Sample Research Paper on Failed States

Introduction – Failed State

In the purview of political science, a “failed state,” as the name suggests and is self-explanatory, is a state or nation that is on the verge of collapse. More often than not, these are states often found or categorized as Third World which in turn is defined during the Cold War era and carried over beyond it although some would argue that failed states belong to another category called the Fourth World; there are even debates to whether failed states are a product of the Cold War where the superpowers were at fault for creating them or whether these states brought their misery and instability among themselves (Bilgin and Morton 57; Gros 455). There are but many ways in trying to interpret or understand what makes such a state a failed state. This study will look into some states that fall under this category. Firstly, it is important to know or understand the concept of a failed state, to understand its very nature to enable one to identify its characteristics when examining a certain country.

In Robert Rotberg’s (2003) book, State Failure and State Weakness, he came up with  three general categories where state failure is classified into levels – Failed or Collapsed, Dangerously Weak and “Safely” Weak. The first category is the worst case while the third is the “safer” one. Rotberg explains the nature of state failure by defining or characterizing it as wracked by internal violence for the failure of the government to provide positive political goods to its citizens.  As mentioned before, this is common in Third World states.  One key word Rotberg mentions here is “political goods,” the thing that seems to determine the stability of states. When Rotberg mentioned “political goods,” he is referring to the intangible entities essential to the relationship between the ruler and the citizens, complimenting the social contract of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.  These intangibles can be made up of the expectations citizens of their leaders, the obligations of the leaders toward their constituents (2).  This is very evident in democratic countries as these political goods enable people to take part in the political process, for the government to provide services and infrastructures.  These in turn are essential to ensuring security, peace and order as well as ensure the smooth flow of trade and commerce.  If a state fails to be able to deliver these political goods, it does not immediately mean it is a failed state but a weak state, the first step going to a failed or collapsed state.

Other characteristics that are corollary to this would be a stable state would be able to curb violence.  The rule of law must prevail.  This would entail keeping law and order at all times by keeping the crime rate low and preventing or eliminating any form of insurgency, probably the most extreme form of political dissent in a state.  In addition, there is hardly any graft and corruption.  It would be unrealistic to think that strong states have no graft and corruption at all.  It is just that they have mechanisms that enable them to curb it and keep it at a “manageable” level (Rotberg 6).  One can now see the difference – weak states practically let graft and corruption fester with near impunity and these can even happen is strong states if they fail to deliver political goods.  Weak states are often authoritarian or despotic. Instead of empowering their citizens, the government harasses civil society or prey on their citizens in just about every level.  All in all, the consequence is the incumbents lose any political legitimacy and along with that the sovereignty or political will to run the country as dissent increases. Furthermore, there will be rival groups that will form insurgencies to challenge the incumbent and if the latter cannot defeat the former, a failed state is likely. It gets worse if there are many factions that vie for control as it divides the country, making it even more difficult for the government to stop it and if it goes beyond control, it may entail foreign intervention lest the country be plunged into lawlessness.

In Robert Bates book titled When Things Fall Apart.  State Failure in Late-Century Africa (2008),  he explains the nature of state failure with the scope and limitation centered on Africa in the late 20th century. Using the “game theory” as his framework, Bates observed that most, if not some of these states are run by “specialists in violence,” namely authoritarian rulers who employ coercion or force to protect the creation of wealth (p. 3).  However, this does not necessarily mean it is a weak or failed state immediately.  These rulers enter into a “social contract” with the people and if used judiciously and prudently, these states can become strong and stable. However, the moment greed steps in, breakdown of order would ensue.  This would be characterized in making wrong policy choices or what Bates would call the “anti-growth” syndrome which would be further characterized by a closed economy, where everything becomes mismanaged in all levels, bringing about utter mayhem (55).

The bottom line of Bates’ work is when leaders in government look after their own interests, this is the beginning of state failure which is likely to happen if this would go unchecked. This pursuit of self-interest would set off a chain reaction to other aspects of society such as the unequal distribution of wealth, the widening gap between rich and poor; the marginalization of some sectors of society and breakdown of law and order which would compel the “specialists” in violence to use more force but instead of cowing people into submission, it would make them more defiant as they would lose their political legitimacy as far as they are concerned.

