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The Concept, Causes and Consequences of Failed States: A Critical Review of the Literature and Agenda for Research with Specific Reference to Sub-Saharan Africa


  • Jonathan Di John

    (Univeristy of London, SOAS, London)


This article provides a critical review of recent literature that has attempted to define what a ‘failed state’ is and explains why such states emerge. It is argued that aggregate indices of ‘failure’ are misleading due to the wide variations of capacity across state functions within a polity. The focus on ranking states also distracts attention away from analyses concerning the dynamics of state capacity. Moreover, many of the definitions either compare reality to a Weberian ideal, or assume that violence is ‘development in reverse’, both of which are ahistorical and unhelpful as a guide to policy. The second part of the article assesses the contributions of functionalist, ‘new war’ and neo-Tillean approaches to explain state failure. The article finds that while these theories take concrete historical situations seriously, they have important theoretical and empirical shortcomings. Finally, the conclusion outlines an agenda for further research.Cet article offre un examen critique de la littérature récente cherchant à définir ce qu’est un État défaillant, ainsi que les raisons donnant lieu à leur émergence. Il considère que les indicateurs agrégés permettant d’établir qu’un État est défaillant sont tous trompeurs en raison de la grande variation qui peut exister au sein d’un même État quant à sa capacité à assurer ses différentes fonctions. Il est souligné que les classements détournent l’attention des analyses portant sur la dynamique variable de la capacité des États. Plusieurs approchent comparent, de plus, la réalité avec un idéal weberien, ou bien supposent que la violence est une forme de développement « à l’envers », ce qui constitue une présupposition anhistorique et inutile du point de vue de l’aide à la décision. La deuxième partie de l’article se penche en particulier sur les contributions fonctionnalistes, du paradigme des « nouvelles guerres », ainsi que des approches basées sur les théories de Charles Tilly. Bien que prenant en compte les réalités historiques, ces différentes approches ont toutes des points faibles, tant théoriques qu’empiriques, et la conclusion de l’article se base sur ces derniers afin d’élaborer un agenda de recherche futur à propos des États défaillants.

Suggested Citation

  • Jonathan Di John, 2010. "The Concept, Causes and Consequences of Failed States: A Critical Review of the Literature and Agenda for Research with Specific Reference to Sub-Saharan Africa," The European Journal of Development Research, Palgrave Macmillan;European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI), vol. 22(1), pages 10-30, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:pal:eurjdr:v:22:y:2010:i:1:p:10-30

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    Cited by:

    1. Lopez-Uribe, Maria del Pilar & Castells-Quintana, David & McDermott, Thomas K. J., 2017. "Geography, institutions and development: a review ofthe long-run impacts of climate change," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 65147, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    2. David Castells-Quintana & Maria del Pilar Lopez-Uribe & Tom McDermott, 2015. "Climate change and the geographical and institutional drivers of economic development," GRI Working Papers 198, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
    3. Theodore Ahlers & Hiroshi Kato & Harinder S. Kohli & Callisto Madavo & Anil Sood (ed.), 2014. "Africa 2050: Realizing the Continent's Full Potential," Books, Emerging Markets Forum, edition 1, number africa2050, August.
    4. repec:eur:ejisjr:106 is not listed on IDEAS
    5. Singh, C. & Bedi, A.S., 2012. "‘War on piracy’: the conflation of Somali piracy with terrorism in discourse, tactic and law," ISS Working Papers - General Series 543, International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS), The Hague.
    6. Leo de Haan, 2010. "Perspectives on African Studies and Development in Sub-Saharan Africa," Africa Spectrum, Institute of African Affairs, GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg, vol. 45(1), pages 95-116.
    7. repec:kap:porgrv:v:17:y:2017:i:4:d:10.1007_s11115-016-0351-5 is not listed on IDEAS

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