Large parts of the world are growing more fragile. Here are 5 steps to reverse course
by Robert Muggah
Originally published on the World Economic Forum website
There are ominous signs of growing turbulence around the world. The number of civil wars has doubled since 2001 – jumping from 30 to 70. The number of people killed in these armed conflicts has increased tenfold since 2005. And there are more refugees and internally displaced people around the world than at any time since the Second World War.
According to a new report, States of Fragility, the rising prevalence of conflict, crime, terrorism and deepening geopolitical volatility are also contributing to ripples of fragility. These challenges are especially acute in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, as well as Central and South Asia.
Organized violence is a necessary but insufficient condition of fragility. Fragile states and cities experience a toxic combination of creeping authoritarianism, sluggish growth, deteriorating institutions, and in many cases, social unrest. They face multiplying risks and diminished coping capacities to manage, absorb and mitigate them.
Fragile countries and cities are often trapped – unable to progress but also hovering just below the threshold of outright warfare. To wit, 19 of the 27 countries routinely described as chronically fragile over the past decade by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are not mired in armed conflict.
Fragility is not evenly distributed geographically. While all countries and cities are susceptible, fragility is overwhelmingly concentrated in low- and middle-income countries, municipalities and neighbourhoods. Roughly 17 of the 27 most fragile countries listed by the OECD are low-income, nine are medium-income and one is registered as high-income.
The sheer scale of fragility is breathtaking. Presently, 72% of all people living in extreme poverty reside in fragile settings. If current trends persist, more than 80% of the world’s poorest populations will live in these fragile contexts by 2030. Fragility, then, constitutes a major obstacle to national progress, as well as to global efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
There are also many shades of fragility. The OECD, for example, distinguishes between political, economic, environmental, security and societal fragility. Taking this broader perspective, the organization claims that there are as many as 58 fragile contexts (which include countries and territories), some of them more at risk than others.
According to the OECD, a few countries struggle with persistent fragility – notably the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Somalia. And while some countries exited fragility in 2018 – notably Cambodia and Lesotho – others experienced sharp declines, including Cameroon, DRC, Egypt, Libya, Tajikistan and Pakistan.
While not a permanent condition, fragility is difficult to shake off. Despite expectations to the contrary, poverty reduction and economic growth alone do not necessarily lead to a virtuous circle of institutional transformation and sustainable development. The opposite often occurs: rapid economic growth that is not paired with rising incomes, widespread employment and greater political voice can be deeply disruptive.
Likewise, strengthening the authority and legitimacy of central government institutions can also be counterproductive, since this can unintentionally entrench grievances from below. There is no doubt that improving the quality of governance is central. But efforts to promote development in fragile settings must be approached with extreme caution, since they can have unintended violence-increasing effects.