Fragility | What’s on the minds of policy makers, aid workers, and donors
The challenge of fragile states
Is fragility an issue for humanitarians? Might approaches to delivering aid need to change to address the impact of fragility on the world’s most vulnerable communities?
They explain more below.
State fragility matters for many reasons. States have a duty to deliver services to their people, such as health and education, and should provide security to allow communities to live safely and peacefully. In fragile contexts, this social contract is often broken, so you end up with UN agencies, INGOs, and predominantly local NGOs providing these basic services to fill the gap left by weak governments. There is also a direct correlation between weak states, conflict, and extremism, and that leads to security impacts on a global scale.
State fragility exacerbates humanitarian needs. A country that can’t meet its duties to its citizens on a normal basis finds it even harder to respond to a situation like a drought or a flood.
Positive things are happening in terms of how the aid sector approaches needs in fragile states, but we still really need to get out of this short-termism, which simply creates a terrible dependency on aid. We need to be thinking longer-term. For instance, three years into a conflict like Syria, we should be starting to transition away from short-term fixes and into longer-term programming. We should be looking at ways to develop livelihoods, help people integrate into host communities, and create meaningful economies so people can start doing something for themselves.
We need to avoid repeating what has happened in many African countries, where this short-termist humanitarian response over a protracted period has simply created a dependency on food aid handouts. With the billions that have been invested into all that food aid, just imagine what that could have done in terms of building roads and setting up agricultural projects and integrated market systems etc. These kinds of things would have been much more useful in terms of the long-term impacts and reducing the fragility of a country.
The human and economic costs of fragility, conflict, and violence are staggering. Conflict drives 80 percent of humanitarian needs, and in 2016 the cost of conflict globally stood at an astonishing $14 trillion. Moreover, providing development support in fragile settings can be extremely challenging given high levels of insecurity, weak institutions, and rapidly changing dynamics on the ground.
Therefore, partnerships between humanitarian and development organisations are critical in order to overcome these challenges and maximise our collective impact on the ground. Concretely, development actors can focus on medium- to long-term development needs – such as strengthening essential institutions and service delivery – thereby complementing humanitarian efforts that focus on providing immediate relief.
Importantly, we need to break silos, as many of the challenges we face cannot be easily categorised as humanitarian or development issues, and require short-, medium- and long-term responses. For example, with refugee crises becoming increasingly protracted, and refugees often not returning home for decades, these challenges require collective responses from both humanitarian and development actors.
We are proactively focusing on conflict prevention in an effort to address grievances and risks before they turn into full-blown crises. Investing in prevention is critical, as it allows the international community to direct more resources to sustainable development outcomes rather than continuously respond to emergencies. In fact, the recent UN-World Bank Pathways For Peace report found that for every $1 invested in prevention, about $16 are saved down the road.
Remaining engaged over the long-term is essential, as escaping fragility takes time – often decades – and progress is rarely linear. Therefore, in countries like Somalia, we are working with national and international partners to help build institutional capacity, enhance service delivery, and ultimately strengthen the social contract between citizens and the state.
Ultimately, only through coordinated action can we make a lasting difference, make the necessary investments in fragile and conflict-affected settings, and build futures of hope, opportunity, and prosperity for the millions living in the most challenging situations.
The largest recipients of international humanitarian assistance are fragile states and, in most cases, crises in these contexts are protracted, with humanitarian assistance often going to the same countries year on year.
The way in which international humanitarian assistance is currently given – often quick-fire and short-term – limits the extent to which longer-term development needs are addressed and means that humanitarian response is rarely a well-coordinated effort between international and domestic actors and institutions.
It is essential that aid is given to fragile states with a long-term perspective and that new initiatives focus on preparedness, building resilience and prevention. This has huge benefits for populations: limiting the impact when crisis hits, as well as facilitating peacebuilding efforts and the transition to development following a crisis. To achieve this, it is critical that there are joined-up approaches to assessing poverty, vulnerability, and needs. Crucially, decision-making on budgetary allocation and financing needs to be integrated across humanitarian, development, and peace responses, and there needs to be financing mechanisms for crisis prevention that release funding ahead of crises (based on agreed triggers).
