The failed state of tea

Last month, Foreign Policy magazine published the 2012 Failed States Index. This is an indexed list, created annually by the Fund for Peace and published by Foreign Policy magazine. While there is some controversy surrounding the index, it does stand as an annual metric or scorecard about the current state of the world, and the individual nations that inhabit it.

When we think about Failed States, we think about widespread political and industrial corruption, unrestrained crime, individual suppression, class coercion, and stomach-wrenching poverty. The Failed States Index can make for depressing reading. However, the next time you have a cup of tea, I want you to think about Failed States. Why? Because two of the world’s largest producers of tea is listed in the Index. Not only are these major tea producing nations in that list, they are both in the top 30. I’ll tell you which nations they are below.

The next time you have a cup of tea, just remember that the contents of your cup might have been sent to you straight from Hell.

About the Failed States Index

The Fund for Peace began researching and producing the Index in 2005. They partnered with Foreign Policy magazine, because of its wide reach worldwide, to handle the publication and publicizing the Index. To produce the Index, researchers examine thousands of documents from around the world and create a ranking, based on the social, economic and political pressures 177 independent countries face. The data collected is quantified and statistically analysed to produce the Index. While it sounds simple, there is nothing simple about it – the process is complex and detailed. You will find a more detailed explanation here.

Here are the primary categories through which researchers attempt to understand and rank the nations:

  • Social Indicators
    • Demographic Pressures – Pressures on the population such as disease or natural disasters make it difficult for the government to protect its citizens or demonstrate a lack of capacity or will.
    • Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) – Pressures associated with population displacement. This strains public services and has the potential to create a security threat.
    • Group Grievance – When tension and violence exists between groups, the state’s ability to provide security is undermined and fear and further violence may ensue.
    • Human Flight and Brain Drain – When there is little opportunity, people migrate, leaving a vacuum of human capital. Those with resources also often leave before, or just as, conflict erupts.
  • Economic Indicators
    • Uneven Economic Development – When there are ethnic, religious or regional disparities, the governed tend to be uneven in their commitment to the social contract.
    • Poverty and Economic Decline – 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 the have nots.
  • Political and Military Indicators
    • State Legitimacy – Corruption and the lack of representativeness in the government directly undermine the social contract.
    • Public Services – The provision of health, education, and sanitation services, among others, are a key role of the state.
    • Human Rights and Rule of Law – When human rights are violated or unevenly protected, the state is failing in its ultimate responsibility.
    • Security Apparatus – The security apparatus should have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The social contract is weakened where this is effected by competing groups.
    • Factionalized Elites – When local and national leaders engage in deadlock and brinksmanship for political gain, this undermines the social contract.
    • External Intervention – When the state fails to meet is domestic or international obligations, external actors may intervene to provide services or to manipulate internal affairs.

What does this have to do with tea?

It has a lot to do with tea actually because Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Kenya are both failed states. Sri Lanka ranks 29 on the Index and Kenya ranks 16. Both nations produce enormous quantities of tea every year and contribute in a major way to the global tea market. These countries are not small producers and they represent a significant portion of the international tea trade. So much that if they were to stop producing tea immediately today, there would be a increase in international tea prices as the market adjusts to the restricted supply.

There are many other tea producing countries on the Alert and Warning segments of the list such as Malawi, Iran,  and Uzbekistan. However, their production is limited which reduces the global impact on the teacup in your dining room. Interesting note about Uzbekistan is that it uses forced labor, in the form of school children, to harvest crops.

…the schools empty of children, who are forced to pick the crop. Instead of educators, teachers become recruiters. Children are given daily quotas between 20 and 60 kilograms, depending on their age. – Foreign Policy, July/August 2012.

Needless to say, it would not be a terrible thing if Uzbekistan decided to get out of the tea industry.

A teapot from Hell

In the past, I’ve written about the poor state of affairs in the Fair Trade segment of the tea industry and while I am generally critical of the of management and bureaucratic failures that exist within Fair Trade, I understand the importance of it as a concept and that it exists to combat the issues present in these failed states. However, in seeing the Index, it really is hard to get a handle on how bad it is. There is a lot of marketing hype that goes into presenting many of the failed states countries as attractive to tourists and business and when we see them with pictures of beautiful landscapes, smiling workers and happy children it is hard to reconcile the fact that these places, in comparison to our own, are actually some of the worst places on the planet to live, work and die. 

It is, and should be, troubling to think that our money, spent on tea from these countries goes to support business and political regimes that may use things like corruption, discrimination, violence, oppression, human trafficking, forced labor, political imprisonment, torture, and more to deal with a collapsing social structure, a weakening social contract, a fractured economic infrastructure, and wildly unbalanced political practices. These countries represent the worst of all human existence in the modern world.

Tea is not the only global product to have to deal with the effects of a Failed State and I only highlight because of my interest. The more important idea to take away from this is that we ourselves are global citizens. The products we consume are products of the world at large, and in doing so we cannot, and should not completely forget our role in that. Doing so does a disservice to the people who work hard, under horrible conditions to pick and produce that tea. Tea farms, factories and companies, only exist in cooperation with local, regional and national governments. Does this mean that tea business owners and their organizations in these countries are part of the problem?

