Published on Let's Talk Development

​What is a fragile state?

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Much like Tolstoy’s quip that each 'unhappy family is unhappy in its own way', a fragile state is fragile in its own way (see this paper, by the World Bank’s Michael Woolcock for more). Therefore, it is all too often unhelpful to reduce the definition of fragility to standardized, static lists or indicators – in so doing, we miss the complexities and nuances of fragility in some situations, and miss other fragile situations all together.
We at the Fragility, Conflict and Violence Group have been thinking beyond lists for some time now. That’s why we’re so excited about the new 2015 OECD States of Fragility report, which could be game changing in the way we think and work on fragility, conflict and violence.  
The OECD has published a report on Fragile States every year since 2005 to monitor aid to a list of countries that are considered most fragile. This year, rather than focusing purely on a list, the report charts out a universal understanding of fragility which goes beyond fragile and conflict-affected states. The new title “States of Fragility Report,” revised from the previous “Fragile States Report,” reflects this change. 
By focusing on lists, there is also a great risk of overlooking situations that may not have made ‘the country cut’ but have pockets of sub-national fragility; identification of a threshold below which a country is considered fragile has always been a challenge. In sum, it seems to be more helpful to think about understanding, rather than defining, fragility.
The new OECD report takes this direction, to form a universal understanding of fragility which goes beyond fragile and conflict-affected states. The timing of the report is deliberate. It will add a voice to the finalization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)s this year. The proposed SDG 16 specifically aims to reduce violence of all forms. All countries, not only those traditionally considered “fragile”, will be expected to meet targets for this goal.  
The report presents a new, multidimensional monitoring framework which uses 5 dimensions of fragility based on a post-2015 framework: violence, justice, institutions, economic foundations and resilience.
In the report, Jolanda Profos, Peace and Conflict Advisor at the OECD, and her team share a new take on fragility using the 5 dimensions of fragility.
5 dimensions of fragility
5 dimensions of fragility

This useful model breaks down the drivers of fragility for each country and reveals different patterns of vulnerability, suggesting that fragility is not restricted to a few countries. Countries vulnerable across all five dimensions of fragility are most likely to have been identified on existing fragile states lists, but many lower middle-income countries are specifically vulnerable to the risks of violence and economic shocks and natural disasters, including countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
A regional consultation around the report that we convened in Nairobi last December  brought together practitioners working on the ground in fields as distinct as human rights, organized crime, violence, women’s issues, and peacebuilding, both from the African, Middle East and Latin American contexts, as well as from g7+ and other developing countries.
We discussed the practical implications of the monitoring framework and agreed that the framework may need to go beyond countries and look at regional and global conflict dynamics. 
“While certain local dynamics such as inequality and social breakdown are important drivers, so are other global dynamics such as the global drugs trade,” noted one colleague. This perspective was echoed by Dr. Gary Milante, Director of Security and Development Programme, SIPRI, at the Fragility Forum, making a plea for “conflict systems thinking.” 
The universal and multi-dimensional fragility filter provided has the potential to influence both paradigms and financing flows. It can help to identify priorities by highlighting the specific vulnerabilities that countries face and help ensure that public goods are delivered to the sector that needs it most. It can also inform international priorities for jointly reducing fragility.
There are opportunities in pursuing a post-2015 universal agenda but also challenges. Making headway on the proposed targets will also require building a new portfolio of tools and interventions. Having a better grasp of the specific vulnerabilities each country faces will certainly be a step in the right direction.
We should all be following the paradigm changes as we drive the fragility, conflict and violence agenda forward in 2015 – a year that is certain to bring major changes. 


Anne-Lise Klausen

Senior Operations Officer at the World Bank’s Fragility, Conflict and Violence Group (FCV)

Ella Humphry

Education Specialist

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