Friday, November 13, 2015

Fragility of Societies: Putting Societal Dynamics at the centre of the Analysis, by Benjamin PETRINI

The multidimensional approach to fragility in the OECD States of Fragility 2015 report is a welcome step forward towards a more nuanced understanding of the causes and dynamics of fragility itself. It brings us one step closer to devising better policies to minimize the toll that fragility exacts on institutions, economies and societies at large. By singling out five discrete “lenses” of fragility (i.e. levels of violence, access to justice, the quality and functioning of institutions, economic foundations, and resilience to shocks), the new model is able to better identify those diverse dimensions of fragility and categorize countries according to the challenges they face – rather than simply dividing the world into fragile and non-fragile countries.

The 2015 report clearly links tackling fragility to addressing poverty. It states that reducing poverty in fragility-prone countries is first of all dependent on strengthening institutions and resilience. However, the 2015 framework fails to incorporate a ‘societal’ dimension. The traditional top-down approach to fragility – primarily centered on state capacity – is unable to capture dysfunctions in society that may lead to more fragility or conflict.

A societal dimension for the fragility model
“Societal dynamics” are defined as “the way individuals and groups interact and the relationships that form out of these interactions.”[1] They describe how people interact, how they form collective efforts, and the exchanges that result from these relationships. Some examples include the way groups mediate (or fail to do so) across identity divisions, gender and different age-group relations, and interactions between formal and informal institutions.

Societal relationships influence the functioning of the state and contribute to stability and long-term development. The underlying idea is that state and society are interdependent (Migdal, 1988; North, Wallis, and Weingast, 2009): in particular, processes of state-building are dependent on a context-specific social order. The quality of this relationship is what matters: a state may be strong in administrative terms, but weak in influencing (positive) social change.

For example, a country featuring a society divided along ethnic or religious lines, where the state has either failed to accommodate the demands coming from one or more groups, or deemed those demands as illegitimate, may experience weak(ening) social fabric, instability and/or contestation. In turn, low quality state-society relations may result in heightened state fragility. Similarly, a perception of injustice or differential treatment, and a lack of trust and collaboration among groups may be symptoms of fragility too.

What matters is social cohesion
A 2012 report by the World Bank (“Societal Dynamics and Fragility: Engaging Societies in Responding to Fragile Situations”) underscores the important role of “social cohesion” in reducing fragility via a number of mechanisms. Social cohesion is a complex and contested concept, which is understood here as the nature and quality of relationships within society, including the state. In cohesive societies, groups across society converge. This entails a common understanding of, and trust in, the rules of the system (state and society), long term interests and incentives toward cooperation and shared goals, and the inclusion of all groups.   

According to the Bank’s study, some of the mechanisms through which social cohesion can be reinforced, and, in turn, fragility can be reduced, include: reinforcing citizenship; addressing perceptions of injustice; channeling demands in society towards common goals; managing rapid social changes in terms of access to technology, migration, urbanization etc.; acknowledging the role and improving the quality of social organizations, civil society actors, informal institutions, and their mutual interactions etc.

How to make the concept more society-oriented
Now, a question arises: where and how to include this composite dimension within the fragility model? First, societal dynamics are not easily quantifiable – hindering the prospect of establishing goals and using existing measurable indicators. Second, given their multifaceted and broad nature, societal dynamics may already be embedded within one or more of the five fragility lenses above. For these reasons, it may be problematic to add another lens to the model.

What might be needed instead is a shift in focus, by placing both the state and society in the driving seat of fragility analysis. This could look like a two-pronged fragility model, centered around both state and societal issues.  Alongside the 5 state-related lenses of the fragility model, an additional model may assess the quality of the interactions within society, including the state. A Societal Fragility Model may have at its core the overall goal of: “Building social cohesion, citizenship, and healthy state-society relations”.

The Bank’s report highlights some key areas of concern in order to lead countries out of fragility. In line with this, sub-goals and sub-components may include:
  •        Addressing perceptions of injustice across groups, and between groups and institutions, including
- Strengthening social inclusion and fair participation
- Supporting conflict resolution mechanisms
- Assessing legacy of trauma and healing it
  •         Strengthening civil society interactions, including
- Between socially heterogeneous groups (i.e. bridging social capital)
- Encouraging associational life
  •         Improving interactions between institutions (formal and informal), including
- Supporting local governance and institutions as a bridge between state and society

This approach would serve as an additional or complementary tool to further disaggregate fragility, and to analyse the roots and dynamics of state-society relations. It would be able to better identify and assess risk factors for fragility; in particular, it would allow deeper analysis of the very foundations of society in order to flag potential societal dysfunctions that may increase fragility.

How about data?
Finding indicators to monitor some of these goals may be feasible. For example, a number of indicators on civil society organizations exist. Nonetheless, some of them are purely qualitative in nature (e.g. those related to perceptions), and may require ad hoc social and political analysis.

In conclusion, no matter how the model is built, the take-away point is that both the state and society – and the quality of their interaction – determine fragility outcomes.

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.

Benjamin Petrini, PhD Candidate (SOAS) and World Bank Consultant

[1] World Bank (2012). Societal Dynamics and Fragility: Engaging Societies in Responding to Fragile Situations. Washington, DC.