This article provides a critical review of recent literature that has attempted to define what a ‘failed state’ is and explains why such states emerge. It is argued that aggregate indices of ‘failure’ are misleading due to the wide variations of capacity across state functions within a polity. The focus on ranking states also distracts attention away from analyses concerning the dynamics of state capacity. Moreover, many of the definitions either compare reality to a Weberian ideal, or assume that violence is ‘development in reverse’, both of which are ahistorical and unhelpful as a guide to policy. The second part of the article assesses the contributions of functionalist, ‘new war’ and neo-Tillean approaches to explain state failure. The article finds that while these theories take concrete historical situations seriously, they have important theoretical and empirical shortcomings. Finally, the conclusion outlines an agenda for further research.
European Journal of Development Research (2010) 22 (1) 10–30; [doi:10.1057/ejdr.2009.44]