I’m not putting forward a feel-good call to action for you to donate time and money to Fair Trade organizations and charity groups, the problems and issues these countries face are far more fundamental than any external group or organization could begin to tackle. I am, however, asking that you understand your place in this and vote accordingly (which is your right in the First World, though I would argue that it is your duty and responsibility), for politicians who have the understanding, compassion and skill to oversee and guide their foreign affairs departments in handling these countries in ways in which they do no harm to the citizens who live and die there. The leaders of the First World may not be able to save these nations from themselves, but they can help, to a degree, and sometimes make things a little better. That means giving the right power to the right people.

How do you feel?

I would be interested to know what your thoughts are about drinking tea that specifically comes from Kenya or Sri Lanka? Does knowing that your money, however small, goes into a social, economic and political system that is corrupt, inefficient and dangerous move you to boycott tea from these two nations?


  1. Cinnabar says:

    In the case of Kenya, there are a lot of considerations that are very specific to the source of the tea. While I would not promote the teas coming out of the large plantations, I can confidently support the small-output specialty teas that are being produced by small-holder farmers under the oversight of the KTDA. These tea farms are owned by the tea farmers themselves, and the tea is sold at high enough prices to provide a living wage to the farmers. They have great pride in these tea products, and this small segment of the tea industry in Kenya is growing. The plantation model of tea production is a dying and oppressive legacy of colonialism, but that’s not the only system in which tea is produced, even in countries with huge output. A boycott of Kenya tea, based on an abstract understanding of the entire industry there would be very damaging to the tea farm owners and workers. In addition to just scoring and numbers, I think it’s useful to read the comments here: And also, for an alternative interpretation of the Kenya situation, please read this: (about the 2011 report but the points are still relevant).

  2. Peter says:

    @cinnabar – that oped piece is interesting and the way it approaches the Kenya’s Failed State ranking highlights the criticisms about the FSI. However, there are a couple things I take away from that author, but before I go into that I want to mention one of the criticisms about the FSI.

    That lies in the fact that the producers of the index use the highly marketable term Failed State, but did you realize that the United States is also ranked in the Index, so is Japan, Germany, Norway and Finland? (Finland ranks last, presumably making it the single most stable nation on Earth). And yet is called the Failed States Index even though a significant portion of the states on the list are not “failed”.

    While it is only a name, it seems to carry much weight, one writer has proposed that the terminology for the index be changed to state capabilities continuum. A name like that better represents what the entire list is, without the stigma of declaring a state failed. (source:

    Now, as to the writer of the oped piece. He works for a microfinance organization called Maono Initiative, which powerfully declares on its frontpage, “Approximately 75% of the population in Kenya does not have access to formal financial services.” The writer is only in Kenya volunteering because of the weakness of the state. If only 30% of a nation have access to financial institutions, what does that say about the stability of the economic and social structures that are needed to support these types of businesses? The writer himself goes on to say, “security needs closer attention, and there is still a lot more to be done to alleviate poverty and improve the quality of life. But amplifying these challenges is a real disservice to Kenyans.”

    I agree, but his comment also goes to show the weakness of the state itself. The writer’s stance in the defense of Kenya goes back to highlight the criticisms of the Index itself. By declaring these nations failed, it directly attacks the pride of the people who work hard every day to improve things and make life in these states more bearable – and it undoes their work.

    However, something called the State Capabilities Continuum just isn’t going to sell magazines and it isn’t going to hype the issues that state failure revolves around. A Failed State sounds like a big deal, a big final determination about the fate and future (or lack thereof) of a nation – there is marketing hype here – the publishers do not want a boring Continuum, they actually want people to read it, think about it, debate it and talk about it.

  3. Xavier says:

    I still have to read a book I bought on chocolate (including the fair trade one) and its impact on local populations.
    I guess I will find things quite similar to what is happening in the tea trade.

    As for not buying tea from there… would it work?
    I don’t think so because we are not really the main buyers out there but the multinationals or some other foreign countries are and they just want cheaper products.
    Also, who would be “punished” in the end? The workers.

    Then, how do you make the difference between a “good” and a “bad” tea?
    If you manage to really know while living at XX thousands kilometres, you are really good (and don’t believe that labels are the way to go, even big companies have one).

    And if you want to live according to the “good” standards (a really honourable thing), you will run into a lot of trouble because things are not produced in your own country anymore and you either don’t find a viable substitute or you have to pay it so much more that you won’t do it.

    Don’t think that I support the bad rulers/dictators/… I don’t. I just wanted to bring a little more complexity in the debate.

  4. Cinnabar says:

    @peter – yes, it is important to recognize the specific context that the op-ed comes from. I agree that it would certainly be more informative for the index to be called something more useful, but also recognize why they choose to use such a sensationalist name. There are important elements to recognize about the current conditions of a country overall, in terms of human rights violations, workers’ rights, poverty levels, environmental destruction, corruption, but I don’t think that avoiding commerce with the countries in which these issues are prominent accomplishes as much as increasing trade, which brings in money and resources, which ultimately should benefit the people. Specific to the tea industry, like I said, I think it’s important to know as much as possible about the source of the tea and the working conditions under which it was produced. Assuming corruption/exploitation based on a country’s overall statistics isn’t effective enough.

    More to your point about the condition of the “weakness of the state,” what matters to me is how the money from the tea industry impacts the people. If, for example in some imaginary “Failed State,” a government were selling really expensive tea and using the profits from the sale of that tea to capture and enslave additional workers from a neighboring country to work the tea fields, then supporting that tea industry in any way would be unconscionable. If, however, the money for the tea goes back to the community that produces the tea, providing a better life for the tea farmers, it’s hard to find fault in that, even if that pocket of agriculture exists within the larger picture of a country where people are suffering under harsh conditions.

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