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My house in hell, according to Foreign Policy, Feature Photo: Coty Coleman, Photo: author

Foreign Policy’s photo essay Postcards from Hell features 60 countries deemed the world’s “most failed states.”

The phrase “failed state” quickly became part of my vocabulary when I first moved to Pakistan. Western media outlets continually ran stories about the danger of Pakistan becoming a failed state and questioned so-called experts about what might happen if the country’s nuclear weapons got into the hands of the fanatics. The Economist named Pakistan the “most dangerous nation in the world,” and recently Pakistan ranked #10 on the Failed States Index published at Foreign Policy.

Along with the rankings, Foreign Policy published Postcards from Hell, a collection of photos from each of the 60 countries listed. The website states:

For the last half-decade, the Fund for Peace, working with Foreign Policy, has been putting together the Failed States Index, using a battery of indicators to determine how stable — or unstable — a country is. But as the photos here demonstrate, sometimes the best test is the simplest one: You’ll only know a failed state when you see it.

If you follow the logic offered here, looking at a single photo should be enough to tell you about the political, economic and social situation in any given country. The 60 photos that follow in the essay include scenes similar to those shown often on the nightly news: burning buses, piles of trash, abject poverty, refugee camps, armed militia, bomb debris and sinister looking men riding around in tanks.

Matador Trips Editor Hal Amen in Cambodia: failed state 42

The captions make use of fallacious arguments and emotionally charged language to evoke feelings of fear and disgust. The photos and the language used serve to create distance between the reader, who is most likely in a country deemed ‘stable’ according to the index, and the people living in the ‘unstable’ countries represented by the photos.

Does anyone benefit from this type of sensationalized media? I’m not denying that there aren’t true humanitarian crisis situations that need to be documented or suggesting that the media should ignore events like suicide bombings and riots, but the assertion by Foreign Policy that life in those 60 countries is “hell” and that one single photo can determine a country’s success or failure is one that irks me.

I lived in Pakistan for three years. I never saw a pick-up full of turbaned ‘Taliban’ fighters careening through the streets. I never witnessed a bomb attack or a shooting. Yes, I had to deal with corruption. Yes, the roads were sometimes blocked due to riots or the movement of important politicos, but I didn’t feel like I was living in a failed state or the most dangerous country in the world.

I learned how to make biryani, danced bhangra at weddings and shopped in bazaars with Pakistani friends. Even when martial law was imposed, most people in Lahore continued with their daily routines as usual. If I only blogged about bomb attacks and political instability, I wouldn’t be representing what life was like in Pakistan, for me or for Pakistanis.

West Bank, failed state 54, Photo: Leigh Shulman

Yes, there was a refugee crisis in Swat, and Pakistan has its societal issues, but to represent a country or place as “hell” (or describe 60 countries that way) does nothing to connect readers to a place or humanize its people.

As expats and travelers who try to live like locals and be conscientious about the way we represent the places we go, I think we have a responsibility to offer alternate ways of viewing ‘failed states’ and countries that are mostly represented in a negative light by the mainstream media. Showing only poverty and chaos just furthers the process of ‘otherization’ and can shape the perceptions of readers and viewers toward a skewed reality.

There are factors that make certain countries and places more dangerous than others, but those factors should not define a country or a people. Earlier this week one of my Pakistani friends wrote a short note on my Facebook wall:

Thanks for writing about Pakistan. This country needs the kind of projection you are giving it, and I am sure your writing will help Pakistan to correct its perception.

As expats and travelers, what do our stories tell about the places we live and visit? Do we leave people with reinforcements of what they are bombarded with by other media, or do our stories and photos challenge mainstream perceptions? Do people ultimately feel connected with those we portray in what we share, or do people feel distanced and fearful?

I don’t want to gloss over hardship in what I share about life abroad or mythologize place, but I also don’t want to present one-sided stories that reduce a place to a single concept like a “Postcard from Hell.”

Community Connection

Do you think travelers and people who live abroad can make a difference in the way their friends, families and societies view the world? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

For further discussion on how photographs can influence perception of place, check out Perspectives on Poverty (and other African stories) .



About The Author

Heather Carreiro

Heather is a secondary English teacher, travel writer and editor who has lived in Morocco and Pakistan. She enjoys jamming on the bass, haggling over saris in dusty markets and cross-country jumping on horseback. Currently she's a grad student attempting to wrap her tongue around Middle English, analyze South Asian literature and eat enough to make her Portuguese mother-in-law happy. Learn more on her blog at

  • Paul Sullivan

    Great piece Heather. It was such an ignorant and arrogant list – you’re absolutely right when you say “Showing only poverty and chaos just furthers the process of ‘otherization’ and can shape the perceptions of readers and viewers toward a skewed reality.”

