The 2021 Fragile 15: Upheavals in a time of COVID
After a pandemic year, the concept of “fragility” seems more relevant than ever. As the rankings in this year’s annual Fragile States Index (FSI) suggest, global emergencies such as COVID-19 can expose the fault lines that feed assumptions about what fragility is, which states are fragile, and what resilience looks like in the face of crises.
Read More → Q&A: The changing dynamics of ‘fragility’
Drawing on our first-hand, on-the-ground reporting, we offer a glimpse at the lives behind the FSI data in three categories: The five most fragile states; five with notable increases or decreases in fragility; and five that are dealing with key humanitarian crises. We hear from Yemenis struggling to buy food for their families, from Syrian refugees in Lebanon confronting spiralling inflation, from asylum seekers at the southern US border dealing with Trump-administration policies put in place during the coronavirus pandemic – policies that effectively cut off access to asylum.
The FSI, produced by the Fund for Peace, a Washington-based think tank, scores 178 countries based on 12 political, social, and economic indicators, looking at inequality, displacement, security, public services, and external intervention.
As defined by the OECD, fragility is “the combination of exposure to risk and insufficient coping capacity of the state, system, and/or communities to manage, absorb, or mitigate… risks.” That can all “lead to negative outcomes including violence, the breakdown of institutions, displacement, humanitarian crises or other emergencies”.
For the past 17 years, the Fragile States Index (FSI), produced by the NGO Fund for Peace, has ranked 178 countries based on 12 political, social, and economic indicators, looking at inequality, displacement, security, public services, and external intervention. For each indicator, the FSI gives a score out of 10, with 10 being the most fragile and zero being the least fragile. The higher the score and the higher the ranking, the higher the level of fragility. To measure fragility, vulnerability, and risk, researchers use algorithms and content aggregators to scan more than 10,000 public reports, triangulating that information with pre-existing quantitative data sets and independent social science reviews of each of the 178 countries.
True, the countries at the top of the index remain largely unchanged. Yemen tops the list yet again, followed again by Somalia; South Sudan cedes third place to Syria – all of course home to some of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises. Further down the list, though, the ups and downs of countries such as the United States and Spain suggest that the pandemic unmasked fragilities that in pre-pandemic times were easier to overlook.
Movement among the 12 indicators – from displacement to economic pressure and group grievance – upon which the rankings are based often tell a fuller story than a country’s overall numerical value. High-income states such as the UK and the United States, for instance, are both among the top 20 most worsened since 2010, following years of tumultuous politics and social division.
Those indicators illustrate the wide-ranging impacts of crises like COVID-19 and show how they can exacerbate existing tensions. “You can’t prepare for a health crisis as if it were only a health crisis,” explains Nate Haken, who directs the FSI research at the Fund for Peace. “You have to prepare for a pandemic as if it will be an economic, political, and social crisis.”
The 5 Most Fragile
Persistent needs and shortages
‘When worse comes to worst, we prioritise food for the kids.’
FSI ranking: 1st, unchanged from 2020 (111.7/120, down -0.7)
Yemen retained the ranking of the world’s most fragile state for the second year in a row, with COVID-19 adding to the severity of what the UN calls the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. Large-scale hunger continues, even though famine has not been officially declared. “Tens of thousands of people are already starving to death, with another five million just a step behind them,” UN relief chief Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council in April.
Over more than six years of war, Yemen’s ongoing economic collapse was worsened by the impact of the pandemic, as the money from abroad that many people depend on dried up. This was compounded by aid cuts from an underfunded UN-aid response. Yemenis have been forced to sell off personal possessions and cut back on expenses – including meals – and sometimes pull their children from school.
Sana’a resident Muhummad Mughni has gone from stable employment to doing odd jobs to get by, and after using up his savings and selling much of his wife’s jewellery, the family has had to cut back on what they eat. “When worse comes to worst, we prioritise food for the kids,” he said.
Despite efforts to broker a ceasefire, fighting continues, notably in the provinces of Taiz and Marib. Thousands of people have been driven from their homes by bombs and bullets as a Houthi rebel offensive closes in on Marib, raising concerns about the knock-on effects of the offensive on the rest of the already suffering country.
