Conceptualizing the ‘Failed State’: The Construction of the Failed State Discourse

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Beth Thiessen


The concept of the ‘failed state’ emerged in the 1990s to describe and explain why states residing outside the Western world do not function as advanced states. The failed state narrative has inherent conceptual limitations and is based on flawed assumptions that obscure its utility. These so-­‐called failed states are held against a Western-­‐centric norm and a universalized spectrum of state development. The concept is now widely used in the context of global security, peacekeeping, poverty reduction, humanitarian assistance and good governance. The application of the narrative within the realm of policy means Western actors use the concept to promote their own security and development interests. This translates into an inability to formulate effective policy responses to society-­‐wide challenges. This essay examines the failed state narrative by exploring how the state is theorized in the context of failed states, and how the narrative is plagued with neocolonial underpinnings, definitional ambiguity, western centrism and analytical reductionism.