  • Leigh

    Great article, Heather.

    I found the Foreign Policy photos difficult to get through, not because the overall message is misleading, tailored to inspire fear and at time downright offensive, but because it was the same three or four types of photo over and over.

    As you said: Something burning. Something with trash in it. Someone with a suspicious look in their eyes. Someone with a gun.

    Nothing in this world can be encapsulated by one photo or in a few sentences.

  • julie


    Thanks for this. I believe the stories and photos we share and the ways we frame them are crucial. I’d like to see Foreign Policy put cameras in the hands of people who live in the places it indexed. This index is yet another example of Westerners viewing the rest of the world as other.

  • Sarah

    I couldn’t agree more, Heather. The FP piece clearly just dug up the “scariest” images they could find. The descriptions don’t provide any possible solutions, ways to help, or even leave any room for hope for any of these 60 “failed states.” And 60? Really? A quarter of our world is comprised of failed states? By whose standards???

    Instead of spending 5 years developing a way to sort out who wins and who fails, how about focusing on ways to bridge the gap between “us” and “them.” These places aren’t “Hell,” they’re peoples’ homes.

  • Carlo

    “Do you think travelers and people who live abroad can make a difference in the way their friends, families and societies view the world?”

    I think this is going to be the only way. No one else seems to be doing it.

  • duray

    Good job.
    To be honest I was little surprised to know that I am living in a failed state and my life here in Pakistan is hell. in my 25 years of life I have never seen a taliban or guys on tanks with turbans and guns or any other thing like that. Sure my country has problems, the biggest being corruption and then terrorism and poverty but then again which country doesn’t. The biggest terrorist attack was on twin towers. I see documentaries on homeless people of America,I saw what happened after the huricanes hit the areas where usually blacks lived and the aid was so slow it was near to nothing it made me cry watching that. So, my point is while Pakistan is definitely facing crisis.its not a failed state and we are not the most dangerous nation. Its all a propogenda,

    • Heather

      Duray – thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I love how you say, “I was a little surprised to know that I am living in a failed state and my life here in Pakistan is hell.”

      It shows how convoluted the media can be. The picture of what life is like in Pakistan that is portrayed by major news networks and magazines in the US is 100% different from what you and most Pakistanis experience on a day to day basis. It seems like two different countries/realities are being talked about.

      I can’t speak for all the other countries listed as I haven’t visited most of them, but I’m sure many other people would be surprised to find they are living in “hell” and see how their countries are being portrayed.

  • maryanne

    @Carlo, I know that my having lived and traveled and blogged in a lot of ‘failed’ states (or maybe just ‘failing’ or ‘dodgy’) over the years has allowed my friends and family back home to see that there is a whole lot more to those places than a lot of the media will show. I do think travellers and expats have a certain responsibility to show how ordinary and ‘unfailed’ things generally are in those places.

  • Hal Amen

    Excellent rebuttal, Heather. Have you sent the link to FP? They need to read this.

  • Rana

    The biggest criticism about World Bank and IMF is that they make the poverty reduction policies for developing countries while sitting in Washington and Davos. The critics argue how can you understand a culture and society without mixing with common people, walking in the streets and eating local food. Same is about the “Failed State Index.”

    They sit in Washington, hardly interact with local population. Their findings are mostly based on perception built by media and “Super Powers.”

    When in January this year I was going back to Pakistan after spending more than three years in Canada, I was questioning myself. I thought, what am I going to Pakistan for? Even on plane when I saw more than two dozen foreigners I thought “They are they going to Pakistan to die.”

    After living almost six months in Lahore, I noticed a couple of differences of 2006′s Pakistan and of 2010′s and one of them is Pakistan nationalism is too high, after Taliban and American threats Pakistanis have very strong sense of Pro-Pakistan sentiments.

    If anyone compares Pakistan with Afghanistan and Somalia it is very unfair. The latter two countries don’t have any institutions like judiciary, military, education etc. while the situation of these institutions in Pakistan is different.

    By the way the difinition of failed state is ” a state which is dangerous for world peace” and if this is the standard then America is a failed state.

    During my stay in Canada, I was bombarded by the speeches, debates and seminars that Pakistan will break up in next six months. I used to keep listening to this talk all the time.

    I always give important to your (Heather’s) opinion because you spent time in Pakistan and had strong interaction with locals. This media (like Foreign Policy magazine) built perception to a large extent is wrong.

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  • Nick

    Echoing everyone else – thanks so much for writing this, Heather, really great piece. I actually couldn’t get through all the photos because, as you (and Leigh) point out, they are all effectively the same.

