Is it fair to rank 'failed' states?

Media outlets and think tanks like rankings because they inspire debate, but ranking failed states based on perceived failings is irresponsible, writes a guest blogger.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

Foreign Policy published the annual Failed States Index along with its "Postcards from Hell" that show pictures from each of the worst 60.
 In terms of this hemisphere, Haiti is in the top 10 most failed states in the world. Colombia and Bolivia both make the "critical" level. My analysis is that Honduras and Venezuela are both far worse than Colombia or Bolivia, but that's a separate issue.

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Two solid critiques of the index have been published in Foreign Policy itself by the authors of the Africa is a Country blog as well as the Guardian. From the Guardian:

It is neither useful nor responsible to rank states according to their perceived failings. It is bad enough that the index focuses exclusively on the most negative aspects of a state's performance. Worse still that it ranks states in a way that suggests they are in any way comparable, when we know – to paraphrase Leo Tolstoy – that unhappy countries are all unhappy in completely different ways. If we are to advance our understanding we need to understand these differences.

Worst of all, the label "failed state" implies no degree of success or failure, no sense of decline or progress. Failed means there is no way back. Failed means a binary division between those countries that are salvageable and those beyond redemption. It is a word reserved for marriages and exams. It does not belong in a pragmatic debate.

Media outlets and think tanks like rankings because they inspire debate and media coverage, but I think the Guardian has this correct. I also agree with the criticism that "Postcards from Hell" is offensive. To define 60 countries as "Hell" is to use their worst qualities to define them as completely irredeemable, which they are not.

– James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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