What’s the difference between a failed and a fragile/weak state?

Friday, October 2, 2020
Opinion by Jean AbiNader
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Years ago when I worked for another Arab country, and critical observations were made about how the country was governed, its human rights record, level of corruption, and so forth, the standard response was “Well, we’re doing better than our neighbors.” To hold up any country in the Arab world as a model was hardly convincing to outsiders if the comparison was another Arab country. They share unfortunate similarities when talking about basic freedoms, transparency, rule of law, and other markers of political and social development.

A term that is used to describe Lebanon’s condition as a result of its chaotic condition is that it is a “failed state,” or at least a “fragile state,” using sets of criteria developed more than 15 years ago by the Fund for Peace. Yet many readers do not understand how these terms are constructed, sensing only that “fragile” and “failed” sound right when describing Lebanon. I want to elaborate on these terms in order to get at a better understanding of what Lebanon isn’t doing that would make it a functioning/stable state.

First of all, several years ago; “failed” was replaced by “fragile” in recognition that some states can continue to carry out some of its responsibilities and not be on the verge of collapse, e.g. Sudan, Venezuela. Some further definitions from Wikipedia are helpful. “A fragile state or weak state is a country characterized by weak state capacity or weak state legitimacy leaving citizens vulnerable to a range of shocks.” And apropos of Lebanon, “Failing states lack the monopoly of force, while the other areas function at least partially.” “Weak institutions are the central driver of state fragility. Other factors associated with fragility include: economic development, violent conflict, natural resources, external shocks, and the international system.”

The World Bank produces an annual report that provides insights in a country’s capacity and sustainability. In its 2020 Annual Governance Indicators, covering performance in 2019, just at the onset of the current series of crises, Lebanon did not perform well. It is instructive to chart the changes from 2018 to 2019, and compare Lebanon to the rest of the region. Its performance indicators fell in several categories which could be taken as signs of the pending chaos that began after October 17. For example, its highest ranking was in Voice and Accountability where it ranked second among Arab countries. However, in Government Effectiveness, it was 15th in the region, only above Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, and Yemen.

The 2020 report on 2019 performance also noted that Lebanon placed 15th among Arab countries in Control of Corruption and 14th in both Political Stability and Rule of Law. Lebanon declined in both in Rule of Law and Government Effectiveness from 2018 to 2019. To be clear, no Arab country even approached 50% in any of the six categories, further validating my point that measuring against the neighborhood is seldom useful. When looking globally, for example, 80.3% of countries and territories around the world have a better score than Lebanon on the Rule of Law category according to an analysis by Byblos Bank Economic and Research Department.

The Council on Foreign Relations recently released an article titled, “Is Lebanon a Failed State? Here’s What the Numbers Say.” The author examines a number of indicators and sums up her analysis writing, “Whether Lebanon can avoid becoming a failed state is unclear. The government…will have to install a new cabinet and institute certain reforms to receive much-needed foreign aid. But while the reforms would address major issues including electricity and corruption, the country’s flawed political system would remain intact.”

So what does this data suggest for Lebanon’s future? It doesn’t bode well for the needed steps to form an effective coalition to make the necessary reforms. The International Support Group (ISG) called on political parties to come together to form “an effective and credible government that will meet the legitimate needs of the Lebanese people and address the main challenges facing the country,” according to the same Byblos Bank analysis. Reflecting the issues addressed in the World Bank report, the ISG “Urged Lebanese authorities to swiftly implement the needed measures to reestablish economic stability, improve the delivery of public services, restore the credibility of the financial sector, resume negotiations with the IMF, and prioritize key governance measures.” With the continued obfuscation of the French initiative by Amal and Hezbollah, that seems an ever more remote likelihood.

Finally, in a quarterly country risk survey of 174 countries, the Euromoney Group ranked Lebanon in 162nd place worldwide and in 15th place among 18 Arab countries during the second quarter of 2020. This represents a decrease of 62 spots, the steepest decline worldwide and a drop of 10 spots in the region from the same period of 2019. Rather than go into further details, all of which are depressing, you can consult this link . Suffice to say, Lebanon only placed higher that Yemen, Syria, and Sudan…not reassuring to investors, citizens, businesses, and policy makers.

There is little doubt that if Lebanon’s leaders continue to insist on writing their own rules for the country’s recovery that Lebanon will indeed achieve a “fragile” state status with few hopes of recovery. For an instructive video from the Financial Times, just look here, and weep.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.