Somalia has been the top of Foreign Policy magazine's Failed State index for four years in a row [AFP]

Foreign Policy magazine issued its annual list of failed states on Monday, with Somalia leading the grim brigade of countries torn by violence and corruption.

While African countries make up seven of the top 10, the higher the ranking, the worse the situation. Iraq (ninth) and Afghanistan (seventh) also made it high up.

If that sounds dismal, it's not. That's actually a slight improvement for both countries; the two countries were in the top 10 last years as well. So, does this slight bit of good news mean that things will keep improving for Iraq and Afghanistan, or is this just a temporary blip before the effects of major US troop pullouts leave the countries vulnerable to sectarian violence?

"Keep in mind that we do this every year ... we have to be realistic about the time horizon," Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, told Al Jazeera. In other words, it's far too soon to tell. In the case of Iraq, the US has reduced its presence there and the government has not been able to become "instantly more effective".

However, Hounshell said that it is possible for a country to show dramatic improvement over time, "thanks to international help and their ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps".

He points to Liberia as a success story, and while he concedes that perhaps the West African country wouldn't make it on most people's list of safe places to visit, he emphasized the great gains made there.

"It's all relative", said Hounshell, with disarmament and the end to the civil war spelling progress.

"That's not nothing - people aren't dying."

A spectrum of failure

Geopolitically speaking, it seems hard to know what exactly to take away from the index. For example, when considering the indicators that show whether a state is failing, Foreign Policy looked at refugees, security apparatus and human flight, which might explain why Afghanistan, Haiti and Sudan are considered failed states.

But then, there are countries that seem slightly out place on the index. Iran, for instance, is 35th on the list, sandwiched between Rwanda and Togo.

"We're not saying that all of these countries are failed states," Hounshell said.

He said that Somalia is an "unequivocably failed state", but that countries like Iran, where there is a "monopoly of force," and a potential for instability due to the presence of "unresolved group grievances" (such as the mass protests after the 2009 presidential election) garner them a place on the list.

Still, even though the Chinese government could also be said to have a monopoly on force and attracts as much criticism for its crackdowns on dissidents much as Iran does, the country did not make it onto the list because, Hounshell explained, the Failed State Index is "not an index of freedom".

Furthermore, no matter how or why a country ends up being considered a failed state, Hounshell cautions against seeing the list as a justification for excessive foreign involvement in any of their affairs.

"My gut sense is that there's only so much you can do as an outside force ... There's these basket cases that remain at the top year in and year out," he said, adding that some of them "have been wards of the international community for years".

"The overarching point in all these failed states - it's a slog. It takes a lot of progress and a lot of hard work in a lot areas, simultaneously, to improve things."

Source: Al Jazeera