If Detroit Were a Country, Would It Be a Failed State?

The city of Detroit has sorrows to spare. Its government -- officially, as of Thursday -- can't pay its bills. Its police don't arrive in time to stop criminals, and its ambulances don't arrive in time to save lives. Its citizens are fleeing in droves. It's likely the most dysfunctional municipality in the United States. All of which got us wondering: If Detroit were a country, would it be considered a failed state?

To answer that question, we reached out to the folks at Fund for Peace, who put together our annual Failed States Index (FSI), for help. They applied their CAST framework and methodology (the same set of indicators they use for the index) to Detroit and -- after pointing out the risks of comparing apples to oranges, and that scoring a country is very different from scoring a non-state entity -- came back with this: With its score of 59.5, Detroit falls into the category of "borderline" states (the higher the score, the worse off the state).

If Detroit were a country, it would be doing slightly better than states like Brazil (62.1) and Kuwait (59.6). But it would be slightly worse off than Mongolia (57.8), Romania (57.4), and Panama (55.8). Still, Motown remains a long way from the ranks of failed states like Somalia (113.9) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (111.9). Overall, it would be ranked 128th on our index; the United States as a whole (33.5) ranks 159th.

How did the Fund for Peace come up with these results? Its scoring system assesses countries (or, in this case, a city) using primary-source data across a series of 12 indicators of different types of pressures on government institutions. While the group decided that one of those indicators -- "refugees/internally displaced persons" -- did not apply at the city level (despite the city's serious homelessness problem), all of the other potential pressures -- bad demographics, poverty, human flight and brain drain, among them -- are, in fact, factors in the Motor City's current woes.

"Any jurisdiction will face certain pressures, and that is what this -- albeit rough -- analysis of the city of Detroit has attempted to capture," Failed States Index Co-Director J.J. Messner said in an email to Foreign Policy.

Here's a closer look at some of the reasons Detroit landed where it did in the rankings:

It faces serious human flight/brain drain issues

In this category, Detroit scores a 6.5 (the U.S. as a whole scores 1.0). For context, that makes it worse off than Syria (6.2) and at the same level of South Sudan (6.5), according to the Fund for Peace's analysis. In a recent poll commissioned by the Detroit News, 40 percent of respondents said they planned to move away from the city within the next five years; more than half said they would live in another city today if they could.

It struggles with poverty and economic decline

Detroit's economic decline from the days when it was the world's car factory is legendary. Today, Detroit faces a per capita income of just $15,261. Why is this such an important source of pressure? According to the Fund for Peace, "poverty and economic decline strain the ability of the state to provide for its citizens if they cannot provide for themselves and can create friction between the 'haves' and 'have nots.'" Detroit's score here is a 6.5 (the U.S. as a whole is 3.2) -- again, not far off from Syria (6.4).

Its security apparatus is dysfunctional

To be effective, a state's security apparatus should have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; in Detroit, that no longer seems to be the case. In addition to its police response times, which have become notorious, and its high volume of gun and gang violence, some worry that what started as volunteer "community policing" groups have crossed a line into vigilante justice. Detroit's scores a 5.5 on the security apparatus indicator, giving it a similar ranking to Rwanda (5.5) and Sierra Leone (5.4) in this category; the U.S. scores a 2.2.

Where does Detroit do well? While it consistently scores worse than the U.S. as a whole in each indicator, it outperforms all states in the Failed States Index's top 60 in the realm of "Public Services," with a score of 3.4 compared to America's 2.4 (though it gets a few knocks for the poor quality of its sewage system and its public school system.) It also remains on steadier ground when it comes to "Human Rights and Rule of Law," with a score of 4.1 compared to America's 3.5. This, according to the Fund, is "the state's ultimate responsibility."

This week certainly brought more grim news for a city that's had more than its fair share. But Detroit, it seems, hasn't failed just yet.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images


'Act of Killing' Director: How Did We Forget 'One of the Biggest Massacres of the 20th Century?'

Anwar Congo wraps a piece of wire around a man's neck, explaining that you can kill someone this way "without spilling too much blood." A few moments later, Congo is dancing the cha-cha.

