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Q&A: The paths into and out of ‘fragility’

Discussing the 16th Fragile States Index.

Photo: Nati Lafuente/Flickr
Composite of FSI data visualisation and image of unrest at the University of Chile in 2013.

All fragile states are not alike. However, they do often share some of the same stumbling blocks, according to J.J. Messner, executive director of the Fund for Peace, which has just released its 16th Fragile States Index.

In this Q&A with The New Humanitarian, he discusses why there’s no “silver bullet” for flagging a society likely to tip toward unrest, which countries humanitarians may want to watch, and why next year's may reveal that standard assumptions about which states can best cope with a pandemic were just plain wrong.

Complete rankings

This email interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

TNH: In countries moving into or out of fragility, is there an ebb and flow to the key indicators, those that crop up again and again?

J.J. Messner: Though we assess countries across 12 social, economic, and political indicators, we have frequently been asked whether there is one, “silver bullet” indicator that can give unique insight into a country’s fortunes. It is unfortunately not that simple, as it really depends what one wishes to measure and across what time horizon.

Nevertheless, there do seem to be some interesting trends to be found when combining three of the indicators: state legitimacy, group grievance, and factionalised elites. Together they have provided insights into recent political turmoil in a number of countries, such as what we saw in the countries that experienced instability and revolution during the Arab Spring, or even in the recent tumultuous politics of the United Kingdom and United States.

On the flip side, in so far as long-term sustainable improvement is concerned, we tend to see that improvement is spread more evenly across more of the indicators. Although, improvements in those same specific indicators as well as others that focus on sustainable economic growth (such as uneven economic development) can be especially informative in charting a country’s long-term improvement.

TNH: What's the biggest surprise in the 2020 index; what didn't you expect?

Messner: For the first time in late 2019, we published a “Ten Countries to Watch” list for the forthcoming year’s FSI. We actually managed to be pretty accurate, correctly predicting seven of the top 10 most worsened in 2020, so the results did not come as a huge surprise to us.

Nevertheless, the scale of Chile’s rapid decline was a surprise. After all, in many respects, Chile had built a reputation for relative stability and economic success, indeed being somewhat of a beacon of stability in a region not unfamiliar with turmoil. The political instability in Chile has shone a light on a level of structural/institutional brittleness and fragility that had perhaps gone previously unpredicted. Time and again we are deceived into thinking that low risk or low violence equates to institutional or structural strength and viability but this is not, and should not be, the default assumption. Closer investigation of Chile’s indicators highlighted increasing social and economic pressure, demonstrating that although the country may have been growing wealthier, that wealth was neither transformative nor equally distributed. So, even though we predicted Chile would be among the top 10 most worsened in 2020, few would have predicted it would be the most worsened.

TNH: What are the success stories told by this year's data?

Messner: Success stories are by virtue difficult to assess year-on-year. Though countries may “fall off a cliff” into conflict or disarray, development is a slow journey of constant improvement.

That being said, there are a number of “quiet achievers” on the 2020 Fragile States Index. Uzbekistan is one. It has demonstrated a strong long-term trend, as it has begun to open up from decades of authoritarianism and repression. Indeed, we have seen long-term progress in a number of former Soviet states. Cuba is another such country that is slowly emerging from a more closed and repressive past and is one of the most improved countries over the past decade.

“Success stories are by virtue difficult to assess year-on-year. Though countries may ‘fall off a cliff’ into conflict or disarray, development is a slow journey of constant improvement.”

We have also seen significant improvement in West Africa, such as Côte d’Ivoire, which has quietly but steadily improved since ranking as the most fragile state on our very first FSI in 2005. This is not to say that any of these countries are perfect – far from it. However, they are worthy of some credit for positive reforms fuelling overall measurable development.

TNH: In addition to the top most fragile, what countries or regions should humanitarians be watching? What's new in terms of “high alert” countries, and why?

Messner: The rankings can sometimes be somewhat misleading, given the temptation to focus only on the countries ranked among the most fragile. A more useful metric is to look at the rate of change, where countries are worsening rapidly over time. A country like Mozambique, for example, is not often discussed as high alert, as it is “only” ranked 27th. However, the country is rated as the sixth most worsened over the past decade, behind the “more obvious” humanitarian emergencies evident in places like Libya, Syria, Mali, Yemen, and Venezuela. The demonstrated vulnerability to natural disaster, which underlies institutional and structural weaknesses long not addressed, coupled with the potential for renewed conflict, and a clear long-term severe worsening trend singles out Mozambique as a country to be especially concerned about.

Further, beyond the obvious conflict zones such as Libya, Mali, Syria, and Yemen, our data also suggests that humanitarians should be closely watching Venezuela, Cameroon, Angola, and Burkina Faso.

Though humanitarians may arguably be less concerned with richer nations, the fact that the United Kingdom, United States, Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey are among some of the most worsened over the past five-10 years should also raise concerns, albeit of a different variety.

