Introducing the MIFFs

There’s a new kind of state (country states, not US states, just so we’re clear) emerging: MIFFs, Middle Income Failed-Fragile states.  These MIFFs are classified as middle-income states in the World Bank list of countries by income category, but they have highly unstable governments and a lot of conflict.  They are—or are close to being—failed states.  It used to be that failed states were small, poor, less powerful (in the global scheme of things) states, and it used to be that states stabilized before they became wealthy.  Apparently this is no longer the case. The MIFF countries are typically rich in resources, so they have money, but are highly unstable and underdeveloped.  A growing number of countries in the Middle East, West Africa, and South Asia are considered MIFFs.

Though the MIFFs are middle-income when income per person is measured, they contain a large portion of poor people.  17% of the world population that lives on less than $1 a day—the world’s poorest group of people—live in MIFFs, compared to the 10% who live in lower-income but more stable countries.  The MIFFs also hold 40% of the world’s conflict, evidence that their governments are highly unstable.  In the 1960s, however, only about 10% of conflicts took place in middle-income countries and in 2005 the MIFFs had less than 1% of the world’s poorest people.  Clearly, the MIFFs are growing rapidly as formerly poor countries become wealthier without any improvements in governance.

Why is this a big deal, you may be wondering?  Why does it matter that an increasing number of wealthier states have large pockets of poverty and conflict instead of the poorer states?  Well, these MIFFs pose several problems for the West.  For one, they often do not need financial or military aid, which means they cannot be influenced by Western governmentsTake Pakistan for example.  The US suspended $800 million in aid as a warning that the US was unhappy about the way Pakistan handled the Osama Bin Laden affair and wanted Pakistan to step up its fight against militants.  Pakistan, a MIFF, was not impressed.  The suspended aid was worth less than 1% of GDP, and so Pakistan had no reason to cooperate.  Since Pakistan is a major player in the fight against al-Qaeda and Taliban militants the US needs their cooperation, but if Pakistan doesn’t bat an eye at aid restrictions the US is going to have to find some new tactics.

The MIFFs also pose a problem for anyone who hopes to reduce world poverty.  As I mentioned earlier, the MIFFs have a large chunk of the world’s poorest, meaning that they need a lot of aid and development assistance.  Couple that with unstable, corrupt governments and overall wealth, however, and you can see why it might be difficult for aid to reach any of the impoverished populations.  The traditional way of giving aid, which is part of the UN millennium development goals, is going to have to change, since it has been designed to work in poor but stable countries like Tanzania.  And since these fragile but middle-income states are large states considered important to the many powerful developed nations, the effects of their struggles and conflicts will be felt on the global stage.  We are already seeing that with states like Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Tunisia, and the negative external effects of fragile, conflict-ridden states are becoming too large to ignore.

As the MIFF category grows, the Western world is going to have to re-think a lot of things.  Economic aid and humanitarian aid are going to have to be restructured to accommodate these states, as middle-income countries do not have the same development and financial needs as do low-income states.  And, importantly, economic development is no longer a sign of stability, which means we have to change the way we think about the world.

Michelle Bovée is a SISGI Group Program and Research Intern focused on international affairs, economic development, and responsible tourism. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit


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