Deepening political and humanitarian crises
‘People are much more concerned by the political crisis in the country than COVID.’
FSI ranking: 2nd, unchanged from 2020 (110.9/120)
Somalia has struggled with three decades of armed conflict, recurring climate shocks, and – as a result – ever-deepening levels of poverty and vulnerability.
COVID added another layer of crisis. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Somalia was already grappling with floods that had forced more than half a million people from their homes, plus the largest locust invasion for a quarter of a century that threatened the coming harvest and pasture land.
It now faces a drought emergency, with a second consecutive season of failed rains predicted, which could force as many as 380,000 people from their homes by the end of the year. Humanitarian action – from responding to the six million people currently in need of assistance, to mounting a coordinated COVID-19 response – is complicated by the country’s fragility and limited administrative capacity.
The internationally recognised federal government in Mogadishu is weak, and its authority and edicts barely reach beyond the capital. It has also been engulfed by a dangerous political conflict over the constitutionality of the president’s attempt to extend his stay in office by two more years - drowning out public messaging on the pandemic. As a local journalist and filmmaker explained: “People are much more concerned by the political crisis in the country than COVID.”
The violent jihadist group al-Shabab, which controls much of the countryside, initially ridiculed the COVID-19 threat, but has since done a U-turn and accepted the danger. It has, however, refused access to health teams to territory it controls, and has urged people to reject the AstraZeneca vaccine as dangerous. The risks of such a policy extend beyond Somalia. A large untreated reservoir of COVID-19, where variants could potentially mutate, would not only be a regional threat but possibly a global one as well.
‘Most of the time, we don’t even have enough money to buy a bag of bread.’
FSI ranking: 3rd, up from 4th (110.7/120)
Syria’s last decade has been defined by a long and brutal war – one that is still not over. Since March 2011, when President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on protesters eventually spun into an all-out war, at least 13 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes by fear and violence: imprisonment and forced conscription, bombs and ground fighting, chemical attacks and sieges.
As Syria’s economy worsens, in part because of the economic disaster in neighbouring Lebanon, hunger is on the rise. The World Food Programme says that a record 12.4 million people in the country – 60 percent of the population – are now food insecure. The situation is particularly bad in the rebel-held northwest province of Idlib, where many people have fled homes multiple times and are dependent on aid, and childhood hunger is at worrying levels.
Seham al-Abrash, who lives in an Idlib camp, struggled to feed her twin nine-month-old granddaughters, who doctors have said are malnourished. “Most of the time, we don’t even have enough money to buy a bag of bread,” al-Abrash said in October.
Millions of Syrians don’t have identification or other key documents, making it extremely difficult for them to access healthcare, return and restart their lives after living as refugees, or rebuild destroyed homes.
Conflict, corruption, and a health and hunger crisis
‘Every time there is a crisis, the government ignores its citizens, relies on international aid, [and] doesn't help its own people.’
FSI ranking: 4th, improved from 3rd (109.4/120, down -0.6)
South Sudan is the fifth most improved state in this year’s ranking. It saw progress across all indicators except security apparatus, public services, and refugees and IDPs. State legitimacy and demographic pressures were unchanged.
Though its main opposition leader and current vice president, Riek Machar, agreed to share power with President Salva Kiir last year, key parts of the peace agreement have not been implemented amid entrenched distrust between the two men. After five years of fighting in which 400,000 were killed, violence between the government and opposition rebels has subsided, but long-running conflicts between community militias intensified in the administrative area of Pibor and the neighbouring state of Jonglei.
What that means for its people is that 1.6 million remain displaced due to violence or disasters since 2013. Many say they are too fearful of returning home, as they don’t trust the government and the security services.
“Every time there is a crisis, the government ignores its citizens, relies on international aid, [and] doesn't help its own people,” Edmund Yakani, head of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, or CEPO, a civil society group in South Sudan, told The New Humanitarian earlier this year.
