Tell Me Again — What Does “Fragile States” Mean? – Jean R. AbiNader


* Fund for Peace releases 2014 Fragile States Index *


Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Jean R. AbiNader, MATIC
June 27, 2014

This week, the Fund for Peace (FfP) and Foreign Policy magazine released the 10th edition of the Fragile States Index (FSI). At the launch event, the program consisted of two panels: the first focused on the report and major findings from 2013. The second featured two experts speaking on the impact of global climate change and population/migration on the “fragility” of states.

What is very interesting this year are trends emerging in certain regions, e.g. more fragility in Africa and the Middle East, and more stability in the Balkans. In the Middle East and North Africa, state rankings range from “high alert” to “stable.” Overall, the report shows that all MENA countries need in varying degrees to pay greater attention to advancing human development, equitable opportunity, and inclusive governance to achieve more positive results.

The FSI remains controversial, as some see it as a report card and a comparison of countries, which has a bias against less developed countries. Others quarrel with the methodology that treats all countries and indicators equally without differentiation among items measured.

Let’s start with the methodology issue. Data is gathered and scores compiled through three separate steps: massive content analysis of millions of documents sorted into 12 key political, social, and economic indicators, which in turn include more than 100 sub-indicators; the second step includes both qualitative and quantitative analyses based on major events; finally, the initial scores are then compared to a comprehensive set of vital statistics as well as human analysis “to ensure that the software has not misinterpreted the raw data.” All 178 countries, regardless of level of development and political structure, are treated the same.

Although results are presented from worst to best rankings, the Index is not comparative; it focuses on internal forces that affect the “people,” as FfP Executive Director Krista Hendry put it, including external pressures that impact internal cohesion. So, while it may give Mauritius pleasure to have a “better” ranking than the Bahamas, it has little utility for what each country is facing in terms of its own domestic stability. Rather, the FSI highlights when normal pressures experienced by all countries “are pushing a state towards the brink of failure….[which] makes political risk assessment and early warning of conflict accessible to policy-makers and the public at large.”

On to the News

The first panel was moderated by Ann Curry of NBC News, joined by Ben Pauker of Foreign Policy magazine and Krista Hendry and J.J. Messner of The Fund for Peace. Among the key findings discussed with the audience were the high number of African nations in the top 20 fragile states (14), which countries have done the best and worst in terms of rankings, and which indicators seemed most critical to a state’s resilience. The four worst performers from 2012 to 2013 were the Central African Republic, Syria, Libya, and Mozambique. Countries that improved the most were from Asia, Africa, Central America, and the Balkans. Looking at trends over 10 years, countries that have dealt with ethnic or other internal tensions are the most improved — a difficult lesson still to be learned in the fractious Middle East conflicts paralyzing Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.

Critical among the social and economic indicators was group grievance — pressures related to discrimination, powerlessness, and ethnic, communal, sectarian, and religious violence. The most instructive political and military indicators are those related to state legitimacy — corruption, government effectiveness, political participation, electoral process, level of democracy, illicit economy, drug trade, protests and demonstrations, power struggles, human rights/rule of law — which includes press freedom, civil liberties, political freedoms, human trafficking, political prisoners, incarceration, religious persecution, torture, and executions.

In looking at the MENA landscape, with sufficient research, one can create a template for determining which indicators are most relevant to each country. Although there is no comparative ranking within the indicator (e.g. how important is the electoral process compared to government effectiveness?), it is possible to develop a robust analysis of each country as one dives deeper into the data.

Looking Ahead — Challenges to Resilience

If “fragile” connotes weaknesses that may lead to dangerous fault lines in a state’s progress, then “resilience” seems appropriate for describing those countries that use the FSI as a checklist for improving their internal cohesion and positive growth. The second panel featured Rachel Kyte of the World Bank and Bob Walker of the Population Institute who made remarks respectively concerning the impact of global climate change and population/migration issues on the fragility-resilience of states.

Among the most challenging factoids is that the 20 most fragile states will likely double their populations in 35 years, with Niger’s growing 4 times to 67 million, an unsustainable number for that country. Larger populations in fragile societies result in hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, political and community instability, and other detrimental conditions, such as rising mortality rates. Mr. Walker recommended that more be done in three areas: girls’ education, women’s empowerment, and agricultural development. When women have knowledge and access that enable them to make decisions about their lives, societies tend to be more stable and economic growth rates higher. The importance of agriculture is widespread with so many states dependent to a large degree on farming, and with the projected growth of the world’s population, action sooner rather than later is required to feed and nourish people efficiently and effectively.

The negative impacts of climate change are already growing as ice caps recede and the intensity of harsh weather rises. Agriculture has to be redefined and reformulated for changing climatic conditions, coastlines reinforced and protected, water sources safeguarded, and water usage allocated effectively, among other steps.

According to Ms. Kyte, countries such as the Philippines, directly in the center of a typhoon corridor, will suffer extensive human and material damage with the growing number of storms. Similar effects are being noted in the upper Mississippi River, where flooding that occurred once a decade is now annual. The question of what to do goes beyond political will to how to finance the enormous costs of resilience versus repair, for example, to avoid the consequences of the next Hurricane Sandy.

Whether one is interested in a country, region, or the international community, the FSI is a valuable and worthwhile product, both for the discussions it provokes and the indicators of what can be done better. The challenge today is restoring some semblance of a working social contract between citizens and governments. As stakeholders analyze the report’s findings, there is much to learn from parsing the individual indicators and sub-indicators, as well as how and to what degree they reflect competing agendas in the country.

And rather than seeing this as a year-to-year exercise, it is instructive to review the ten-year trends mentioned earlier, which demonstrate that no countries are immune to changes over time in their rankings.  More critically, as we are now witnessing, for troubled states in the Middle East and Africa as well as the stable countries of Scandinavia, there is always the risk of contagion; no matter how well a country is doing, its neighbors may be heading toward failure and disruption — which may have regional and global consequences.

Jean R. AbiNader is Executive Director of the Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center.


[…] . * Fund for Peace releases 2014 Fragile States Index * . Jean R. AbiNader, MATIC June 27, 2014 This week, the Fund for Peace (FfP) and Foreign Policy magazine released the 10th edition of the Fragile States Index (FSI). At the launch event, the program consisted of two panels: the first focused on the  […]

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