Case Studies:

With a concept of failed states given, it is now safe to move on in the application of these concepts by looking into the situation of some countries that may be classified as Failed States.


In looking at the case of Liberia, one wonders how a state, that used to enjoy more than a century of relative peace and stability since the 19th century, headed down the road to being a failed state, and not merely a weak one?  Its situation is similar to the case of Zaire and Rwanda. According to Jean-Germain Gros, Liberia falls under his given category of the anarchic state, a subcategory of the failed state. This differs from the categories set forth by Rotberg in the sense that it is not weak but is considered failed in a general way though Gros made it more specific. It is revealed following the downfall of the centuries-old Americo-Liberian rule that there are different ethnic groups vying for power. They claim to have been marginalized by these “colonizers” who claimed to have deprived them of their right to rule and that they have been monopolizing power (Gros 463). The Americo-Liberians, especially those in power by the time of William Tolbert, the last Americo-Liberian President of Liberia, were accused of being corrupt and this was enough in the case of Doe to lead a military coup where Tolbert and some of his supporters were brutally murdered (Huband 33). When Doe came to power, this did not necessarily mean all of Liberia was happy as the situation repeated itself when rival tribes went up in arms as Doe tended to favour people of his own ethnic group, the Krahn in terms of delivering these political goods and using repression to keep the others in check. The characteristic of a stable state, especially those of the Third or Fourth World, would be the state or government’s ability to maintain order and stability and its judicious use of force or violence.

Another factor to consider is that the monopoly or utilization of force. It was unfortunate for the Americo-Liberian regime that majority of its armed forces members belong to the other minority tribes. When Doe began his coup, he was one of those who harbored resentment over these elites who had kept his people marginalized. It is also strange to note that most coups were led by military officers. Doe was a senior non-commissioned officer. His coup was daring in the sense that he led a handful of men in capturing the seat of power where typically similar coups would require the mobilization of at least a fraction of the country’s armed forces which woulf entail not only capturing the seat of government, but also securing other vital installations. Doe was not like the previous leaders of government. He was only a high school graduate and lacked the intellectual finesse to govern a country as he assumed the presidency after brutally killing Tolbert.  He made up for his lack of knowledge in politics by creating a personality cult within himself and this proved to be counter-productive or it did not sit well with the other ethnic groups in Liberia. It was for this reason Doe had to use repression to keep things under control as opposed to the more subtle means of his predecessors. He too was overthrown in an uprising led by forces under Charles Taylor in 1989 (Huband 18).

Unlike Doe, Taylor was more educated and therefore had political savvy. However, this did not translate into good governance.  Like Doe, Taylor exercised the tendency to look out for his political interest and security and one indication was cleansing Liberia’s armed forces of the ethnic Krahns associated with Doe, fearing they might launch a coup against him. This was a costly mistake as they formed rebel groups which eventually led to another civil war that saw Liberia torn asunder. Another thing going against Taylor was his credibility as a leader was challenged by criminal allegations against him ranging from corruption to supporting terrorism. In addition, he was charged with helping Sierra Leone’s insurgency by recruiting child soldiers, thereby committing a human rights violation. All these caused Taylor to be more autocratic as shown in his victory in the 1996 election where he coerced the population. His continued oppression led to civil war and he underestimated the strength of two rebel forces opposed to him. The presence of these groups swas a clear indication Taylor was not in control despite his claims. With nothing to use as leverage, outside intervention was brought in involving west African and US troops in peacekeeping roles (Huband 20; Gros 458).

It can be therefore surmised that Liberia’s situation was not a cause of the Cold War where one would assume it was a client state of the US in preventing Soviet expansion in Africa. The Liberians themselves brought it upon themselves as they were motivated by the feeling of being marginalized. They had been marginalized for so long and with no one to aid their cause, they took it upon themselves, starting with Samuel Doe, to overthrow the ruling class which Taylor would do the same. It was fortunate for Liberia the chain was broken when outside intervention came and Liberia was back on the road to stability under the administration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.