In protracted crisis contexts there are emerging financing mechanisms such as development banks, Islamic social financing, risk and contingency financing, and private sector engagement (e.g. social impact bonds) emerging in fragile settings; however the majority of these are still operating at a small scale, and there is a lack of evidence on impact. Evidence is critical to informing decisions around the scale-up of these mechanisms in fragile contexts and the extent to which they can transform the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people.
The world’s poorest people are increasingly concentrated in countries affected by fragility, conflict, and climate change. These are also the places where we see most humanitarian need, with people struggling to provide for themselves and send their children to school. Nine of the world’s top 10 humanitarian emergencies are in extremely fragile countries like Yemen and South Sudan.
The tragedy is that today’s crises are measured in decades, rather than weeks. Providing for people’s basic needs in these situations is important, but we need to look at longer term efforts to end the crises themselves. Development, peace, and humanitarian actors are increasingly committed to working together to do this.
DfID, where I work, has pledged to spend 50 percent of its yearly budget in fragile states and ensure that UK aid addresses the underlying causes of fragility and conflict. In countries such as Burma and Nigeria, UK aid is providing urgent humanitarian support, but also investing in education, healthcare, economic development, governance, and peacebuilding. This means we are not only working to fight the symptoms of crises, but also to help people find a sustainable way out of poverty. Change is unlikely to happen overnight, but we are working hard to help build resilience and peace over time.
This work is not only of benefit to people in fragile states, but it also makes the world a safer place. Conflict and crises can lead to unplanned migration or the growth of violent extremism, problems which know no borders. We need people to stand up and support our work to help those in poverty, not just because it makes states affected by crises a better place to live, but also because it builds stability around the world.
For us, fragility has a very human face. State fragility translates directly and immediately into daily insecurity for people. Our interest in state fragility lies in what it means for the most vulnerable. And typically what it means is that the lives of communities that are already struggling become so much more difficult. Most obviously, fragility means that people face greater threats of violence, discrimination, and exploitation.
From a Red Cross and Red Crescent perspective, one of the most direct consequences of state fragility is the weakness of health systems. In places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and parts of Somalia, where the state or public sector cannot reach the last mile to those who desperately need help, Red Cross volunteers are critical to bridging that gap and very often do this very effectively. Part of their value lies in their local identity. In many fragile contexts, international organisations tend to replace or supplant state or local capacity – an approach that is in no one’s interest in the long term. It’s something that the sector can do better, and the answer (as it often is), is to invest more resources and effort in strengthening local capacity.
State fragility is also useful because it reminds us that vulnerability is not “owned” by poor countries. Vulnerability runs as a seam through all societies, rich and poor. For example, our national societies in Europe are seeing growing vulnerability among the elderly. One of the key attributes of fragile states are their inability to provide reasonable public services. This means that groups like the elderly are left to suffer alone, and that organisations like the Red Cross must step in to provide the kind of support that the state normally would.
State fragility remains a key risk for long-term development. Investments in development can be overwhelmed by any conflict that re-emerges, as we have seen in South Sudan. Some of the poorest countries in the world are the most fragile – such as Central African Republic (CAR), Somalia, and Madagascar. The foundation for long-term development is a peaceful country.
Conflict is a major driver of humanitarian emergencies, as can be seen in Syria and Yemen. A fragile state is also associated with weaker capacity to prepare for and manage natural disasters. It is no accident that Ebola hits fragile states hardest – such as DRC, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia — while neighbouring countries such as Ghana are better able to manage any outbreaks.
The current aid system under-invests in the more fragile states. CAR, for example, has been a long-term aid orphan. The current aid system also under-invests in key sectors that address fragility, such as conflict prevention and justice.
There is growing recognition of the challenges and the importance of investing in fragile states – as the recent UN and World Bank Pathways For Peace report and the International Growth Centre’s Fragility Commission have highlighted. But action is lagging as donors are also becoming less willing to take risks and are more focused on their national interests, including trade opportunities. A new approach is needed for donors – and also for the private sector.
