Failed States and the Origins of Violence: A Comparative Analysis of State Failure as a Root Cause of Terrorism and Political Violence

  • Published

Failed States and the Origins of Violence: A Comparative Analysis of State Failure as a Root Cause of Terrorism and Political Violence, by Tiffiany Howard. Ashgate Publishing Company, 2014, 210 pp.

Tiffiany Howard, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas, investigates how dysfunctional developing countries become empowering agents for terrorists and a breeding ground for domestic conflict and civil violence against governments. Her enquiry is motivated by the void in quantitative research along with a general lack of agreement by scholars and practitioners on the environmental conditions that promote terrorism and political violence. She asserts that neither the geographic region that a failing and/or failed state is located in nor even its ethno-religious makeup causes people to be more likely to wage political violence against government as a legitimate means to make the necessary changes in improving public security and enhancing their economic well-being and quality of life. However, there is a strong relationship between the use of political violence by the populace against the state if that state is considered failing or failed in protecting and/or providing fundamental, life-essential services. Such an environment is also a potential haven for terrorist groups as well as a rich recruiting ground for terrorist organizations.

The author tests her thesis through rigorous statistical analysis using the Global Barometer Project (GBP) with data applied to four diverse regional case studies: sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa, Southeast and South Asia, and Latin America. In conducting the sub-Saharan Africa assessment, the author uses data from the 2005–2006 Afrobarometer survey component of the (GBP) data. Her statistical analysis indeed shows that deficiencies in country security, government corruption—coupled with the generally perceived illegitimacy of government—and government’s inability to protect property does lead to political violence consistent with the author’s theory. However, this regional assessment failed to identify proof that a lack of governance is a precursor to political violence, which is a foundational aspect of the author’s overall argument. She closes this regional study by emphatically concluding that her analysis supports the notion that failed states in this region could be the next propagator of internationally sponsored terrorist groups.

In conducting the Middle East and North Africa assessment, Howard used data from the 2009 Arabarometer component of the GBP data. Her findings were consistent with those found in the analysis of sub-Saharan Africa, and again, in line with her thesis. Of particular note, this regional study further highlighted the importance of the lack of public goods and the role of religious radicalism as destabilizers. The religious radicalism factor came as a surprise and is inconsistent with her thesis. She concludes her assessment by asserting that this region will remain a hotbed for terrorism and political violence.

Howard used data from the 2006–2008 Asian Barometer survey component of the GBP data to examine the Southeast and South Asia region. She observes data trends consistent with the previous regional assessment outcomes, but they appear far less definitive in character due to the economic progress under way throughout the area. Because the progress being made appears to be fragile at best, she remains concerned that Southeast Asia in particular is at risk for political violence going forward for the very reasons highlighted in the previous regional studies.

The Latin America probe was accomplished applying statistical data from the 2009 Latinobarometer component of the GBP data. The results of this review indicate that even when reforms are put in place (e.g., those that promote security, democratic principles/values, economic growth, and the ability to provide public goods), fragility and the potential for political violence can remain. In fact, economic growth in the region has led to an increasing dichotomy between rich and poor—the rich getting richer and poor, getting poorer—cultivating civil unrest in a region that has continuously been plagued by instability.

The author concludes her comprehensive investigation suggesting that the existing cyclic response waged by the international community in addressing failed/failing states does not resolve the underlying problems. Conducting military intervention fashioned to restore power and stability to legitimate government, then shortly departing, only to have to intervene at a later date, is not a plan for success. Fostering and fiscally supporting state building and economic development in fragile/failed states is the only way to circumvent political violence and terrorism.

The author does an admirable job bringing quantitative statistical rigor to a very complex topic. Her argument is persuasively supported and outcomes compelling, but she provides little in the form of new findings. However, Howard does provide much in the form of the statistical significance of the “micro-underpinnings” and the interplay of factors that lead to political violence and terrorist activities in failing and failed states around the world. For that this book is a notable accomplishment.

The book is well crafted in addressing the scope of the subject matter. The author provides all supporting statistical data and her analysis results in reader-friendly charts, tables, and diagrams. She presents the case studies logically and in a consistent manner throughout—an important feature for digesting the rich quantitative nature of this work. My only criticism of this body of work is that: (1) more current statistical data would have further enhanced the credibility of her results, (2) the scholarship referenced was in part somewhat dated while more current sources were available, and (3) the book reads much like a dissertation. Finally, the author admits a principal shortfall of the book is in addressing why some failed/failing states face political violence and others do not. A chapter tackling this phenomenon would have rounded out her scholarship very nicely and enriched the reader’s understanding. Nonetheless, this is an important contribution to the body of knowledge in an increasingly critical global field of study. Academics in the disciplines of economics, international relations, and political science as well as the military, government practitioners, international financial institutions, and state-building and economic-development-focused organizations will find this book most valuable.

Dr. David A. Anderson

US Army Command and General Staff College


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."