Somalia’s road to being a failed state can be said to have started under Mohammed  Siad  Barre’s rule. Barre’s regime attempted to experiment with socialism, one characteristic was the natinoalization of all institutions of business and industry, thereby lacking foreign capital that could help boost the economy. Another factor related was Somalia lacked manufactured goods to export which made the country poorer. Barre compounded Somalia’s woes by spending what money the country had on military weaponry in their involvement in the Ogaden War which weakened Somalia’s armed forces. Even worse was the rampant corruption in Barre’s government. In the light on growing unpopularity, Barre had to employ repression. All in all, Barre provided all the ingredients that would lead to instability.  It can be seen that his contant campaigning caused Somalia’s armed forces were not strong enough to fight the growing insurgency from other clans caused by the acts of terror committed by Barre’s private army.  Somalia’s militry lost able officers to lead it as they belonged to the clans or tribes oppressed by Barre (Lyons and Samatar  8; Rotberg 131).

By the time of Barre’s ouster in 1991, Somalia had no legitimate national authority to run the country(Gros 457-459). Despite the installation of a president in Ali Mahdi Mohammed, he was not recognized by the rebel groups that overthrew Barre. Furthermore, the coalition of rebel groups that ousted Barre was dissolved, thus revealing one more problem that even Barre and Mohammed tried to address but failed. These groups, such as the one by Mohammed Farid Aideed, vied for control of the country (Gros 467). It can be further surmised that they are all equally matched and no one could gain the upper hand over the other and contented themselves to dividing the country into their own fiefdoms with Aideed’s forces for example controlling the capital Mogadishu but not attempting to assume power in the capital as he or any other warlord or rebel leader lacked recognition from the international community. President  Mohammed lacked the means to bring order to the country, most notably an armed force which was weakened by Barre’s campaigning and several of them joining rebel forces and militias (Rotberg 142,145).

The continuing instability has an effect on Somalia’s economy. Big business and industry cannot be established and food and agriculture was disrupted as the rebel groups also vied for these resources which they wanted to use for their own benefits. This also extended to the attacks on United Nations relief efforts underscored by hijackings of food aid by militias, prompting the United States to provide military muscle to enforce the peace. Unfortunately, the lack of decisiveness of the Clinton Administration following the “Blackhawk Down Incident,” saw US troops pulled out and this had worse consequences in the sense that this disrupted or hindered the United Nations efforts to continue its relief efforts (Rotberg 145; Gros 466). In addition, the continuing instability made Somalia, if the report of the American intelligence services are to be believed, a haven for terrorists and other lawless elements, most especially pirates operating off its coast and menacing international shipping; with no central authority to impose order, these lawless elements could go about their ways with impunity.


If this were to be classified under Gros’ concept of a failed state, Haiti would fall under the category of an “anemic” state. One characteristic of an anemic state is that the engines of modernity were never put in place.  Because of this, the population, or at least the government has to resort to archaic or outdated systems which are traditional by nature, superseding agents of the state (458-459). Haiti’s problems can be traced back to the time of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s authoritarian rule. Although Haiti has no insurgency, the older Duvalier ruled the country by terror. His repressive arm was not the police or armed forces, but a militia group called the tonton macuotes who are notorious for hacking their victims to death. It can be surmised here that much of Haiti’s rulers spent so much of their time consolidating their power rather than deliver the political goods to the population. The Duvaliers and even Cedras did not embrance the polity and were selective, thus marginalizing the rest of the population. With the restoration of Aristide, efforts to bring order and stability was effected with the disarmament of the militias under the supervision of the US and later the UN (Rotberg 290; McFadyen 129; Gros 467).