Those crises include deadly violence, torrential rains, and a contracting economy due to falling oil prices that have added up to growing hunger. More than 100,000 people are facing “phase five” catastrophic levels of hunger, and tens of thousands experiencing likely famine conditions, according to a November report published by the IPC Famine Review Committee.
In the remote village of Lekuangole, residents say their children are starving to death.
There’s the three-year-old son of Ngalan Luryen who died of hunger last February after a week hiding in a forest from militiamen. And there’s the nine-year-old grandson of Anna Korok who lost his life in July when conflict split him from his family and left him nothing to eat.
“We need food,” Korok told The New Humanitarian during a trip to the village in December. “So children don’t die.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo
Multiple threats to stability
‘They want some dead and others afraid.’
FSI ranking: 5th, improved from 4th (108.4/120, down -1.0)
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the pandemic piled on to an existing health crisis, as it hit while the east of the country was still reeling from the second deadliest outbreak of Ebola yet recorded. COVID-19 travel restrictions and border closures hindered efforts to bring in staff and equipment even as another Ebola outbreak erupted, this time in western Équateur province. At least 2,280 people died in the larger outbreak, and the response was marred by so-called “Ebola business” – a scramble to profit from unscrupulous practices, not to mention widespread allegations of sexual abuse against Ebola aid workers.
Meanwhile, fighting in the country’s northeastern Ituri province continued as opaque disarmament plans stalled, and rebel groups fragmented. In a country that’s home to one of the world’s longest-running humanitarian crises, the violence highlights the continued absence of an effective process to disarm fighters and help them build new lives as civilians.
“They don't just want us dead,” said Ephraim Liripa, who fled violence in December 2019, speaking of the Lendu militias active in Ituri. “They want some dead and others afraid.”
The Ups and Downs: 5 of the most worsened or improved states
Social division and a heavy COVID toll
‘When are the courts going to open so we can continue our process?’
FSI ranking: 143rd from 149th, making it the ‘most worsened’ (44.6/120, up by +6.3)
As the most worsened in this year’s ranking and the eighth most worsened from 2010-2021, the United States is clearly as vulnerable to certain shocks as less wealthy states – a signal that fragility is a complex and multi-faceted concept. It is among a handful of countries that have been ranked as incrementally more fragile during the last 17 years, driven almost entirely by a deterioration in the indicators for group grievance and factionalised elites.
The situation in the United States and other “powerful” states prompted discussions on redefining fragility and vulnerability.
Among the most significant events were more than half a million US deaths from COVID-19, and growing public outrage over police killings of Black people – notably George Floyd in May 2020 – that revived the global Black Lives Matter movement. Heavy-handed security responses to US protests fuelled tensions further and ignited more debate about race and equality. Months later, long-brewing partisan political tensions came to a head in a tense election that further divided the country, as Trump supporters invaded the Capitol in January 2021.
The United States suffered devastating human losses to COVID-19 that surpassed the pandemic’s toll on less wealthy countries. Trump’s government used COVID-19 as grounds to tighten harsh immigration policies, worsening the plight of refugees and asylum seekers.
For migrants and asylum seekers in shelters and informal camps across Mexico, anxiety about the coronavirus was compounded by nagging uncertainty about their stalled asylum applications. Between the two, Nora Martínez, who with her husband and their two young daughters fled gang violence in Honduras, told The New Humanitarian last June, she and her family are “mentally and physically exhausted”.
She asked a reporter: “When are the courts going to open so we can continue our process?”
‘I’m here now without family, money, food, or any assistance.’
FSI ranking: 11th, worsened from 21st (99.0/120, up by +4.4)
A military intervention in late 2020 against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has displaced around two million people in northern Ethiopia and claimed thousands of lives. Humanitarian access has been limited in the region, where reports of ethnic cleansing and sexual violence against women are rife.
Other areas also experienced violent unrest: The loosening of political controls under Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has seen tensions increase across the country, as different ethnic groups and regions push for increased power and autonomy.
At a newly opened camp for Tigrayan refugees in Sudan, The New Humanitarian found little aid awaiting those fleeing the conflict – refugees who shared harrowing stories of escaping airstrikes and militias back home in Tigray.
