The Sri Lankan state: Failed, failing or maligned?

May 12, 2006 (LBO) – The May/June 2006 issue of the international affairs monthly, Foreign Policy, carries an article entitled “The Failed States Index” (

It made the news in several countries and even prompted a senior US trade official to refute the classification of Pakistan as the most endangered South Asian state on the basis that the Pakistan economy was booming (

Pakistan was ranked 9th and Sri Lanka was ranked 25th (in this case, high is bad). Among our SAARC neighbors, Bhutan and India were better than us, Bhutan at 39 and India at 93.

Source credibility

Foreign Policy is not the most prestigious international relations journal in the US, but it is not without credibility.

It was co-founded by Samuel Huntington (author of the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis) and is now published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a well-respected think tank.

The Fund for Peace was responsible for the study (, but the presence of a senior editor of Foreign Policy in the research team indicates it was a joint enterprise.


The methodology is not fully transparent, being based on proprietary software called CAST [Conflict Assessment System Tool].

Eleven thousand news reports from open sources in the July-December 2005 period were used as data.

The reason given for not including all countries in the study is a lack of data in the well known Thomson Dialog database. This is a somewhat suspect explanation because Thomson Dialog appears to have had data on Bhutan (a country with only one English newspaper, a weekly published by the government) in both 2005 and 2006, while it had none on Israel, a country that is treated almost as part of the United States by the US media, in 2005.

In 2006, the Index covered 148 countries, compared to only 76 in 2005.

Sri Lanka (25), Malawi (29), Burkina Faso (30), Mauritania (41), Niger (44), Guinea-Bissau (46) and Cambodia (47) are among the countries to appear in the index for the first time.

The massive difference in coverage (72 new countries) makes comparison over time problematic.

State failure generally occurs slowly, except in cases of war and revolution.

However, the Index shows wild fluctuations (e.g., Pakistan drops 25 places (13.7 points) in one year; Nigeria 32 (10.1) and Kyrgyzstan 37 (9.9)! Venezuela improves its position by 43 places (12 points) in one year, and Guatemala by 20 (6.7).

Some of these movements are artifacts of the inclusion of 72 new countries.

But such wild movements within one year absent major social trauma suggest that the methodology has significant flaws.

Notwithstanding these methodological problems, the index does provide a good basis for debate and discussion on the condition of the Sri Lankan state.

Indeed, the Fund for Peace hopes that “the Index will spur conversations, encourage debate, and most of all help guide strategies for sustainable security.”

Even if we do not take the rankings as absolutely correct, the above objects cannot be but praiseworthy.

Failing states

The famed sociologist Max Weber defined a state as having the legitimate monopoly on the use of force within its territory.

By that criterion, states that have lost that monopoly may be said to be failing states, along a continuum that ranges from the presence of armed gangs in US inner cities, to Sri Lanka’s stated inability to control the Karuna Faction of the LTTE and Pakistan’s failure to disarm the heavily armed groups in its border areas, despite repeated attempts.

In addition, the Fund for Peace included within its definition of state failure the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, an inability to provide reasonable public services, and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.

Its 12 indicators cover a wide range of state failure risk elements such as extensive corruption and criminal behavior, inability to collect taxes or otherwise draw on citizen support, large-scale involuntary dislocation of the population, sharp economic decline, group-based inequality, institutionalized persecution or discrimination, severe demographic pressures, brain drain, and environmental decay.

Given the improvement of the standing of the quintessential failed states of Somalia (from 5th place to 7th place) and Cote d’Ivoire (from 1st place to 3rd place), the term failed state, which suggests a permanent condition, may not be the most appropriate.

The color coding in the Fund for Peace presentation which groups the countries at the top of the Index from Sudan to Kyrgyzstan (112.3-90.3, from possible maximum of 120) inclusive of Sri Lanka (25th place, 92.4) as being in critical condition (red), and the next group from Malawi to Ghana (89.8-60.5) as being under observation (orange), and two other groups of states in varying degrees of good health, appears to better reflect the reality of varying degrees of failure, measured by imperfect instruments and subject to margins of error.

Sri Lanka

Comparisons with Bangladesh, a country many of us like to think of as a basket case (justifiably or not), may help shed light on the Sri Lankan scores (out of 10):








































I Mounting Demographic Pressures
II Massive Movement of Refugees and IDPs
III Legacy of Vengeance – Seeking Group Grievance
IV Chronic and Sustained Human Flight
V Uneven Economic Development along Group Lines
VI Sharp and/or Severe Economic Decline
VII Criminalization or Delegitimization of the State
VIII Progressive Deterioration of Public Services
IX Widespread Violation of Human Rights
X Security Apparatus as “State within a State”
XI Rise of Factionalized Elites
XII Intervention of Other States or External Actors

Sri Lanka scores higher (i.e., is worse) than Bangladesh in II (Refugees and IDPs), X (Security Apparatus) and XII (Intervention) and is equal to Bangladesh in XI (Factionalized Elites).

It is difficult to argue against any of these, especially in light of the headless bodies that keep being discovered and the most recent refugee and IDP flows (though these events are outside the study period).

Even though Sri Lanka has a significant number of people voting with their feet (, the Index correctly gives a higher score on that indicator (IV) to Bangladesh, which has a higher net migration rate.

Sri Lanka’s highest score is 9.1 out of 10 under III (vengeance).

This too meshes with experiential knowledge. The only “good” thing is that the Bangladeshis get closer to a perfect score.

The one problematic score is VI (sharp economic decline). There was no sharp decline in either country in the relevant time period.

What does all this mean?

Given the identified methodological weaknesses, it is possible that Sri Lanka is not as bad as the Index says it is.

But the comparison with Bangladesh shows that the scoring does not flout common sense on the whole.

Overall we are better than Bangladesh, but not by much.

Even if we take away as much as two whole points for the economic-decline indicator, Sri Lanka would still be in the red zone.

But it is worth thinking differently about this ranking. In this day and age, perception is reality.

Pakistan at least had one apologist.

Sri Lanka had none, not even its government.

Maybe, the world agrees with the ranking given us.

If Sri Lanka looked this bad in July-December 2005, how would its appearance be now, with the Army Commander attacked inside his own headquarters and 100,000 internally displaced people issued dry rations by the Government Agent of Trincomalee (Daily Mirror, 9 May 2006)?

We depend on the good will and perception of others: for investment, for aid, for tourists, for trade.

By abandoning the path of peace and running behind the false promise of a unitary state that would be imposed upon an undefeated armed political movement when the President and the LTTE Leader met face-to-face or the chimerical hope that Karuna would do for us what the combined Army, Navy and Air Force could not do, did we not ourselves begin the process of clawing our way up the ranks of the failing states?

In 2006 we keep company with Rwanda and Ethiopia. In 2007, whose company shall we be keeping? Liberia? Somalia?

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments