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Fragility: time for a rethink

Written by Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou, Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, Alina Rocha Menocal


Originally intended to help mobilise aid flows to ‘fragile states’, the OECD’s 2020 States of Fragility report is the thirteenth edition of a long series first published in 2005.

Its intentions at the outset were arguably laudable. But for years, the backlash against the ‘fragile or failed states’ terminology plagued the report, which was re-named in 2015 to ‘States of Fragility’. Today, the report refers to ‘fragile contexts’ instead of ‘fragile states’ and has usefully reconfigured fragility as ‘global and dynamic’. But it still focuses on a group of now 57 countries, against which multiple odds are simultaneously stacked.

But Covid-19 has exposed deep fragilities in the ‘developed’ world too. Declining institutional and democratic norms suggest interesting parallels between states deemed fragile and those that are not.

So, has the time come for a radical rethink of fragility? Below, three ODI experts share their takes on the future of fragility in the development sector.

Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou: Covid-19 presents an opportunity to rethink fragility

This year’s OECD report claims to focus on the global state of fragility, but it does so through a ‘fragility framework’ based on the 57 worst-off countries. This selectivity makes it a blunt analytical instrument, where it is difficult to separate the concept from its application.

Selectivity also prevents us from shifting our gaze to the global, where the political economy continues to play a decisive role in producing and sustaining fragility in would-be fragile contexts.

To its credit, this year’s report does start to grapple with the implications of Covid-19. This is welcome and timely. As global economic systems come unstuck, entrench new forms of poverty and wealth, and unleash popular revolt, the opportunity to understand the multiple ways in which global processes shape local ones in both fragile and non-fragile contexts has been increased considerably.

The pandemic is clearly playing out differently in different contexts. It renders some systems more vulnerable but others even more resilient, particularly those that have shown their capacity to learn and adapt. Covid-19 has shown fragility trajectories to be far from linear, weakening the predictive power of this kind of report.

Fragility beyond fragile contexts – towards a new global paradigm

The experience of Covid-19 means we need to look at fragility from inside and out. We need to unpack how both global and local processes produce and sustain it, and the ways it co-exists with forms of resilience, particularly in their most structurally violent manifestations (as the Black Lives Matter movement brought to light). Nothing short of a paradigm shift is needed to make sense of the current states of fragility we are all in, admittedly to differing degrees.

Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy: supporting solidarity as a pathway out of fragility

There is a broad consensus that the world today needs solidarity. The question is how to meaningfully achieve this against deepening social injustice, violence and conflict. Normative conceptualisations of “fragility” continue to inform international, mostly Western, engagement in countries deemed “fragile”, creating a power dynamic that does not allow for solidarity to emerge.

It is time to rethink the ‘fragility’ lens and its target audience. There are three reasons why I think it is no longer fit for purpose.

1. The world is in the process of transformation

Power is being wielded by new actors with different interests. The North-South divide is no longer realistic. Global geopolitical shifts mean that fragility now applies to a number of countries outside the Global South. The unfolding eastern Mediterranean crisis shows that fragility is a symptom of the international system as much as it is of countries experiencing economic, social or political crises.

2. The lived reality of people matters

While it is heartening to see countries such as Timor Leste, Egypt, Nepal, Malawi and Rwanda step out of fragility in 2020, one wonders if this reflects the lived reality of people in those countries.

In Egypt, inequality is deepening and is perceptible in every aspect of people’s lives. An Egyptian health sector worker today — where the World Bank estimates that 60% of the population are poor or vulnerable and poverty levels in some villages are as high as 81.7% — would be really surprised to know that his country is no longer considered fragile.

3. The extent to which the ‘fragility’ lens has enhanced cooperation and complementarity across different parts of the world, especially at a more localised level, is questionable

While donors have increased aid to fragile contexts, it is still concentrated in a few countries, in line with political interests (such as diplomatic failures in Syria and Afghanistan). Equally, as a forthcoming report on the impact of the war on Yemen will show, populations resent being pigeonholed as fragile and want to be recognised as empowered to change their own contexts.

Going forward, development actors should place a much stronger emphasis on opportunity and not just fragility. And as literature on youth, entrepreneurship and sustainability shows, much leadership and new thinking on development is coming from ‘fragile’ states. Better engagement of southern voices can help direct the conversation in a productive way and foster the solidarity we so dearly need.

Alina Rocha Menocal: established democracies are not immune from fragility

As the States of Fragility report highlights, fragility is ‘global and dynamic’. All countries experience it to varying degrees, across economic, environmental, political, security and/or social dimensions. This offers an important opportunity to engage in conversations about fragility with greater humility and honesty. Fragility is not something that happens only far away somewhere in the developing world but is also a challenge much closer to home.

At their core, fragility and resilience are about how actors in state and society interact (subscription required) to channel different interests, needs and demands to address collective challenges, and to mediate conflict. In some of the oldest and wealthiest democracies in the world, including for example the UK and the US, Covid-19 has laid bare frailties of the social contract that have been brewing since at least the 2008 financial crisis in a context of widening inequalities within and between countries. The widespread rejection of politics as usual has unleashed deeply fraught processes of contestation to redefine power relations and underlying political settlements, in ways that can be progressive (e.g. Black Lives Matter) but also considerably less so (e.g. the rise of populism and growing polarisation).

Formal and informal rules of the game that had long worked in mutually reinforcing ways in more established democracies can no longer be taken for granted. What we are seeing is a growing disjunction between policies and rules on paper and how power is exercised in practice, in ways that can be (perceived as) arbitrary and politicised. This can profoundly undermine the rule of law. In the process, trust and legitimacy in the state and in other mechanisms of democratic representation and accountability, including political parties and traditional media, have also suffered.

All this has weakened what the World Bank calls the legitimate institutions that constitute the ‘immune system’ of functioning and resilient states – which is a critical characteristic of fragility.

Processes of contestation are essential to deepen the quality and substance of political systems and revitalise the social contract. But as we know, the journey is far from linear and can become treacherous – even in places long deemed stable and resilient. All states are fragile in different ways and to different degrees, and there is much that countries like the UK and the US can learn from efforts to address fragility elsewhere.