TNH: Among the 15 “most fragile”, what are the commonalities, or the greatest areas of divergence?

Messner: There is no blueprint that absolutely defines fragility in the top end of the FSI. Of the top 15, 11 are to be found in Africa, two in the Middle East, and the other two in South Asia and the Caribbean, so there is quite a geographical spread. Some countries are small (around 11 million) while others are large (up to nearly 200 million). Nevertheless, there are some common features: among the top 15, each and every country is either in (or was recently in) conflict; has high levels of poverty and inequality; and/or has experienced repression under authoritarian regimes. In recognising these commonalities, it is important to discern cause and effect – these are not symptoms of fragility but rather the drivers of fragility. If a country is in conflict, is impoverished, and/or is ruled by an authoritarian, repressive regime, it is exponentially more likely to be fragile.

TNH: The elephant in the room is of course COVID-19. The data was gathered pre-COVID-19. What coronavirus-inspired trends or changes do you anticipate in the coming year; which indicators will you be watching especially closely?

Messner: One of the difficulties of periodical indices that are based off a set time period (i.e., annually) is that if something big happens right after the sample period ends, the index will be released during a time that all eyes are on that “big thing” and the index won’t seem quite so relevant. To that extent, the outbreak of COVID-19 is not registered at all by the FSI this year -- although how a country is able to cope with such a crisis more generally may be visible in indicators like those that measure social cohesion and economic inequality. But next year it is highly likely that we will see unprecedented worsening across a wide cross-section of countries, all affected by the same event. The Arab Spring was the last time we saw something of its kind – a multi-country event that occurred after the index had stopped measuring for the year – but COVID-19 will be of considerably greater magnitude.

“Next year it is highly likely that we will see unprecedented worsening across a wide cross-section of countries, all affected by the same event.”

Nevertheless, from 2021 the FSI will be able to give insight into the vulnerability and resilience country-by-country. It would make sense that indicators like demographic pressures and public services will record direct impacts for nearly every country, as the virus impacts health and stretches health systems. Similarly, it goes without saying that the economy indicator will record the economic ruin that the virus, and the response to it, has wrought on the global economy. But other indicators will likely record second-order effects. Some countries where the response to the virus has been bungled (Brazil and the United States come to mind) will perhaps see impacts on their state legitimacy scores as people lose faith in their own governments; where governments have used COVID-19 as a convenient excuse to curtail personal freedoms (Hungary comes to mind), then you are also likely to see impacts on their human rights and rule of law indicator scores.

That being said, there is probably little we can predict with much certainty right now. The FSI has measured the outcomes of war, economic collapse, pan-regional revolutions, and large-scale natural disasters. But COVID-19 is an event that is truly unprecedented for the FSI, and it is possible that the FSI in 2021 and beyond will measure the virus’ impacts in ways we haven’t yet realised.

TNH: Based on how you've seen countries move in and out of fragility over the years, what's your take on the indicators that are most crucial to fostering resilience areas that may help countries – anywhere on the FSI, but especially those with existing humanitarian crises – better cope with the myriad impacts of COVID-19?

Messner: In many ways, COVID-19 may lead us to reconsider what we perceive about fragility, vulnerability, capacity, and resilience. Of course, right now we don’t have a good window into how many developing countries are faring (or will fare over coming months). But to look at many developed countries, such as France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, it has come as quite a disconcerting awakening for many just how vulnerable such strong and well-resourced health sectors can be when placed under intense pressure. Prior to COVID-19, it would have made sense to think about resilience against shocks – be it a pandemic, or a natural disaster – in terms of indicators such as public services or the economy, based on the logic that a strong enough, well-resourced system should by virtue be resilient. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that just as, if not more, important are indicators such as factionalised elites, state legitimacy, and group grievance – is the government able to respond to the crisis in a timely, coherent fashion, in a way that engenders trust from the population, and then does society itself have the necessary coherence and level of community to respond in an appropriate way that, in an American context, values life equally between red states and blue states? The experience in the United States, for example, where the response has been delayed, scattered, inconsistent, and worst of all politicised, demonstrates that even with all the money in the world and a world-class health system, the ultimate determining factor for success might be a country’s basic ability to come together in the national interest and act decisively and apolitically at a time of crisis. We may also see another interesting phenomenon in so far as past experience informs future outcomes – for example, how will past experience in dealing with previous SARS outbreaks improve COVID-19 response in Southeast Asian countries, or will West African nations fare better in light of their relatively recent challenge with the Ebola crisis?

Event: How can societies emerge from the COVID-19 crisis stronger and more resilient?

Join us on Wednesday 13 May for an online event hosted by The Fund for Peace and The New Humanitarian to coincide with the launch of the 2020 Fragile States Index.

TNH Senior Editor Obi Anyadike will be on a panel to discuss data-based approaches to global crises.

Register now.


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