The humanitarian impact of fragility is ever-growing, as is the amount of money being spent on supporting people in need. During 2017, governments and private donors channelled $27.3 billion into international humanitarian assistance to relieve the suffering of people affected by crisis. This is not sustainable, and without starting to address the root causes of fragility the world will run out of financial resources to deal with the consequences of war and disasters.
Despite their fragility, many conflict-affected countries are extremely rich in natural resources. Some are located within geographies that have shown the potential for regional development. If peace could prevail in these countries, they would not only be self-sufficient in meeting their own development needs but could also contribute to regional and global prosperity.
While there are many different fragile contexts and reasons for that fragility, a global consensus is emerging that we need to deliver peace and help states become more resilient. In addition to the 2011 endorsement of the The New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, Agenda 2030 includes a goal to promote “peace, justice and effective institutions” for sustainable development.
The current aid system needs to adapt to contextual realities and hence be harmonised to deliver the ambition of the aforementioned Agenda 2030 goal. Various reviews and assessments have shown that the way development aid in fragile countries is managed is less effective. The New Deal principles need to be translated into result-based reforms of donors’ policies. The aid system should consider country ownership in identifying solutions for development challenges in these countries and should adapt a view of long-term development and stability rather than projectised and quick-fix approaches.
State fragility makes life and livelihoods very unpredictable. It also does away with any semblance of political and social security for the population, which further exacerbates vulnerability. We have seen many U-turns in the humanitarian crisis in Somalia because of the country’s fragility. Afghanistan is another classic case of fragility impacting the humanitarian situation and exacerbating humanitarian need.
In the Nigerian context, we see fragility impacting the capacity and the risk appetite of the state to take the right decisions at the right time. In the context of northeast Nigeria, for example, the state tries to portray the situation as being okay because it would be seen as a sign of weakness to show the fragility of the situation by acknowledging problems. This results in the denial of humanitarian needs. In turn, the state limits its role in the response to humanitarian needs and at the same time impedes international humanitarian assistance. All this exacerbates humanitarian needs.
Can the aid system prevent fragility? Is it the role of the aid system to prevent fragility? At times it can be a chicken and egg question. Has fragility caused humanitarian needs, or have the humanitarian needs caused the fragility?
A policy response to overcome that challenge is to work on reducing social and economic inequalities – because most of the time it is not about resources but the distribution and access to resources – and to offer social protection. This can, in some ways, help avoid humanitarian needs and extreme vulnerability in pockets of the population that can lead to fragility.
Most of the distressing developments dominating both global headlines and humanitarian work plans – conflict, terrorism, pandemics, forced displacement, disasters, famine, and more – have fragility at their core. Without concerted efforts to tackle the root causes of fragility, humanitarian crises will continue to occur, and their effects will last for longer and longer and continue to drain global resources. In 2017, $74 billion of aid – official development assistance – was spent in fragile contexts, with over $16 billion of that as humanitarian assistance.
Challenges in these contexts – which humanitarians often call protracted crises – are nearly always too large for one set of actors to tackle alone. Keeping people alive is important. But if there are no efforts to address political tensions, rebuild social cohesion, reduce environmental risks, rebuild markets, and boost security, then fragility will remain and humanitarian crises will endure. Therefore, the efforts of humanitarian, development, and peace actors are all necessary to deliver a lasting positive result for the people trapped in humanitarian crises.
This is why the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (the group of major OECD donor countries) has just signed a new Recommendation on the Humanitarian Development Peace Nexus, a measure to promote greater coherence – in coordination, programming, and financing – between the different sets of actors who are all necessary if we are to end need, end crises, and end fragility. The Recommendation is based on the mantra “prevention always, development where possible, humanitarian only when necessary”.
Humanitarians can play a useful role in reducing fragility, without much additional effort, especially in situations where these actions would not put humanitarian principles at risk. Thinking across the five dimensions of fragility, there are numerous opportunities for including fragility-reducing elements into humanitarian programming – small steps that could have a huge impact. These could include, for example, connecting water-user committees across the country to give people a collective political voice; addressing social issues and promoting peace in education programmes; and/or diminishing – or at least not increasing – the risk of environmental damage in the way programmes are designed and delivered.
