The 2015 OECD report on States of Fragility proposes a new way of measuring and classifying fragility that is really exciting and ground-breaking, but it’s less exciting once it gets to the policy prescriptions. We seem to move from a bold new attempt to re-classify and re-think fragility to some pretty standard orthodoxies on what to do about it...
Paul Harvey, SLRC Director
The 2015 OECD report on States of Fragility proposes a new way of measuring and classifying fragility that is really exciting and ground-breaking: all countries are measured, and multiple dimensions of fragility are recognised. What’s more, it passes the ‘common sense test’ in that the countries in the core look like the right ones. But it also rightly draws attention to ones on the periphery, such as countries that are middle income but with very high levels of violence. In so doing, it takes up the challenge of the IEG evaluation of the Bank’s work on fragility which recommended ‘developing a more suitable and accurate mechanism to classify FCS [fragile and conflict-affected States]’.
Inevitably, not everyone will agree with all of the indicators used to measure fragility across the five dimensions. As with any classification, you can look at it and wonder about omissions and what sits where – I personally wondered why Ukraine doesn’t appear and why Syria appeared at the bottom of the diagram and not the top. Taking it forward it would be great to see some attempt to map fragility at the sub-national level for countries like Indonesia and India. That said, the report itself acknowledges that it is a first stab. In light of that, it’s an exciting first effort and one that provides a good starting point for argument and debate.
It’s less exciting once it gets to the policy prescriptions. We seem to move from a bold new attempt to re-classify and re-think fragility to some pretty standard orthodoxies on what to do about it. It would have been great to see the logic of multiple dimensions of fragility taken through into the policy implications. The Venn diagram rightly points to some countries that have high levels of violence but strong institutions, and others with lower levels of violence but weaker institutions. But it would be good to see more differentiation in approaches according to what dimensions of fragility are most important in particular places. So, there should be more of an acknowledgement that approaches to international engagement in Pakistan and Sri Lanka need to look very different to approaches in Somalia and South Sudan.
It also remains very aid focussed, despite mounting calls for development to go beyond this. And the aid prescriptions are still very New Deal-centred. This is fine for countries that western donors like, but it falls down when the politics changes. So, it’s OK for Liberia and Sierra Leone but not for Sudan or Syria, where donors are less keen on moving towards budget support, ownership and alignment. The policy prescriptions also continue to assume positive progress away from fragility, whereas South Sudan demonstrates how quickly countries can slip back into conflict – and how this affects donor and government relations. Judging from the report, the new poster child for the New Deal is Somalia, which risks taking the recommendation for donors to be more ‘risk tolerant’ to extremes.
Put bluntly, the report risks over-stating the importance of aid in supporting processes of becoming less fragile. In doing so, it risks letting domestic politics off the hook. You could read the report and assume that if only aid were better designed and delivered, then fragility would be successfully tackled. There is very little about how marginal the role of aid is in these processes; about how the primary responsibility of countries is to sort out their own politics and govern better in the interests of their own people.
Finally, the report also risks focussing too much on ‘state supporting’ forms of aid (that is, ways in which aid can be better aligned and harmonised with domestic government policies) and ignoring the various good (as well as bad) reasons why aid is sometimes ‘state avoiding’. The current switch in South Sudan from developmental forms of assistance to humanitarian ones demonstrates how the international aid system seems to have an on / off switch when it comes to engaging with conflict-affected states. What is instead needed are better combinations and sequencing of aid instruments, and more constructively critical forms of engagement with governments at national and local levels – on the part of both humanitarian and development actors.