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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

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