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Q&A | On rankings, red flags, and resilience

‘I don't think you need the FSI to tell you there is a civil war in Syria and Yemen or a refugee problem in South Sudan’

Is there really any value in ranking countries based on their fragility? What can a data set tell us that we don’t already know about problem countries? Isn’t there a risk that subjective sources or analysis may skew the results?

The New Humanitarian put these questions to J.J. Messner, executive director of the Fund For Peace, which has just released its 15th Fragile States Index.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

TNH: How do you compile the FSI, and how do you ensure its accuracy?

J.J. Messner: The FSI grew out of the Conflict Assessment Framework, a set of indicators that we and some other organisations created 25 years ago to help field practitioners judge the dynamics of conflict situations. Later, we decided to apply it to all countries to be able to rank them based on their level of fragility, and that is how, in 2005, the FSI was born. We use a content aggregator to scan 10,000 news sources and then apply a triangulated methodology of qualitative, quantitative, and empirical analysis to be able to take what is fundamentally qualitative information and turn it into numbers. Although there is a human element in the indicators that we use, the bulk of the analysis is done by algorithm and data triangulation.

TNH: What about fake news or slanted government reports?

Messner: We don’t include government reporting or social media because – although it can be useful for event-driven data on a very dynamic hour-to-hour basis – over the long-term it tends to be quite noisy and also relatively difficult to verify its reliability and credibility. It’s impossible to be able to guarantee that you are going to be able to completely, beyond all reasonable doubt, eliminate any fictitious elements to news coverage, but our view is that given the sheer volume of what we’re looking at, anything untoward is going to be outweighed. I would also add that the data is largely telling us what we expect it to, so if it suddenly began spitting out data that didn’t make sense or smell right, we would notice and take a closer look.

TNH: What is the purpose of the index? What value does it add to existing knowledge of state fragility?

Messner: The index shows us where we need to be concerned with when it comes to fragility and pressures experienced by certain countries. This assists policy makers with decision-making and it focuses people’s attention on where fragility is high and problematic. However, by the same token, we also hope that the index can be used for monitoring and evaluating the progress of countries.  We’re not just looking at the negative, but also at the positive as well – to be able to demonstrate where countries are getting better and how we can help them continue on a path of progress and prosperity. I think this aspect of the analysis frequently gets lost.

I don't think you need the FSI to tell you there is a civil war in Syria and Yemen or a refugee problem in South Sudan, but what the index can do is demonstrate trends and rates of change. For example, take a country like Sierra Leone. It is currently ranked at 39, in what we call the high-warning category, which you could interpret as meaning that it is quite fragile and of concern. But a more nuanced way of looking at it is to understand where Sierra Leone is today and where it has come from. In the first FSI back in 2005, Sierra Leone was ranked among the 10 most fragile.

TNH: What stands out to you in this year’s rankings, particularly from a humanitarian point of view?

Messner: Venezuela is the most-worsened country over the last five years, and we’re becoming quite concerned about Central America in particular. Countries like Nicaragua and Honduras, for example, are a concern for us, and Brazil, while not a humanitarian context, isn’t far behind Venezuela in terms of how much it has worsened in the recent period.

In Africa, Cameroon is another concern. It got significantly worse this year and has been on that path for some years. Mali, Togo, and Tanzania are also standing out to us, as is Mozambique, which has gotten worse over the last decade but now, with the unfolding humanitarian disaster in the wake of Cyclone Idai, we expect this is only going to exacerbate problems there.

This is a less obvious element of the FSI, that it helps to demonstrate a country’s resilience – or lack of – after a shock.

TNH: What other notable trends have you seen in recent years?

Messner: Ethiopia has been very up and down. Only a couple of years ago, in 2017, it was our most-worsened country, and now, two years later, it’s the most improved. That lurch from the most-worsened to the most-improved on one hand demonstrates a reasonable amount of volatility, but on the other I think shows that there is a significant amount of resilience and that the outlook for Ethiopia is generally positive. Another example of that is Japan. In the year following the tsunami and earthquake, it was one of the most-worsened countries, but it bounced back relatively quickly. I think this is a less obvious element of the FSI, that it helps to demonstrate a country’s resilience – or lack of – after a shock.

TNH: What about Brexit?

Messner: When the Brexit vote happened in 2016, we were not really focused on Western countries, although we had looked a bit at some European countries like Italy and Portugal during the Eurozone crisis, so the result of the referendum was a bit of a wake-up call. We decided to look into the data to see if there was anything that we could have deduced that we could have perhaps given forewarning that the vote could have gone the way that it did. We found that the five-year trend for the UK on a couple of key indicators (specifically, group grievances, state legitimacy, and factionalised elites) had worsened at an incredible rate of change, and that the five years from 2011-2015, the UK on those three indicators was the seventh most worsened country in the world, up there with the likes of Syria, Libya, Yemen etc.

You would not have expected the UK to be there, and that really demonstrated to us that stability cannot be taken for granted, and even the most developed countries can still fall prey to the pressures. We also looked at the US, because in 2016 we were halfway through that fractious presidential election campaign and lo and behold, the US was tracking exactly the same as the UK, and it was the equal seventh most worsened country on those three indicators in the five years preceding 2016. That indicated to us that the results of the Brexit vote and the 2016 presidential election in the US were in many ways a physical manifestation of fissures that were already occurring in society, and that Brexit, for example, was simply the result of a long period of increasing pressures on key indicators.

We would encourage people to use the FSI along with other studies to create a basket of indices that really gives a much broader and more robust view of the fragility equation.

TNH: How does the FSI fit into other fragility rankings and studies?

Messner: It is becoming a bit of a crowded field when it comes to different metrics looking at state fragility, but from our point of view that’s a very good thing. Really, we should all be using all of them, because each index looks at different aspects of state fragility via different indicators with different measures, and the objectives of the indices can be different. So we would encourage people to use the FSI along with other studies to create a basket of indices that really gives a much broader and more robust view of the fragility equation. They complement each other, and it’s helpful there are so many different data sets looking at fragility. In both directions, there is a lot that can be learned about what has helped countries in the past and potential dangers. I think the more data there is focused on issues of fragility,  we’ll be able to give a clearer picture.

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