    I also live in a “failed state”, though at merely number 43, perhaps it’s more of a failing state. Egypt does have manifest problems, at all sorts of levels, but it’s objective, honest journalism that is needed rather than this sort of sensationalism.

    On a lighter note, to paraphrase Bill Hicks (which I seem to do rather a lot in Matador comments!) – at least Hell has good music!

    • Heather Carreiro

      “Hell” (as defined by FP) has a lot of positive aspects.

      One thing I didn’t see in the photos though was white people. Maybe in FP’s definition of hell there is no space for us? Do only African, Arab and Asian people make up the world’s hell? Seems like it according to the photo essay. No photos of sinister white men with guns. No white people torturing anyone (a la Abu Ghraib) or keeping watch over caged prisoners in Gitmo. Maybe those images don’t exist according to the Failed States Index.

  • jamison

    It’s hard to define “failed state” so the term should be avoided. The phrase is used by powerful nations to impose themselves on others. They can say “this is a failed state and we are going to tell them what to do.” There are varying degrees of success for nations but unless a country has truly descended into chaos it shouldn’t be given the label “failed.”

  • Mike Collins

    Not sure what word is “in” these days so all I can say is Props, Kudos, or Awesome to Heather for a fantastic piece. I would venture to guess that anyone willing to spend an hour on the web could gather enough pictures to put any country on the planet in the “failed state” category.

  • Heather Carreiro

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    @Mike – I’ll take any of those words, and yes I’m sure we could make any country look like utter chaos with a highly selective photo essay

    @Jamison – So true. If a state is labeled as “failed” and a “threat to world peace,” well then that ‘justifies’ the more ‘stable’ countries going in to ‘take control’ and ‘fix’ the situation. Can’t believe how many quotes I had to use there since I believe a lot of those terms have no concrete meaning.

    @Rana – You bring up a really interesting point. The propaganda can make even native-born immigrants to Western countries start to think of their home countries as dangerous, chaotic places. Many of the “is it safe” emails I get are from Pakistanis thinking of repatriating.

    @Maryann – Yes – we should show as many ‘unfailed’ things and evidence of normalcy as we can to help show that the people who live in these demonized countries are human too.

  • Meliha

    Another great Matador article from Heather! Completely agree with so many things that were said.

    Thanks for telling the “other side of the story.” I’ve also had Pakistani expats tell me similar things about my blog ( as what your friend said to you on Facebook. They (Pakistani expats) told me that they really appreciate that I also try to tell good things about Pakistan. Obviously not everything is rosy (yes there ARE non-ideal situations that occur in Pakistan or things that probably won’t happen in the U.S.)…BUT there is still value to Pakistan, travelling/living there, and to the people who do live there.

    Thanks again for giving people a more complete picture. Keep up the good writing and eye opening articles Heather!


  • Matt K.

    You’re making the right argument here, Heather. I know what you mean by finding that alternate view of a “failed” state.

    In some college political science courses, I was surprised at some of the states that were considered “underdeveloped.” I have family ties to some the places he’d listed, I had seen and lived with the people, and honestly, their standards weren’t that much different from ours.

    What shocked me the most was the sense of alienation that hit me when I saw those lists go up on the markerboard. There was definitely a little guilt when I realized how we were placing ourselves on top of the world.

    Perhaps the thing we just can’t let go of is that sense of looking at the rest of the world like a human zoo, where Americans are the only normal ones. We have to realize that all of the world’s people eat, sleep, and love just like those from the more stable states. Socio-political situations, although extremely important, can never make one more or less of a human being.

  • Simone

    Most dangerous nation in the world? You only know a failed nation when you see one? How about you will only know one when you speak with its inhabitants, live on the ground? These are disappointment, sensational remarks. Honestly, I expected more from both FP and the Economist.

    There is no way possible Pakistan ranks as more dangerous than, say, Somalia. Talk to people there. Stay a while. I believe it’s worlds away from Pakistan. But I also believe the FP and Economist don’t particularly care. Sad.

    Great article, Heather. We should all be circulating this piece around, as much as possible!

  • Greg Kruse

    This is the second time I’ve commented on one of your pieces, Heather, so I obviously enjoy your work. It makes me think. I couldn’t agree more that it is a responsibility of all of us who travel extensively to try to help anyone who is interested better understand the countries we have experienced first hand. And, its a lot of fun, too.

