I recently attended a meeting of a large international financial institution reviewing its fragile state portfolio. Each country team’s report described similar risks of violence, weak rule of law, unsound institutions, economic challenges, and gaps in resilience. In most cases we could have simply substituted one country name for another.
It was difficult to imagine that we were hearing anything that would generate actionable insight for effective intervention in a particular place. Indeed, the action plans seemed cut-and-paste, taken from the same international toolbox of justice reform, security sector reform, investments in economic infrastructure, and on and on. Since we presumably measure what matters, each cluster of fragility receives its corresponding package of interventions.
Treating symptoms won’t work
The poor results from such programming are predictable. Seeing weak rule of law, donors send judges and prosecutors on courses. But returning to the same dysfunctional system, they won’t be able to change the administration of justice. Infrastructure projects will be subject to the same corrupt influences or political rivalries that inhibited inclusive economic growth before. When we use current fragility measures as guides to programming, we fail to recognize that the very dynamics of political fragmentation, mistrust, exclusion and grievance that make a context fragile in the first place also undermine programmes meant to address it.
Even worse, many programmes to address fragility have perverse impacts as they reinforce already dysfunctional power arrangements. In Angola, for example, the Norwegian government and IMF have for decades addressed the oil sector in the name of institutional reform and poverty reduction. But by most all accounts, the result is a stronger, richer (and indeed technically more capable) ruling class free to act with even greater impunity towards its own people – helping explain how, after nearly 30 years of intervention, Angola has slid from the 43rd most fragile state in 2005 to the 41st in 2015 on the Fragile States Index, with a skyrocketing GDP but a life expectancy at birth falling further behind the regional average.
What’s below the surface?
OECD and other fragility concepts are perhaps getting better at describing the presenting conditions of fragility, and therefore the desired outcomes of reform. But international programmes often enough fail to fundamentally alter states of fragility. This should tell us that our measures are no closer to addressing the critical questions for effective intervention: Why are these factors present in a particular context? What are the power relationships or institutional arrangements that reinforce rather than address fragility? Given that no society chooses poverty or insecurity, what has inhibited a sufficient coalition for change from forming? In what domains might it be possible for one to emerge? And what kinds of international interventions might help them do so?
Asking such questions will necessarily move us away from measurement of conditions, in which we assume that we are reducing fragility if we nudge the youth unemployment rate lower or introduce better legislation in the extractives sector. It will usefully move us towards measurement of what we might call the political economy of fragility: socio-political dynamics inhibiting the mobilization of coalitions sufficient to confront and change power relationships and institutional arrangements that exacerbate problems rather than provide solutions. We move from counting what is not there – for example, jobs or security – to measuring what is there – powerful dynamics inhibiting change.
Evidence suggests that, as we through this different lens on fragility tackle more fundamental questions, interventions become more context-aware, more in tune with political realities and the art of the possible, and thus more effective. The observatory movement in Latin America, for example, has in many cases been highly effective in reducing urban violence. One key success factor has been their ability to facilitate new and cross-cutting coalitions for change, addressing or working around negative political and power arrangements. They address violence by tackling the underlying dynamics by which society was frustrated in its efforts to mobilize against violence in the past.
Finding the factors that could bring about positive change
Realigning fragility measures to help explain not only what pressing issues are present in a society but why they are not being effectively addressed will be difficult. It will necessitate a fairly fundamental transition from data collection to more rigorous intelligence gathering and systems analysis. Qualitative analysis performed by knowledgeable parties on the ground will need to address, in peacebuilding parlance, what divides people and what connects them, as well as the dynamics by which divisions are reinforced and connections inhibited. We will need to build a new taxonomy of fragility to identify and measure the factors that, if changed, would meaningfully alter the currently negatively reinforcing system.
Coming to terms with the improved insights new measures provide won’t be easy, either. They will move us out of the more comfortable space of analysing conditions – observing with fragile state governments that, “yes, lack of economic opportunity and inter-ethnic rivalries are problems” – to the more contentious one where we assess and acknowledge the inhibitors of systemic improvement – now adding, “and your defence of the formal and informal arrangements that protect your power and privilege are leading causes of both.” We will need to stop simply calling on fragile governments to be more inclusive or act against corruption and cronyism – in effect, exhorting them to stop being fragile – and start looking for the players, issues, and dynamics that present opportunities to build sufficient coalitions to unblock positive change.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD or of its member countries.
Brian Ganson, JD is Head, Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement and Extraordinary Associate Professor at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. He is co-author with Achim Wennmann of the forthcoming book Business and conflict in fragile states: The case for pragmatic solutions.