Failed cities?

Everyday life in some western cities is often more dangerous than living in so-called 'failed states'. Is it thus time to re-scale security analysis?


"NOLA against crime". New Orleans protest against the rise in violent crime.The Voice of Eye/Flickr

According to a 2012 study by Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad y la Justicia Criminal Public (Citizens Council for Security and Criminal Justice), it is considerably more dangerous to live in New Orleans, United States, than Mosul, a city in war torn northern Iraq. Nonetheless, we hardly consider the USA a failed state, while Iraq is consistently presented as a collapsed state immersed in chaos and violence.

Such claims call into question the continuing utility of concepts like ‘failed states’ – used to label countries where sovereign governments are considered to have failed in fulfilling their sovereign responsibilities – and paves the way for a new way of thinking security which transcends fixed, state-centred analyses.

In sum, if we want to comprehend today’s world, we must reflect on to what extent thinking merely in terms of state borders is helpful. Does it continue to provide useful answers or does it merely act to obstruct relevant processes and dynamics which would deepen our understanding of the causes, processes and solutions to contemporary security? Indeed, in order to understand contemporary violence and security one must look to a multipler of scales: global, national and local and those hidden in between.

The failed states consensus

Since the end of the Cold War, a broad consensus formed which attributes international 'threats' to a series of so-called failed states. As Professor Nasser notes, the attacks of September 11 2001 and the subsequent invasions on Iraq and Afghanistan, served to reinforce this existing trend; the idea being that in the age of globalised terror, the US and other major powers were more vulnerable than ever to threats from groups embedded in chaotic, ungovernable states.

Research agendas, politicians and the media have also played their part in consolidating the consensus. A relevant points of reference on this process is the Failed States Index, annually published by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace. The index has been annually published since 2005 and ranks states from those considered in critical conditions to those perceived as most stable.

The rank is arrived at by 12 categories of analysis that range from uneven development to economic decline. Finally, states are ranked into Most Stable states, Stable states, Borderline states, States in danger, and States in critical condition. Foreign Policy magazine published the eighth edition of the Failed States Index in 2012.

In an article on openDemocracy, in 2006 Mariano Aguirre defined a Fragile or Failing state as one which:

" Is unable to control its territory or large parts of its territory and guarantee the security of its citizens, because it has lost its monopoly on the use of force...It is no longer able to uphold its internal legal order...is no longer able to deliver public services to its population or create the conditions for such delivery."

The subject has since been raised on openDemocracy by Professor Takis Pappa. Concerned with the trajectory of Greek’s economy within the European crisis, Professor Pappa argues that Failed states, according to the definition provided by the Crisis States Research Centre of the London School of Economics, are countries that can no longer reproduce the conditions of their own existence and therefore, are under threat of imminent collapse.

Much has been said about the limitations of the Failed States framework in light of its questionable explanatory power and politicised use within international relations and diplomacy. However, I would argue, it is time to move up the needle and transcend commonplace criticisms. As Mary Kaldor signals, boundaries between war, organized crime, human rights violations and interpersonal violence are becoming increasingly blurred; security and insecurity take shape in substantially different forms from those traditionally adopted by institutional guidelines and political jargon, take AbdouMaliq Simone’s conceptualisation of security as ‘endurance’ in this Cities in Conflict series for example. We urgently need to reject binary perspectives – civilian or military, public or private and ultimately, war or peace. Equally, we should refuse to think about contemporary conflicts as either global or local processes. 

Failed cities?

In the current context, to live in cities encompassed by a national context of formal peace is often more dangerous than to live in states deemed failed. Foreign Policy magazine itself published in 2008 a list of the most violent cities in the world. Of the five cities that topped the list, only one - Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea – integrated a State considered failed.

Other indicators express similar trends, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico for example, is often cited as the most dangerous city in the world and yet Mexico itself is not considered a failed state. When comparing crime rates and violence in American cities against cities within Failed States, things appear even more unclear: many agencies indicate that it may be more dangerous to live in Detroit or New Orleans than in many states leading the Failed States Index released this week.

A survey periodically conducted by the organization Small Arms Survey suggests that 9 out of 10 violent deaths occur in countries in situations of "peace", i.e. outside of the context of political conflict recognized. According to the 2009 report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), transnational organized crime generates annual profits higher than the GDP of most countries - enough to be considered one of the 20 largest economies in the world. All this data points to flows that do not respect State boundaries but may in fact gain some level of concreteness in urban formations. Cities give transnational flows faces, names, and stories. The escalation of urban violence, often within States in situations of institutionalized and formal peace and considered somewhat fragile seems to be today, the largest source of uncertainty.

In order to fully understand such scales of security, we must transcend purely state-centric frameworks of analysis and work towards a more encompassing way of thinking about contemporary security and insecurity. To take on Saskia Sassen’s advice we must work to disassemble such reified conceptual frameworks of 'failed states' and indeed 'failed cities' with the hope that it will help us move forward toward a more nuanced explanation of socio-spatial organization.

While it may seem prevalent to think about cities as a framework to address some of those aforementioned challenges, since cities are undoubtedly frequently the theatres of contemporary conflict; such re-scaling of security analysis should not mean the reification of another fixed category. Indeed, such re-scaling requires not enabling the rationalization, diffusion, translation, adaptation and adoption of any such reified categories so that new ranking systems, equally decoupled from reality, are developed.

Au contraire, I would argue that assemblage, disassemblage and reassemblage are tools of analysis that allow us to grasp the crafting of emergent processes that are both global and situated, fixed and dynamic.


Kaldor, Mary. In Defence of New Wars, in: Stability, 2, 4, 2013.

Nasser, Reginaldo. Os Estados Falidos: Novas Ameaças e novas oportunidades. in Nasser, Reginaldo (Org.) Os conflitos internacionais em múltiplas dimensões. São Paulo: UNESP, 2009.

Sassen, Saskia. Re-assembling the urban. Urban Geography, 29, 2, 2008.

About the author
Manoela Miklos is a PhD Candidate in the postgraduate programme International Relations San Tiago Dantas (UNESP, UNICAMP, PUC-SP), São Paulo, Brazil. Also Professor of International Relations at the Universidade Anhembi Morumbi and teaching assistant at PUC-SP - Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. Her research interests centre on cities and the "new wars", or the urban dimension of contemporary conflicts.