Somalia has been what many would describe as the quintessential “failed state” since the inception of the Failed States Index (FSI). Struggling with an occasionally unforgiving semi-arid topography in much of the North, widespread poverty as a result of tight competition for few resources, and mired by high levels of insecurity, an inchoate political system, and a disjointed sovereignty, Somalia has performed poorly in virtually every indicator measured on this and other global indices.

Somalia today represents a hollow shell of the state it was prior to the collapse of its government in 1991. Although the international community still recognizes Somalia as an integral nation, much of the North is beyond the governance of Mogadishu — the de facto independent Somaliland and neighboring Puntland make up a substantial chunk of the country’s territory. Today, an ailing post-transitional government headed by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud continues to make strides to unite the autonomous northern regions and return Somalia to the peace and unity it once enjoyed. Because of these and other state pressures, it may come as little surprise that Somalia is once again at the top of the FSI for the sixth year in a row.

Overall trends seen in the last five years of the FSI underline many of Somalia’s destabilizing factors, though small improvements have been more plentiful than expected. Despite some gains in the 2011 FSI, last year saw the worsening again of many indicators as security and development declined and insurgency, crime, and lawlessness increased, even as al-Shabaab’s insurgency was largely quelled around the capital city. Somalia’s 2012 FSI score was actually the highest ever seen in the history of the FSI.

Notwithstanding, the 2013 FSI — which included the numerous advancements and improvements in security won in 2012 — sees Somalia improving in six indicators and actually earning its lowest score ever. The Security Apparatus and State Legitimacy indicators improved due to gains against al-Shabaab and a marked decrease in maritime piracy. The near-unanimous passing of a new Provisional Constitution, the inauguration of the Federal Parliament of Somalia, and a peaceful democratic presidential election have also demonstrated that a confident government could make strides even in uncertain times. Additionally, the Group Grievance score also improved, likely due to a decrease in discrimination and violence against religious and ethnic groups targeted by al-Shabaab.

Somalia’s informal economic networks have burgeoned in spite of poor security conditions and have hardened to these conditions over the years. Furthermore, although a worsening in the Human Flight indicator may mean lower numbers of skilled or educated individuals choosing to remain in Somalia, this outflow of talent has been partially offset by remittances sent from abroad that have in turn helped to keep Somalia’s economy afloat.

Somalia’s food security conditions also improved marginally in 2012, decreasing its Demographic Pressures score. The improvement is in part due to the rainy season in the Fall of 2012, which raised crop output and helped end Somalia’s 2011 famine; likewise, distribution of emergency food aid was better facilitated by stronger security around distribution sites. The situation in Somalia, however, remains far from stable. Indeed, though the rains were welcome to the success of crops, they also caused substantial damage and displaced over 20,000 people, thus impacting the Refugees and IDPs score to the highest it can possibly get on the FSI.

Somalia’s long-standing lack of any widely accepted central authority, combined with the existence of numerous disparate informal political institutions, particularly rural clans, lend to Somalia’s abysmally high Human Rights and Factionalized Elites scores. All in all, Somalia’s improvements on the FSI 2013 reflect a rise in government confidence, a slight movement towards increased economic activity, and a somewhat stronger security apparatus, though still small enough to get lost in Somalia’s multitude of other stresses.

Yet, what has persisted in making Somalia the epitome of what some regard as a “failed state”? For one, the manner in which the international community and President Mohamud’s government have window-dressed the country’s myriad of issues is problematic. The international community, for instance, has focused its assistance on sectors like humanitarian aid, health and sanitation, meaning aid has been funneled more towards the symptoms rather than the existing structures that encapsulate these very problems. Without the explicit targeting of Somalia’s existing economic, political, and social institutions, it is likely that Somalia will be unable to escape its ailments. This is critical as international actors must help Somalia develop and grow by allowing their existing institutions to bear the weight of reconstruction.

Moreover, by ignoring the peripheral informal institutions — rural tribes and clans, who usually view the central government with distrust — and focusing only on top-down forms of assistance, international donors risk alienating those in clan-aligned areas. The absence of a strong central government since 1991 has allowed for the development of informal, but stalwart, civil, religious, and customary structures in rural regions, which have the necessary authority to organize local Somalis. If both informal and formal institutions are not reconciled, in what President Mohamud called “a very delicate balance,” the crab-in-the-bucket mentality could prevail. This could pit clans and the federal government against each other and any progress towards greater unity could be lost.

Lastly, many viewed the London Conference on Somalia this past May as a diplomatic event dealing mainly with the symptoms in Somalia, not the more intractable, sensitive issues. Critics complained that the international community has no consensus on Somaliland vis-à-vis Somalia, for instance, and have sent mixed messages to both governments, excluding one from deliberations with the other. Others see Somalia’s government as ignoring reality, and still, many view the international community as blind to the actual nuts and bolts on the ground. Though international forums like these could prove useful in many ways, they must move away from obscuring the country’s pressures.

Instead of disguising Somalia’s problems, the international community should practice smart development. In by-passing typically corrupt aid-delivery structures, governments and private companies can work together and improve conditions on the ground. The international community can also move towards developing regions outside of Mogadishu, which has been the focal point for most assistance. Though this might be limited to areas not under insurgent control, parts of Puntland and the central state of Galmudug, as well as others, could benefit from increased international attention.

One of Somalia’s greatest problems has been the absence of a widely accepted political authority capable of bringing together Somalis under a common set of goals. Although President Mohamud’s administration has made some strides in the political arena, much more needs to be done to remove Somalia’s “failed state” moniker and help the country rebuild. This is critical not only on a moral ground, but also for global security. Somalia’s widespread lawlessness over the last decade has made the country a hotbed for jihadists and rampant criminality. Though efforts to stifle these threats on both land and sea have improved security conditions, for the most part, these and other issues stand to continue to threaten the stability of the country, Africa, and the international community as a whole. Tackling these crises will undoubtedly involve substantial costs for global actors. If they are not dealt with promptly and effectively, however, Somalia and the world will face greater costs in the future.