    At the same time, having lived for about five years in both Kenya and Rwanda, three years in Burkina, and a year in Nigeria, and after traveling and working in 16 of the countries on that list of the 60 borderline or worse states, I think its important to recognize the frustrations experienced by people who call these places home. Chad and Haiti are among my favorite places, the people are wonderful, the food is great, and art and culture are rich. At the same time, if you really know these places, you can easily send a “Postcard from Hell” from either one of them. Close friends from both Kenya and Rwanda are very much aware of how far their governments are from providing the kind of environment they deserve and want their children to grow up in. People are honestly tired of dealing with the demeaning and impoverishing effects of lousy government, but they don’t see how to change it.

    That’s the other side of the coin, perhaps. That we also have a responsibility to help people from the “developed” world see the real issues that the people face in these countries. Let’s reduce that sense of distance, as you say, and create a sense of outrage. There are plenty of people in the USA right now who have a pretty healthy sense of outrage about their own government. Perhaps they will understand places like Kenya or Rwanda even better because of it. The differences are not as great as we are led to believe by simplistic labels like “Postcard from Hell.”

    An earlier comment suggested that America could fit the definition of a failed state. As time goes on, our civil liberties erode, and our government conducts itself like playground bully or a tin horn despot more and more, the definition seems to fit better all the time.

    I’m sure we could come up with quite a few great photos showing the hellish side of America, too. Hell is where ever you find it, and whatever you make of it.

    • Heather Carreiro

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Greg. I think you’re right, in many cases outrage should be the emotion we feel or attempt to elicit instead of fear. I really think this is the right attitude to have, and should be the goal of expats who live in these countries.

      “That’s the other side of the coin, perhaps. That we also have a responsibility to help people from the “developed” world see the real issues that the people face in these countries. Let’s reduce that sense of distance, as you say, and create a sense of outrage.”

      I think we need to share images and stories that humanize people (rather than “other” them) as well as make readers aware of the realities in which those people live.

  • This is Ali

    This article, seems to be written by individuals never been to Pakistan or may be they have seen Pakistan, through media only. People living in Pakistan certainly don’t think they are living in the so-called “Failed State”. Labeling Pakistan with certain phrases as “Do more”, ” Failed state”, or “The most dangerous place on earth” helps them get things their way from our leadership. In order to get away from one these labels, our leadership would bend backwards.
    For a change, how about labeling Pakistan as one the most geo-strategic country in the world. We have China sitting in the north, India in the east, Iran in the west and Russia hardly 80 kms from our border. And Afghanistan in the west as well. This is the most populous region in the world. Take that, whoever wrote about Pakistan being the failed state. Only reason India can’t have trade with the western region is because Pakistan sits in the middle. For China, Pakistan is the shortest route to the hot waters of Arabian sea. And for Pakistani demographics, almost 45 percent of the population is below the age of 40. Sure, there are problems in this country. But they are manageable problems and the youth has recognized those problems and we are moving to resolve those issues. So, in the near future, this country is going to be reckoned with. That is why this country is always kept under pressure so we never acknowledge our strengths and always worry about our weaknesses. Therefore, say what anybody wants, this country is one of the best places to live in. You know why, because this is ours. We belong to this country and this country belongs to us.

  • Trix

    Thanks for your response to this very irresponsible piece of journalism. I was similarly bemused to find out from FP that I was living in hell when I read this article. I’m currently living in rural Rwanda and although the people are poor and life is difficult for the majority of people here, in recent years it would appear that life has, albeit slightly, improved. A commitment to improving governance (not democracy), and getting rid of corruption and employing Rwandan cultural concepts to help build instiutions to reduce poverty seems to be succeeding. For a state that only 15 years ago suffered the tragedy of the genocide this for me equals remarkable progress. For me Rwandan is not a failing or failed state but one that is slowly but surely regenerating itself from a very disadvantaged position

  • Hamood

    Great piece Heather. I believe western media has a bias against Pakistan (I will even say an agenda against Pakistan). They do not want to project any thing positive coming out of there. Most of them have never visited Pakistan and do not want to hear first hand accounts of people who have. Pakistan is a developing state and has problems just like any other place. Pakistanis are to be blamed as well. We do not work hard enough in marketing and propagating a positive image contrary to one of our neighbors with similar problems that does a wonderful job of hiding its shortcomings.

  • Astley Henry

    I was so shocked by the lack of thought and rigour. FP has really deteriorated. Mnay thanks for your insight.

  • Siddiqullah Mohmand

    Thank you Heather for such a nice piece of article. I personally feel the media especially the mainstream media is not working responsibly and rather speak the tongue of politicos. But people like you can change this perspective of the readers about the so called ‘failed states’. I am sure you would have read about the Pakistan of 1960s and 70s which was a hub of tourists and they found Pakistan and Pakistani people the most hospitable people.

  • Siddiqullah Mohmand

    Kindly click on the link here for more about Pakistan of 1960s-70s;

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