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Q&A: The changing dynamics of ‘fragility’

‘In the United States, group grievance and factionalised elites were worsening steadily for a decade before COVID knocked us on our heels.’

(Trinity Care Foundation/Flickr, Kylee Pedersen/TNH)

Fragilities can develop anywhere, even in the most wealthy and powerful countries in the world, says Nate Haken, programs director at the Fund for Peace, which has just released its 17th Fragile States Index. The New Humanitarian has partnered with the Fund for Peace again this year to explore how state fragility can both cause and exacerbate humanitarian crises, complicate aid response, and hold back longer-term development agendas. 

Read More → The 2021 Fragile 15: Upheavals in a time of Covid

In this Q&A, Haken discusses how the coronavirus pandemic affected fragility and resilience, the changing shape of fragility, the “fragility trap” in which some countries seem to be stuck, and why a pandemic is so much more than a health crisis.

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This email interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The New Humanitarian: What, if anything, does this year’s Fragile States Index tell us about how the pandemic impacted fragility? Are we looking at economic, health or social indicators, and do you have any sense of which will have been most impacted by COVID?

Haken: Frankly, the effect of COVID and its cascading and compounding impacts across the 12 indicators challenged many of my assumptions about fragility and resilience. Before the pandemic hit, I would have thought that countries with strong health systems, stable economies, and robust infrastructure would have fared better in the event of a health crisis.  But that is decidedly not what happened at all, at least in the first and second waves of the disease.  

On the other hand, it certainly validated our approach to look at fragility broadly across social, economic, political, and security dimensions. As part of our look-back, we ran a series of regressions to map the cascading effect of COVID, and found significant correlations between COVID prevalence, economic recession, protests, and protest fatalities. Some countries were more impacted by one or another of these effects. Some were affected by all four.  

What policymakers need to take a good look at, though, are the outliers. What countries were able to avoid that vicious cycle and why? If the answer does not lie in the indicators for economy and for public services, I think it’s in some of the other indicators that no one expected. This is consistent with the findings of a recent report in Nature Medicine, which says that “health is more than healthcare and that a whole-of-government approach to health and well-being is needed to create healthy populations able to collectively prevent and respond to crises, leaving no one behind.” The Fragile States Index can help us think through these complexities going forward.

The New Humanitarian: How have you adapted your methodology in recent years, especially since COVID, to capture the changing shape of fragility across the world. For example, have you added/removed any indicators or expanded the variables that factor into each indicator?

Haken: The methodology has been consistent over the years, which allows for trend analysis over time. There have been small changes as we find new sources to better measure our 12 indicators and fill gaps, but we try to avoid changing what we’re actually measuring. This way, as we watch how shocks and pressures play out in different country contexts from year to year, we can draw new insights about fragility and resilience, as was very much the case this year. 

The New Humanitarian: How accurate would you say the FSI is, given that the top-most fragile states are often not the only ones to watch/keep an eye on?

Haken: The fact that you see the same countries appear at the top of the list year after year suggests that there is, in fact, a “fragility trap” as [Professor of Economic and Public Policy at the University of Oxford Paul] Collier puts it, where some countries are perennially in a state of protracted or recurrent humanitarian crisis. Getting out of that trap is exceedingly difficult. It’s very hard to improve value chains, livelihoods, governance, infrastructure, or to attract investment in countries like Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and South Sudan. So you get stuck in a loop of conflict, disaster, and short-term humanitarian response. This is not to say that development actors are writing these countries off. Far from it. But just that it is very difficult.

When a shock hits a divided country, it divides it further.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has been gradually improving over time, especially in the indicators for public services and the economy. But this year we learned something really important. Countries lower on the list may be doing relatively well today. Their economies might be growing. They may be food secure. They may have powerful militaries and professional health and emergency response systems. But in the rare event of an external shock of a certain magnitude, all bets are off. When a shock of that magnitude hits, and eventually it will, even these countries can get into a vicious cycle where a health crisis, for example, can lead to recession, which can exacerbate social and political pressures, which can worsen the original health crisis, and so on. This seems to especially be the case in countries who have simmering problems in social cohesion or state legitimacy. If a shock hits in a country where there is growing polarisation, they may not be able to unite around a national strategy or make the shared sacrifices necessary to respond. Instead, the focus shifts to finding someone to blame. When a shock hits a divided country, it divides it further. Then one of two things can happen, and sometimes both at the same time. First, a government might resort to anti-democratic authoritarianism in order to manage the pressures. Or second, radical groups might capitalise and sow further division. We saw versions of these dynamics play out all over the world in the FSI this year, from El Salvador, to Spain, to the United States, and elsewhere. Even in a state that is not fragile, if the shock is bad enough, there is the potential for a breakdown in public order. This means that you can’t prepare for a health crisis as if it were only a health crisis. You have to prepare for a pandemic as if it will be an economic, political, and social crisis. This is true for any shock that might occur.