“When the air bombing and the attacks began, I just ran and left the majority of my family behind,” said 22-year-old Zanabi Fasaha, who arrived in Sudan in November after fleeing the town of Humera. “I’m here now without family, money, food, or any assistance.”
Economic crisis and a political stalemate
‘Leave us without rulers. Maybe it would be better.’
FSI ranking: 34th, worsened from 40th (89.0/120, up +4.3)
Lebanon’s economy has been in freefall since October 2019, around the same time that widespread protests against its political leaders – including corruption and their failure to provide basic services – broke out across the country. By the time COVID-19 hit, many people who were already living in poverty – especially Syrian and Palestinian refugees – struggled to deal with the impact of strict lockdowns.
Then, in August 2020, a massive explosion at Beirut’s port killed more than 200 people, damaged homes, businesses, and port infrastructure in the capital, and destroyed a large amount of warehoused wheat. The blast, caused by unsafely stored ammonium nitrate, forced Lebanon’s entire cabinet to resign, and since then politicians have been unable to agree on a new government. This has made reconstruction even more difficult, as some countries have demanded major reforms in exchange for financial assistance.
All of this has meant skyrocketing prices, shortages of basics, and more and more people living under the poverty line. Rampant inflation has led some shops and landlords to demand dollars – often in short supply at banks – and many people who depend on aid receive it in the increasingly worthless Lebanese currency.
Gisele Nader, a volunteer with the Dafa Campaign, an aid group that distributes food and clothing to needy families, said Lebanese people take better care of each other than their government does.
Nader, who helped to coordinate dozens of volunteers to deliver food boxes and other supplies to survivors the day after the August blast, said her country’s political leaders “have been here for 30 years and they don’t know how to work properly”.
“Let them leave us alone,” she said. “Leave us without rulers. Maybe it would be better.”
Budding migration crisis
‘All we want is to go back to our homes and our family.’
FSI ranking: 85th, worsened from 97th (71.4/120, up + 3.7)
In the first four months after COVID-19 hit Peru, an ill-prepared government struggled to meet the needs of thousands of Peruvians as the pandemic spread quickly, compelling the Catholic Church and other civil society actors to fundraise to rescue the situation. By 1 June 2020, the country had officially registered more than 170,000 COVID-19 cases and 4,634 deaths.
President Martín Vizcarra declared a mandatory lockdown intended to keep COVID-19 patients from overwhelming Peru’s weak healthcare system. But in a country where most people are self-employed or work in the informal sector, and where millions live on their day-to-day earnings, it forced people to make a grim choice between going out to earn money for essentials and staying home and going hungry. Indigenous populations were among those hardest hit, in part because most of their remote communities are inaccessible by road, making hospital transfer difficult.
Some 200,000 Peruvians who had previously migrated to Lima in search of work struggled to return home after repeated lockdown extensions to slow the spread of COVID-19 cut them off from their jobs. Their situation highlights the extreme vulnerabilities of the country’s army of informal workers, who find jobs in areas such as construction, domestic work, transportation, and agriculture, and represent 72 percent of the national workforce.
“All we want is to go back to our homes and our family,” said Susan Chota Cora, a returnee who spoke to The New Humanitarian last year from quarantine.
Natural disaster and resilient extremism
‘People just don’t have money.’
FSI ranking: 32nd, improved from 29th (89.2, down -1.1)
More than 90 percent of Kenyans saw their incomes fall as a result of COVID-19, and nearly three quarters of families have had to dip into savings – typically money set aside for school fees – according to Financial Sector Deepening Kenya (FSD Kenya), a trust that promotes financial inclusion. After months of COVID-19 curfews, transport restrictions, and social distancing measures, one store owner in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest informal settlement, told The New Humanitarian: “People just don’t have money.”
A $400 million social protection plan, including cash transfers, food relief, and a public works scheme turned out to have limited reach and transparency. Government grants benefited less than two percent of Kenyans.
Kenya also suffered droughts and its share of what is considered East Africa’s worst desert locust outbreak in decades, as well as flooding in the west of the country that forced thousands to flee.
