Chaos States (2018-2019)

This project examined the local and national structures that emerge during periods of upheaval and conflict.

Traffic policeman (de facto authorities) in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo: Peter Salisbury

This project mapped networks of power, legitimacy, trade and resources at a local and national level in two ‘chaos states’ – Iraq and Yemen – and proposed workable policies to secure a more stable political order in both countries.


Total and partial collapses of state authority are no longer outliers in the international state system. A growing number of internationally recognised ‘states’ with formal borders and governments lack the capacity to implement even the most essential functions of governance, with non-state groups of various types stepping in to fill the void and provide basic services to the population.

This phenomenon, combined with the blurring of the lines between the formal, informal and illicit economies in such countries, gives the outward appearance of chaos and disorder.

Yemen and Iraq represent two examples of such ‘chaos states’ at different stages. Yemen is in the midst of a period of catastrophic fragmentation that has undermined any semblance of the state that existed prior to the current civil war. In Iraq, the breakdown of the unitary state post-2003 has led to cycles of conflict marked by a contest over power and legitimacy, and the establishment of weak institutions and unstable governments.  

Past attempts to devise and implement policy solutions for countries like Iraq and Yemen have been inadequate largely because they are underpinned by a limited, idealised notion of ‘the state’ that does not reflect realities on the ground and has repeatedly failed to provide the building blocks for a stable political order.

This project argued that a new approach to peace- and state-building in ‘chaos states’ requires a rethinking of the problem and a new, flexible concept of the state that seeks to understand and integrate existing networks of power and governance, rather than to remove and replace them.