Sunday, 26th June, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
Most newspapers reported in their recent editions that Bangladesh has improved by one position in the list of countries likely to become failed states. Last year, Bangladesh had figured 24th and this year it is 25th. Some of the reports have tried to give a spin that Bangladesh is making a move in the right direction.
What these reports have not described is that countries have been rated on the index into critical, in danger, borderline, stable and most stable where Bangladesh is in the list of those countries considered in danger of failing. Almost all the critical countries are in Africa except Pakistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia; Iraq in ME and Haiti in the Caribbean.
The African countries are in critical danger of failing primarily because of tribal conflict. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen are in the same category because of terrorism. In fact, Pakistan and Yemen are in the critical list because “state ideology and state institutions abet terrorism.”
The group of countries in danger of failing in which Bangladesh finds itself is a large one. Again, Africa makes up the majority of the countries in this group. Among South Asia countries, Nepal has been placed at 27th and Sri Lanka at 29th, with Bangladesh where 2 out of 5 people live below the poverty line, at the top of the list. Surprisingly, China and Iran have also been named as countries in danger of failing!
There is a complicated criterion for assessment for placing countries in the various categories. These are called “pressures on the state” and include demographic pressures, refugees, group grievances; human flight; uneven development; economic decline; de-legitimization of the state; public grievances; human rights; security apparatus; fractionalized elites; and external interference.
Nepal and Sri Lanka have problem with many of the issues that are considered for judging whether a nation is failing and if so how close it is to ailing. Bangladesh has little or no pressure from many of these issues. The issues of economic decline, refugees, external interference, are not there while the other criterions are not present in any serious proportion to make Bangladesh so close to becoming a failed state as concluded in the failed States list.
Nevertheless Bangladesh is close to failing as a state as the Failed States Index has predicted but for entirely different reasons. It is in the nature of its politics where the two mainstream parties cannot agree even to a minimum level of consensus on issues of national development that the seeds of Bangladesh becoming a failed state are embedded. Of course issue of pressure of population, fractionalized elites and uneven development creates that extra pressure for pushing Bangladesh into the category of countries in danger of failing but these are not issues that are insurmountable as in case of countries fighting to remain afloat from failing.
Bangladesh’s case for a place in the Failed List Index in the category of those in danger of failing is due to the failure of its politics and politicians. In Sri Lanka ethnic differences and more than 25 years of civil war has turned the country on its head. In Nepal an often oppressive monarchy encouraged large section of the people, the Maoists, to rebellion with external assistance and destroyed its fragile fundamentals of statehood. Bangladesh has not had any of these massive problems for successful statehood. In fact, in 1971 its 75 million people came together under one banner responding to the call of Bangabandhu, something unique in the annals of history.
In addition, Bangladesh is an egalitarian society where the rich poor divide has not yet become provocative or dangerous; something that quality politics can easily handle. Feudalism has not been a strong factor to set the people of Bangladesh against each other The people of Bangladesh have twice in 25 years gotten together to overthrow colonialism, once in 1947 against the British and again in 1971 against the oppressive neo-colonialism imposed by the Pakistani regime and have developed common bonds to fight forces of oppression
Bangladesh has also not been subjected to dangerous and divisive forces that have brought the African national critically and dangerously close to failing. The Europeans have been very bad colonizers and what is happening today in Africa, the civil turmoil, are largely due to the way the European colonizers have cut across tribal and ethnic fabric of Africa to create independent states.
It is the conflicting nature of politics of Bangladesh as it evolved after 1971 and silly issues over which the two mainstream political parties have been fighting that are reasons why today stand Bangladesh faces the prospects of failing as a state. Most of the criterion that have been used to categorize states as going the way to become failed ones could easily be overcome in the two mainstream parties could agree on a minimum agenda of national development that does not seem to be the case. The only other danger that could push Bangladesh towards failing is the effect of climate change.
The most surprising revelation of the Failed State index is to see Iran at 35 dangerously close to failing. China at 81 is also dangerously close to failing as a state. It is not possible here to go into analysis of the criterion on which these two countries have been placed as ones dangerously close to failing. It would nevertheless be useful worth noting that both Iran and China have survived as independent states as long as one can remember. These countries are in fact the cradles of civilization.
Why these two countries would now be dangerously close to failing is difficult to contemplate. True they may have certain problems of internal nature but that such problems, like political democratization in China, would destroy thousands of years of statehood is difficult to contemplate. Incidentally, Iraq is also in the critical list for becoming a failed state that contradicts the claim of US success there; that Iraq would see the beginning of a new era of multi-ethnic, multicultural society living in peace.
The Failed State list is the produce of two US based organizations, Foreign Policy and The Fund for Peace. The 2011 annual collaboration is the 7th the two organizations have jointly brought out. President Bush had said in 2002 that the US is threatened less by conquering states than by failed ones in reference to Al Qaeda growing out of Afghanistan that was by all accounts a failed state by 9/11. US Defense Secretary Bill Gates has said over the next 20 years, the gravest threats for US would come from failed states. The attempt of the two organizations to bring out the list of Failed States is to address this concern
The fear of international threat posed by failed states is overstated. Majority of the states that are failing in Africa are a threat to themselves and those dying are their own in their own hands. Even the co-relation of failed states syndrome with so-called Islamic terrorism is also overstated. Somalia and Chad, perilously close to failing as a state, with predominantly Muslim poses no threat internationally whereas Pakistan and Yemen that poses the gravest international terrorist threat have functional governments suggesting that only those states can pose threat internationally that have functional systems working, albeit weak ones.
There is enough issues in the way the Failed State Index is finalized for taking a critical look at the motive of the authors. They seem to be providing the US foreign policy makers a platform for its theory of pre-emptive strike that it invented by going into Afghanistan.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.