And the armed jihadist movement al-Shabab continued to launch attacks, mostly against people in the northeast, where suspicion of affiliation to the group made civilians vulnerable to attacks by state security actors, too.
Fragility and ongoing crises: 5 states to watch
Growing needs, and rising xenophobia
‘If I miss a day of work, my family doesn’t eat.’
FSI ranking: 25th, worsened from 28th (92.6/120, up +1.4)
The country of about 28.5 million people was left dangerously vulnerable in 2020, confronting a broken medical system, water shortages, disinformation from an authoritarian leader, and a collapsed oil-based economy.
COVID-19 inflicted an estimated 8.1 percent contraction on Latin America’s economy. That forced some Venezuelans who had fled their country’s ongoing economic and social disintegration to return home, and others to defy COVID-19 measures, including a mandatory nationwide quarantine in March 2020. “If I miss a day of work, my family doesn’t eat,” said one woman trader. “It’s not bravery, it’s desperation.”
In January 2020, a World Food Programme hunger assessment estimated that some 9.3 million Venezuelans – roughly one third of the population – were food insecure, 2.3 million of them severely. That meant they were not able to buy food and basic supplies due to hyperinflation, with many people earning $5 or less a month. Gasoline shortages hampered the transportation of food to markets and disrupted the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
While more than five million people have fled the country’s economic meltdown since 2015, the Organization of American States (OAS) warned that number could swell to more than seven million in 2021. This is despite harsher entry regulations by neighbouring countries and growing xenophobia.
Central African Republic
Renewed violence after a disputed election
‘The hardest thing will be to go back to the village after all we have lived through.’
FSI ranking: 6th, unchanged from 6th (107/120, down -0.5)
Central African Republic’s first coronavirus case was in March 2020, but just 63 deaths were reported by December. The main impact of the pandemic was economic: Transport backlogs choked supply chains from neighbouring Cameroon, causing food prices to rise.
Although CAR remained in 6th place, with a marginal reduction in its overall score (from 107.5 to 107), certain indicators did improve, including security apparatus, economic equality, human flight and brain drain, and (for most of the year) refugees and IDPs.
But by the end of the year the situation had deteriorated dramatically as disputed elections led to a rebel offensive that displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and upended a 2019 peace deal between armed groups and the government.
Eugénie Dote, 55, told The New Humanitarian that women in her village were raped while fleeing “armed men” during the post-election crisis: “Some members of my family were raped… they were sometimes many on one woman,” Dote said. “The hardest thing will be to go back to the village after all we have lived through.”
In a country that already has some of the highest humanitarian needs per capita in the world, the new violence made it harder to access populations in need. Even before the offensive, humanitarians faced considerable dangers: Two aid workers were killed and 22 injured in 343 security incidents in the first 10 months of 2020.
Amid the violence, there was cause for hope with the opening of an International Criminal Court trial of two militia leaders accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity during a past phase of the CAR conflict.
“Tomorrow, it will be more tormentors that will be arrested and brought to justice,” Étienne Oumba, from the Central African United Victims Association, told The New Humanitarian at a screening of the trial in Bangui.
Insecurity, hunger, and a fractured recovery
‘You go to a market like Croix des Bossales to try and buy some sweet potatoes or plantains and all of a sudden you are surrounded by gunfire.’
FSI ranking: 13th, unchanged from 13th (97.5, down -0.2)
Ten years after a devastating earthquake that killed up to 300,000 people and displaced more than one million, Haiti continued to face a set of crises, including hunger, economic instability, and socio-political unrest.
Concerns were high about how the country would survive COVID-19, given its weak healthcare system and the thousands of people still without homes, many of them living in poor sanitary conditions without access to clean drinking water.
In early 2020, one in three Haitians – nearly four million people – faced severe hunger, many of them among the tens of thousands still displaced from the 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Gang violence around the port in the capital, Port-au-Prince, obstructed humanitarian work and prevented consumers and vendors alike from buying or selling food. This has been made worse by inflation and prolonged periods of drought since 2014 that have crippled local agricultural output, flooding the market with expensive food imports.
