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Forecasting Failure?

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

A perennially relevant question is making the rounds again in the wake of the Arab Spring: Why can't anyone predict revolutions? (See Sina's "quote of the week," for example.) The issue is again raised in this piece by Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshell, in conjunction with Foreign Policy's seventh annual publication of its Failed States Index (FSI).

The article seems geared toward explaining why the FSI didn't "predict" the Arab Spring, and it discusses the fact that indices are generally better at providing snapshots rather than acting as crystal balls. It also notes that while the FSI has captured some elements of political destabilization in the Middle East, it has missed others. Experts quoted in the article note that revolutions may be inherently difficult to predict, due to the so-called "demonstration effect" (whereby revolutions, aided by satellite television and other advances in communication technology, allegedly spread by contagion) and other factors.

But should we even be looking to the FSI to predict political transitions? It seems as though this discussion is conflating two different, if potentially related, phenomena. One is the propensity of a state to "fail" (see: Somalia),  and the other is the likelihood of political transition from authoritarianism. While some "potential for political transition" states - let's call them PPT states - may indeed be failing states, not all PPT states may be candidates for state failure. Indicators for the former may not necessarily be relevant for the latter, and vice versa. Strong authoritarian states may score highly on indicators of state capacity, while simultaneously being ripe for political transition.

(For what it's worth, according to the Index methodology page, the twelve indicator categories used (in conjunction with other sources) to make up the Failed States Index include:  Demographic Pressures, Refugees/IDPs, Group Grievance, Human Flight, Uneven Development, Economic Decline, Delegitimization of the State, Public Services, Human Rights, Security Apparatus, Factionalized Elites, and External Intervention. The FAQ link to 'more information' is down, so I couldn't glean which particular indicators were used for the categories.)

Moreover, even PPT states may not themselves be candidates for transitions to democracy. An index for the sub-category of candidates for transition to democracy might want to take stock of several additional indicators, including perhaps: presence of independent media, informed public opinion, strong civil society, politically active/knowledgeable citizenry, presence of 'culture of rule of law', resilient state institutions, and so on.

This is not to say that I think questing after a perfectly predictive model makes sense; I do agree with the article's explanation of the limits of indices, as some of our past posts on this topic have also noted. Still, it's useful to sort out exactly what we're measuring, and why. And I can't help but wonder: does the "why can't we predict these things" question deserve a better answer from us than "we just can't"?

Photo Credit: IRIN Photos (on Flickr)

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