connotation undermines the aims of the index, which is to encourage discussions that support an increase in human security and improved livelihoods. Ironically, for a research think-tank with a name centred on funding peace, its Index has gained prominence by subjugating states to a label associated with instability.

Despite this, leaders in weak states have often labelled their own country as a failed or failing state in a ploy to extract aid or concessions from wealthy countries. For instance, David Lambach says East Timor has used this public relations tactic against Australia in oil and gas royalty-sharing disputes. In 2004, Xanana Gusmao, then president of East Timor, told reporters that without access to resources in the Timor Gap, East Timor would become a failed state. That caused concern for the Australian government, which was fearful of a failed state on its doorstep.

The term also provides governments with added justification for intervention in failed states. Prior to Australia’s intervention in the Solomon Islands, the government presented the Solomons as a state on the brink of failure requiring immediate assistance. ASPI’s own publication, Our Failing Neighbour, detailed the strategic and political analysis to justify intervention. Irrespective of the merits of the intervention, the language used has powerful implications for how governments perceive and utilise the failed state terminology.

In contrast, fragile is less loaded and is said to capture the key message of the Index. It suggests that states are weak but can improve from their poor situation. J.J. Messner, Co-Director of the Fragile States Index, says ‘the term “fragility” really does capture a lot more of that nuance’. It also draws closer attention to the factors that make states fragile in the first place. However, a lingering problem remains. The Index includes all states that were examined, making it a ranking of states from most fragile to least fragile, and resulting in countries like Australia and some other of the world’s most peaceful states being associated with the term ‘fragile’.

Granted, the term fragile is less patronising than failed. But the Fund for Peace has missed an opportunity to use more neutral language that is applicable to all states. A different term, State Stability Index, could’ve been selected. That term isn’t loaded, and describes just what the Index is: a list of indicators measuring a state’s level of stability. This way, highly stable states like Australia can then be associated with the list without the incorrect implication that they are fragile. Likewise, less stable states can also be associated with the list without (or at least with fewer) perceptions of inferiority and permanent anarchy.

Such verbal sleight of hand is not uncommon. The possible name change draws parallels from the humanitarian intervention debate advanced by Gareth Evans. In 2002, Evans and Sahnoun published their ‘responsibility to protect’ article in Foreign Affairs by reframing the terminology from intervention to protection. As Evans and Sahnoun said, ‘it implies evaluating the issues from the point of view of those needing support, rather than those who may be considering intervention’. While academics and politicians debate the potential abuse of justifying intervention along responsibility to protect lines, it’s clear that reframing the debate has transferred the emphasis away from the state and on to the people affected by humanitarian violations.

The Fund for Peace has been bold to rebrand its Fragile States Index. Such a reframing of the debate is welcome, and places greater emphasis on the core issues afflicting weak states. It’s too early to gauge whether the change will have the desired effect of encouraging a broader debate on strengthening weak states. But one thing is clear: never underestimate the value of accurate terminology.

Heath Pickering is a Master of International Relations graduate from the Melbourne School of Government. Image courtesy of Flickr user Arsenie Coseac.