A single mother of seven children struggling to make ends meet told The New Humanitarian: “It feels like you’re on your own in Haiti. Kids can’t go to school; you can’t find work. You go to a market like Croix des Bossales to try and buy some sweet potatoes or plantains and all of sudden you are surrounded by gunfire.”
Haiti is considered the country most vulnerable to climate change disasters in the Caribbean and Latin America. Rampant deforestation makes it prone to mudslides and floods. But although Haiti’s urban centres have grown since 2010, little has been done to improve general building practices or rethink building in overpopulated or disaster-prone areas.
Recently, allegations that President Jovenel Moïse, other government officials, and heads of private firms embezzled $2 billion meant for infrastructure development and other social programmes led to protests. Though directed at Moïse, they have fed into years of simmering anger over the little progress that has been made since the earthquake.
‘There was nothing. No work, no money, nothing. At least here there is peace.’
FSI ranking: 20th, improved from 17th (96.2, down -0.3)
Despite declaring victory against the so-called Islamic State in late 2017, Iraq is still struggling to rebound from a war that, at its height, saw 3.4 million people forcibly displaced across the country.
In March 2020, when The New Humanitarian visited Mosul, some 1.4 Iraqis had not yet returned to their homes. Throughout the year, many people were forced to leave camps, but the slow pace of reconstruction and ongoing community tensions meant they often had little to return to.
Many homes that were damaged or destroyed, either by IS or the fight against the extremist group, have not been rebuilt, and buying or renting in Mosul can be prohibitively expensive.
Ahmad Jaas left the camp where he had been living with his wife and six children to try to restart their lives in their semi-destroyed home in Mosul. But they were unable to find work, and soon moved to another camp. “There was nothing,” he said of the camp. “No work, no money, nothing. At least here there is peace.”
At the same time as it struggles with the ongoing effects of the war, Iraq has struggled to provide its citizens with basic services (one of the reasons for a protest movement that swept through the country in late 2019). The country’s hospitals struggled to tackle COVID-19 throughout 2020, and since a deadly fire broke out at a Baghdad hospital in April 2021, questions linger about corruption, underfunding, and mismanagement of the public health system.
Coronavirus worsens ongoing crises
‘In internal medicine units across the country, most women are using poison because of [gender-based] violence.’
FSI ranking: 9th, unchanged from 9th (102.1, down -0.8)
COVID-19 caused particular concern for countries already facing crises, like Afghanistan, which has been at war for the past four decades and where more than half the population lives under the poverty line.
As the coronavirus spread across the country, border closures and export restrictions led to food price hikes and disrupted the flow of humanitarian supplies. Herat, a northwestern province that borders Iran and is the country’s food production hub, was badly hit by the pandemic, which raised the risk of extreme hunger for millions already facing emergency levels of food insecurity. Coronavirus ripples drained Afghanistan’s economy, driving mass job losses and shrinking household incomes.
The knock-on effects of the pandemic also worsened gender violence, causing more women to attempt suicide. “In internal medicine units across the country, most women are using poison because of [gender-based] violence,” the head of one hospital’s Family Protection Centre, which helps women facing violence, said of female poisoning patients. “They use this way to end their problems.”
Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in September 2020, but conflict continued to escalate.
Later in the year, the country battled a second wave of COVID-19 and faced warnings of widespread hunger, political turmoil at home and abroad, and rising conflict violence.
Afghanistan depends on donors to fund at least half its annual budget, and this is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. Funding shortfalls could reduce humanitarian programmes for people displaced by conflict and disasters. In 2020, some 1.2 million Afghans were uprooted by conflict or forced to return from abroad. Local aid workers and subcontracted local NGOs work with international agencies to provide the bulk of humanitarian aid and supplement basic health services, especially in areas the government doesn’t control. They say bare-bones funding already forces them to take on greater risks.
Afghanistan faces even more volatility in 2021. US and NATO forces announced international troops would withdraw by September 2021. With little progress in peace talks between the government and the Taliban, fighting has continued to erupt across the country. A looming drought is adding to emergency needs. The number of people who need emergency aid has doubled over the last year, but aid groups report significant funding shortfalls.