February 12, 2011

Failed States

States fail when national governments lose control of part or all of their territory and can no longer ensure people’s security. Failing states often degenerate into civil war as opposing groups vie for power. In Afghanistan, for example, the local warlords or the Taliban, not the central government, control the country outside of Kabul.
One reason for government breakdowns that has become more relevant recently is the inability to provide food security—not necessarily because the government is less competent but because obtaining enough food is becoming more difficult. Providing sufficient food has proved to be particularly challenging since the rise in food prices that began in early 2007. Although grain prices subsided again for a while, they have remained well above historical levels and, at the beginning of 2011, are fast approaching levels similar to the spring 2008 peak.
Among the top 20 countries on the 2010 Failed States list, all but a few are losing the race between food production and population growth. The populations in 15 of the top 20 failing states are growing between 2 and 4 percent a year. Many governments are suffering from demographic fatigue, unable to cope with the steady shrinkage in cropland and freshwater supply per person or to build schools fast enough for the swelling ranks of children.
In 14 of the top 20 failing states, at least 40 percent of the population is under 15, a demographic indicator that raises the likelihood of future political instability. Many are caught in the demographic trap: They have developed enough economically and socially to reduce mortality, but not enough to lower fertility. As a result, large families beget poverty and poverty begets large families.
Virtually all of the top 20 countries are depleting their natural assets—forests, grasslands, soils, and aquifers—to sustain their rapidly growing populations. The three countries at the top of the list—Somalia, Chad, and Sudan—are losing their topsoil to wind erosion, undermining the land’s productivity. Several countries in the top 20 are water-stressed and are overpumping their aquifers.
After a point, as rapid population growth, deteriorating environmental support systems, and poverty [Excel] reinforce each other, the resulting instability makes it difficult to attract investment from abroad. Even public assistance programs from donor countries are sometimes phased out as the security breakdown threatens the lives of aid workers.
The conditions of state failure may be a long time in the making, but the collapse itself can come quickly. Before revolution in Tunisia helped spark unrest in Yemen in Jan. 2011, the country already faced several threatening trends. It is running out of both oil and water, and has the poorest population among Arab countries. The shaky Yemeni government faces a Shiite insurgency in the north, a deepening conflict between the north and the south, and an estimated 300 Al Qaeda operatives within its borders. With its long, porous border with Saudi Arabia, Yemen could become a gateway for Al Qaeda to move into Saudi Arabia.

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