The concept of state fragility is important because it provides humanitarians and policy makers with access to a comprehensive analysis of the root causes of fragility. It offers the opportunity for humanitarian and development actors to look at the ‘bigger picture’, rather than focus on the immediate needs without considering the long-term consequences of conflict on the stability of a country. State fragility identifies the root causes of instability and enables actors to prioritise areas of action in a way that prevents cycles of conflict.
Syria, which has been ranked as the fourth most fragile state for 2019, does not, however, fit the orthodox assumptions of a fragile state, and therefore humanitarian actors cannot approach ‘stability’ based on traditional methods. It is necessary to look at the past – to look at Libya, Sudan, Yemen, DRC, and other examples of countries devastated by civil war and learn from the consequences of fragility-based models that lacked contextual depth.
For example, in Syria, humanitarian actors can focus on early recovery at a grass-roots level; providing people with the tools to empower themselves. We can focus on delivering aid in a way that revitalises local economies and creates a space for independence and sustainable development. Cash-based programmes, vocational trainings, education, agricultural production, and local manufacturing of goods can take precedence in order to build stability through resilience and capacity-building; channelling aid in a way that allows individuals to participate in the reformation of the institutions that serve the Syrian people.
However, humanitarian actors must consider the fact that political elites and other actors maintain dominance over Syria’s institutions. Approaches to stabilisation that do not take into consideration the political context of the country, its pre-war and post-conflict architecture, risk further consolidating the power of the very actors that have disempowered the populations they are meant to protect. In the context of Syria, fragility-based frameworks need to be reconfigured and adapted to capture the complexity of the Syrian crisis.
Peace and good governance are prerequisites to growth and development, which makes disaster responses relatively easier. These are also essential for systematically reducing risks and strengthening resilience.
State fragility can manifest in many ways and affect how able a country is to respond to a humanitarian disaster. Take the example of Nepal: the country endured a decade of conflict before the brokering of the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006 but remains in a period of transition, which has affected its growth and development and exacerbated its vulnerability to natural disasters.
The April 2015 earthquake really highlighted Nepal’s natural and state fragilities. Poor infrastructure within difficult mountainous regions made it particularly difficult to provide timely relief and carry out a cost-efficient reconstruction for affected communities.
Although policies are evolving and the federal structure is emerging, the local bodies of the governance are not as strong as they ought to be and the reconstruction phase has not been completed even after four years of the earthquake. Most of the affected villages do not have proper access roads, which makes logistics too challenging, and many families had to live under tarpaulins for almost two and half years, with some continuing to do so even now.
In my opinion, the international humanitarian sector sometimes profits from a state’s fragility because it means they can become more powerful. Although the law in Nepal prevents INGOs from working directly with communities, some are entering into local partnerships, using local organisations as cheap implementers, or registering locally to retain control over their funds. Home-grown Nepalese NGOs often lack the commercial skills to compete for international funding and therefore get crowded out by bigger players.
State fragility does matter for humanitarians because this means the local capacity in humanitarian response is low: limited human resource capacity and limited – sometimes even non-existent – structure and infrastructure to respond, including unstable markets. In most cases, the communities in these fragile states may also not have capacity to respond or to prevent loss due to disasters. Humanitarian communities will have to provide more resources and capacity to ensure the timely delivery of aid and humanitarian assistance, to ensure that the assistance delivered is based on identified needs and appropriate and acceptable to the local context.
Humanitarian aid should be designed with a “long-term development lens” perspective: not only immediate response for the affected population but also assessing local and government capacity, resources, challenges, and other modalities. Currently there are various programmes and efforts to improve and strengthen the capacity of government and local actors in emergency and humanitarian response, aiming at getting them all well prepared to respond. But this is still compartmentalised within an “emergency” setting and less linked to long-term development. Ideally, the approach could be more comprehensive if it began with, for example, strengthening the community’s capacity in disaster risk reduction and how to respond to disaster – assessing local government and organisations and other actors who can support the communities at the grass roots level, then also strengthening these local actors in disaster risk reduction and emergency response.