If anything, 2020 reinforced my confidence in the accuracy of the Index. But it certainly made me think about fragility and resilience differently than I did before. I think what’s needed now, to complement the Fragile States Index, is a Resilience Index, and then perhaps some dynamic models based on both of those indices that can game out how a shock might cascade and compound in different countries with different profiles. Actually, we’re working on that right now. Stay tuned.

The New Humanitarian: What changes do you anticipate in next year’s FSI? 

Haken: The first thing I expect to see is a reversion to the mean. That is to say, while the average score for demographic pressures, public services, and economic pressures all worsened considerably this year, and in certain countries state legitimacy, group grievance, factionalised elites, and human rights worsened as well, I expect that most of these scores will start to come back down to where they were before the pandemic.  

The New Humanitarian: If you were looking ahead to where the next humanitarian crisis may be brewing, what are the locations you'd flag and why? 

Haken: I’m worried about a few things. First, what happens in countries like El Salvador, where the lesson taken by the government seems to be that anti-democratic measures are necessary for dealing with an emergency? I’m also worried about countries like the United States where group grievance and factionalised elites are on a long-term trend of worsening. That trend is likely to continue. If that’s true, then even if the economy comes roaring back, countries will be more vulnerable the next time. 

The New Humanitarian: Where are the good news stories – either because of great improvements or less worsening than expected?

Haken: Earlier I mentioned the good news about how the aggregate fragility scores for most countries are improving. That’s true enough. But there are other negative trends that are happening at the same time, particularly in regard to water and natural resource scarcity, climatological, meteorological, and hydrological disasters, and migration. We seem to be in a pattern where a major global shock hits around every 15 years or so. But if these pressures continue to rise, then we may be entering into a period of volatility, where the frequency of these shocks accelerates. Previously, we supposed that improvements in public services, social protection systems, infrastructure, and economic growth would mitigate the impacts of those shocks. Now I’m not so sure. COVID was a wake-up call.   

Fragility is not something that is ever resolved or defeated. It is something that must constantly be managed, whether you’re on the top or bottom of the index or somewhere in the middle.

But to answer your question more specifically, the main theaters of conflict seem to be shifting away from the Middle East toward the Sahel. If that continues, there’s a risk that fragility could spill over into littoral West Africa, which previously had been considered a major success story in the FSI’s 16-year history, which again, is a reminder that just because your overall score has improved, it doesn’t mean you’re on a glide path. It doesn’t mean you’re invulnerable to shocks. You may be way more vulnerable than you suppose. Fragility is not something that is ever resolved or defeated. It is something that must constantly be managed, whether you’re on the top or bottom of the index or somewhere in the middle. Another region to watch in the next few years is Eastern Europe. Interestingly, over the last 10 years, among the countries that have improved the most are in Central Asia, specifically Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan. Also, there have been positive trends in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam). If this continues, these countries will do well in next year’s FSI. 

The New Humanitarian: There is a sense, perhaps because of the dominance of certain African states in previous iterations of the FSI, that fragility = conflict. What is your sense about whether/how this perception is shifting towards recognising and paying more attention to broader indices/vectors of fragility, as the FSI is trying to do?

Haken: Absolutely, yes. It used to be that fragility was seen as a problem to be contained and managed in faraway countries, so it doesn’t spill over into the “non-fragile countries”. And while spillover can certainly happen, what we’ve become painfully aware of in 2020 is that fragilities can develop anywhere, even in the most wealthy and powerful countries in the world, countries that may not be conflict-affected. I think, paradoxically perhaps, that this is a good thing – not that powerful countries can be fragile, but that we’re realising that these are complex systems that we’re dealing with. Hopefully this realisation will help us to be smarter about promoting resilience.

The New Humanitarian: You’ve referenced the "fragility trap" in which many African states seem to be stuck. While the FSI is increasingly drawing attention to other countries and regions facing fragility crises – like the UK, the United States, and the Middle East, where two of the world’s “worst” humanitarian crises are (Yemen and Syria) – is Africa overshadowing the rest of the world?

Haken: The “fragility trap” goes beyond Africa. Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan are all in the top 10 most fragile this year and have been there for at least the last five years. Syria entered the top 10 in 2015. But you’re not wrong that Africa does tend to dominate the top of the index, where a confluence of extreme poverty, environmental pressures, weak governance, and conflict tends to keep them trapped in that cycle. However, after a year like 2020, we hope that people will be more likely to look beneath the top-line scores and focus more on trends in each of the 12 indicators. Because those trends really matter when it comes to resilience. In Venezuela, for example, the economy was worsening steadily for years prior to 2013, when things really started going wrong. In the United States, group grievance and factionalised elites were worsening steadily for a decade before COVID knocked us on our heels. Just looking at the total score or the rank, you would miss these dynamics completely.

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