State Responsibility and Failed State By: khadar Da’ud Abdirahman

State Responsibility and Failed State

By: khadar Da’ud Abdirahman

A responsibility of states is to deliver goods and services to the community such as security, health and education, economic opportunity, good governance, law and order, and fundamental infrastructure requirements (transport and communications). States fail when they are no longer willing or able to carry out these functions. One of the problems in dealing with failed states is in defining exactly who and what they are. State failure need not be reserved for cases of complete state collapse, either into civil war or anarchy but can also be understood as a process involving the weakening of a state’s capacity to meet its responsibilities. Taking this further it may be beneficial to consider state failure as a spectrum which ranges from weak or failing states through failed states to collapsed or non-states. In this case a failed state is one that meets a specific set of conditions and excludes states that only meet some of the criteria which can then be classed as weak or failing states depending on the extent of their decline. By using a state’s responsibilities a model can be developed that enables states to be defined and categorized as weak, failing or failed, so that the international community can determine which states no longer meet their sovereign obligations and need support or intervention.

Only a few of the world’s states can be described as failed or collapsed, but there are many dozens more that are weak and possible candidates for total failure. They generally share some of the following negative characteristics: a rise in criminal and political violence; a loss of control over their borders; ethnic, religious, linguistic or cultural tensions or hostilities; poor communications and transport infrastructure; a weak economy and declining levels of GDP per capita; high levels of corruption; a weak health system with high levels of infant mortality and low levels of life expectancy; limited education opportunities; and a degraded environment.

The state’s most important function is the provision of security. This means creating a safe and secure environment and developing legitimate and effective security institutions. In particular, the state is required to prevent cross border invasions and loss of territory; to eliminate domestic threats or attacks on the national order; to prevent crime; and to enable its citizens to resolve their disputes with the state and their fellow citizens. Another major political good is to address the need to create legitimate effective political and administrative institutions and participatory processes and ensuring the active and open participation of civil society in the formulation of the state’s government and policies. Other political goods supplied by states include medical and health care, schools and educational instruction, roads, railways, harbors and other physical infrastructure, money and banking system, a beneficial fiscal and institutional context in which citizens can pursue personal entrepreneurial goals, and methods of regulating the sharing of the environmental commons.

What is required is a model based on quantitatively based indicators that enables states to be classified strong, weak, or failed and ranked on a continuum of failure. Although indicators of state failure are often underdeveloped and unreliable in weak or failed states, it is possible to develop a model utilizing indicators grouped under the following classifications: Governance, Corruption, Economic, and Social Wellbeing. It could be contended that these concepts of responsibilities are essentially western in origin and a few states may argue that they are not applicable to their situation. However, these responsibilities should be seen within the broader context of the global human rights norms.


States can be defined and measured on the basis of the concept of state responsibility, that is, the extent to which states fulfill their requirement to provide political goods and services to their citizens. By utilizing indicators grouped under the following classifications: Governance; Corruption; Economic; and Social Wellbeing it is possible to locate states on a continuum of state strength, based on state responsibility, from strong through weak to fail. By adopting the concept of state responsibility as the basis for defining the success or failure of states, it is necessary to recognize that this has implications for the current conceptions of sovereignty based on the classical conceptions of authority.

By: khadar Da’ud Abdirahman
(MSc. Development Economics)
Tel: 063-4060400


Robert H. Dorff, “State Failure and Responding to It” (paper presented at the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, New Orleans, 2002).
Robert I Rotberg, “Failed States, Collapsed States, Weak States: Causes and Indicators,” in State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror, ed. Robert I. Rotberg (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2003).


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