Surprisingly, this had an effect on Bertrand Aristide’s presidency. Although he was popularly elected in a democratic election, restored after being overthrown in a coup, Aristide’s presidency revealed under legacy years of autocratic rule, a divided if not polarized society. It was the old conflict between haves and have-nots. Majority of Haiti’s population living outside the capital could not associate or relate with the people in the capital who are regarded as elitist, not only in their socio-economic status but in race as the latter are lighter-skinned thus revealing some kind of racism.  Because of this, there is no middle class to bridge the gap and even if there are, they are associtated with the elites in Port-au-Prince. This was made even worse by allegations of fraud in the elections of 2000 that saw Aristide return to power. As a result, a rebellion took place and Aristide was removed from office in 2004, prompting the UN to intervene once more to ensure a smooth transition of power (McFadyen 68; Shamsie and Thompson 1-3).


In conclusion, if there is anything noticeable from the three above cases, they showed symptoms of a failed state. As mentioned earlier by Rotberg, the role of the government is to deliver the political goods to its people and in order to do that, it needs to exercise considerable authority or sovereignty and must have a monopoly of violence or coercive force. What this means is that there must be no other entity that must possess these. In Liberia, their troubles began when Samuel Doe came to power when he challenged the rule of the Americo-Liberians. When the latter failed to stop him, they collapsed. Doe met the same fate when forces under Charles Taylor deposed him when he failed to deliver these political goods as he tended to favor more those of his ethnic tribe, thereby marginalizing the others which is in turn consistent with Bates’ ideas also mentioned above.

In Somalia, warring clans vie for power as each one tried to dominate and wield the power of the state to the point they regard themselves as a government in themselves, refusing to recognize the central government in Mogadishu which lacked the necessary means to bring order following the downfall of Barre. As Rotberg stated earlier, only the state (government) can wield such force and having it in the hands of anyone else is dangerous. In the case of Somalia, that danger is tripled or quadrupled with the many warring clans, in addition to the pirates based on the coastal areas who fiercely guard their territory. It can be inferred that these groups are evenly matched in terms of resources, as evidenced by their inabilty to take power and establish a central government, making it appear they are comfortable with the status quo. The inabiltiy or lack of poltiical of the UN, and even the US then under the Clinton Administration, to enforce its authority emboldened these groups and further contributed to the instabilty in Somalia.

Haiti was in a similar situation under its dictators, most especially during the rule of the Duvaliers who used repression to assert control. It can be surmised here, they could not deliver the political goods and had to rely on force to maintain their hold on power. When Aristide came to power, he was challenged by Cedras. What was worse here was the military, the state’s instrument to use force, turned against him. He was Haiti’s democratically elected president and naturally, he needed to deliver these political goods. Unfortunately for him, he did not have the support of certain sectors who felt their interests threatened. Without a local military police force to back him up, he had to rely on outside help, notably the US and later the UN who remain to this day in Haiti to ensure order and so far, no one has challenged their presence.

All in all, a failed state is a state where the central government is unable to exercise its sovereignty over its people. It can be seen in the three case studies, that it requires a balance between the delivery of political goods and the judicious use of force to put down any attempt to disrupt peace and order or threaten the stability of society.  Failure to do any of these is an invitation to political disaster as political opposition will intensify their efforts to the extent of rising in arms to overthrow the incumbent and wrest the power they possess. If there is any lesson to be learned, democracies can work if the above-mentioned tasks are carried out without the need to become authoritarian which is often an anathema to democracy.


Works Cited

Bates, Robert. When Things Fall Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.

Bilgin, Pinar and Morton, Adam David. Historicising Representations of “Failed States:”  Beyond Cold-War Annexation of the Social Sciences. Third World Quarterly 23.1 (2002): 55-80.

Gros, Jean-Germain. Towards a Taxonomy of Failed States in the New World Order: Decaying Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda and Haiti. Third World Quarterly 17.3 (1996): 455-471. Print.

Huband, Mark. The Liberian civil war. Oxford: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Lyons, Terrence, and Ahmed I. Samatar. Somalia: state collapse, multilateral intervention, and strategies for political reconstruction. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1995. Print.

McFadyen, Deidre. Haiti: dangerous crossroads. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1995. Print.

Rotberg, Robert I. (Ed.). State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror. Washingtron, DC: Brookings Institution, 2003. Print.

Shamsie, Yasmine, and Andrew S. Thompson. Haiti: hope for a fragile state. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006. Print.


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