Opening in the United States on Friday, the documentary film The Act of Killing chronicles the 1965-1966 mass killings in Indonesia, when Congo and other anti-communist gangsters killed upwards of 500,000 alleged communists, Chinese-Indonesians, and intellectuals. The killings took place after a failed coup that led to the fall of Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, and rise of the dictator Suharto (text at the beginning of the film mentions the "the direct aid of Western governments" in the atrocities, which included American support).

"The film asks us to look at a period of history that we have forgotten, and I think one of the big questions that it asks is: 'How could we have forgotten one of the biggest massacres of the 20th century?'" the American director Joshua Oppenheimer reflected in an interview with Foreign Policy.

Oppenheimer's unconventional documentary is a film within a film that follows Congo and other preman, or gangsters, in the city of Medan as they re-enact killings from 48 years ago in the style of different genres from American cinema. The documentary presents a historical narrative that counters the Indonesian government's account of events, which largely overlooks the killings and praises those, like Congo, who stopped the spread of communism in the vast archipelago nation. (Golkar, Suharto's political party, remains a powerful force in Indonesian politics today.)

In one scene, Oppenheimer asks Adi Zulkadry, an executioner, about human rights, the Geneva Conventions, and the International Criminal Court. "'War crimes' are defined by the winners," he replies. "I'm a winner. So I can make my own definition."

In Indonesia, where a censorship board has the power to ban certain films and books, The Act of Killing has been shown only in private screenings since Oppenheimer fears it would be banned otherwise. With over 500 screenings so far, the film has provoked a media reaction and broader discussion in the country, with one Indonesian reviewer stating, "I just wonder how we can make peace with ourselves as a nation and society if we keep on refusing to embrace the bitter truth of history. Our journey to reconciliation is far from over."

"The mainstream media [in Indonesia] essentially broke what was really a 47-year silence about the genocide," Oppenheimer said. "There had been the occasional piece here and there alleging that the story wasn't as the official history said, but there had not been systematic exposés or investigations into what had happened where they actually asked perpetrators to describe the killings."

The documentary paints an unflattering portrait of Indonesia, highlighting the nexus between corruption and politics and a lingering culture of impunity. Scenes shot at a Pancasila Youth rally (a paramilitary group that was involved in the killings, and that counts Congo as a member) show former Vice President Jusuf Kalla praising members and arguing that gangsters are necessary in Indonesia. Several candidates for the country's upcoming presidential election in 2014 are facing allegations of human rights violations.

"You don't have a lot of hope when you look at the official political movements in Indonesia, but I think there is a lot of hope when you look at the thirst for, the hunger for a genuine understanding of the nation's past, and I feel much more hopeful than I did a year ago," Oppenheimer noted.

Asked about what it's like to be a foreigner making a film about such a sensitive period in Indonesian history, Oppenheimer, who began talking to survivors of the killings while making another film in Indonesia, The Globalization Tapes, recalled a threat he received shortly after the film screened in Toronto. He was told that he was lucky not to be living in Indonesia because the film would be called "The Act of Being Killed." (One co-director of the film and other crewmembers are listed as "anonymous" for safety reasons.)

"They [Indonesians] could not make this film safely, we didn't know what the risks would be in approaching the perpetrators, but we knew that they would be greater for an Indonesian," he said. "I think this is a film that could not have been made by an Indonesian director."

The film has prompted a U.K.-based Indonesian activist group to launch a campaign demanding a government apology for the mass violence -- something Oppenheimer supports. "Until there is an apology there will be no rewriting of the nation's school curriculum and acknowledgement that genocide is wrong -- not something to be celebrated," he explains.

But while the film has inspired activism and won critical praise, it's also raised questions regarding just how much the participants knew about the movie they were making. Oppenheimer said that while Anwar Congo, the central figure in the documentary, denounced the film at a Pancasila event before seeing it, he later told Oppenheimer it was an honest portrayal.

"He and I are in touch every few weeks in part because I want to make sure he is not blamed for the film and if he were, we want to be able to move him or help him," Oppenheimer said. "But also because I really care for him, he and I went through a five-year very painful, very intense emotional journey together and it will always be a part of me, what we went through."

Oppenheimer's next film, The Look of Silence, will explore the other side of the conflict by following a family that learns how their son was killed and then confronts the killers.

But his upcoming projects may not bring him back to Indonesia. "I may be able to get into Indonesia," he said. "I am not aware of any official ban, but I don't know that I would ever get out again."

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