I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. I would place it in my all-time top five history books, along with Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Will and Ariel Durant's Rousseau and Revolution, Carroll Quigley's Tragedy & Hope, and Norodom Sihanouk's My War with the CIA.
What it is, is a very simple thesis about what it is that nations require to materially prosper. I'm not sure why the title dwells on nations which fail, as the title could just as easily be "Why Nations Succeed." Simply stated, Robinson expounds that the winning formula for prosperity is merely this: (1) a government sufficiently powerful to enforce private contracts and adjudicate private disputes; (2) a process of political and economic decision making sufficiently inclusive that the productive class (as opposed to the ruling or landowning classes) believe it is in within their power (by means of some combination of hard work, ingenuity, and judicious investment) to improve their lives; (3) institutional respect for the ownership and accumulation of private property. In the terminology of the book, systems which fulfill the above criteria are called Inclusive, and those which do not are called Extractive. You may or may not agree, but the heart of the book isn't much more than this.
What is fantastic is how the authors view selected histories through the lens of this very basic premise. I still haven't bothered to learn the authors' backgrounds, but they are well versed in a wide range of interesting world history. It turns out that contrasting the pre-colonial and colonial periods of Sierra Leone supports the thesis perfectly. Likewise, contrasting a history of the Spanish colonies in South America with the British and French colonies in North America. The history of the Republic of South Africa (Extractive) and Botswana (Inclusive). India, North Korea vs. South Korea, etc... there are ample examples provided.
Are these examples cherry-picked? They may be, but I have not been able to come up with anything to refute the general principles. Delving beyond the simple demonstration of examples, the mid portion of the book examines situation which superficially appear to contradict the thesis, but then shows how in fact they support it. The rapid economic growth of the Soviet Union between 1926-1960, for example. The USSR stands firmly in the camp of Extractive systems, but enjoyed robust growth, and even some innovation (the Soviet space program and Sputnick, for example) during this time. It was a limited run, and an aberration, it turns out... driven by borrowed technologies (efficiencies) from external sources, cannibalization of wealth created from the preceding Extractive-but-slightly-less-Extractive-than-the-USSR political and economic institutions of the Czars, and limited growth which can sometimes be engineered by converting from one Extractive system (feudal agriculture) to another (Soviet collective farming) which enjoys slight benefits of efficiency-of-scale.
The same analysis is applied to the apparent belle epoque of Argentina from 1870-1910, when Argentine economic growth was the envy of the rest of the world, and the phrase "Rich as an Argentine" was used in American and British circles. The growth was self-limited, because it was mostly a reflection of the entrenched dominant landowning families developing previously-undeveloped land, not the sort of "creative destruction" one sees from true innovation and wealth creation in an evolving and progressing economy. This idea of creative destruction comes up again and again.
More relevant to modern day: the author argues convincingly that the impressive economic growth we now see in China is doomed to sputter out, if Chinese political and economic institutions remain Extractive.
The final third deals with case histories of those rare systems which have broken out of the Extractive natures and transcended to Inclusive: England's Glorious Revolution of 1688; the French Revolution (which led to a conversion of many other European systems from Extractive to Inclusive), and the slow evolution of the American (US) South from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act.
It's a wonderful book, and I'm not doing it justice here, but please read it.