7 Symptoms of Fragility in Pacific Developing Countries

Rusty infrastructure from a state-owned enterprise in the Marshall Islands.
Rusty infrastructure from a state-owned enterprise in the Marshall Islands.

By Cyrel San Gabriel

In the Pacific, many fragile countries have no conflict or violence at all. So how do you know whether a given state has dimensions of fragility or not?

Donors spend billions of dollars on aid to countries with fragile and conflict-affected situations. However, a huge chunk of that money is wasted as resources are mishandled and programs not sustained. According to a 2007 UN study, failing states due to conflict and fragility cost the global economy up to $267 billion a year.

We definitely need to rethink how we work in fragile situations, and—as prescribed by the OECD—the first step is identifying dimensions of conflict and fragility within a country before planning for large- or small-scale development programs.

It should be relatively easy to establish whether a country is affected by conflict or not. But even conflict can hide in the shadows, and ADB learned this lesson very well from its engagement in Afghanistan. ADB’s latest country assistance program evaluation in Afghanistan concluded that it was premature to treat the country as a post-conflict situation despite the worsening security situation. This led to prioritizing speedy implementation over risk management and sustainability in a volatile operating environment. Project designs were in some cases too ambitious and sometimes had irrelevant monitoring indicators, absent and unrealistic targets, and weak adherence to required due diligence.

Determining whether a state is fragile or not is another challenge. A Pacific island nation may have peaceful communities, and no conflict or violence at all, yet still be fragile. So here are seven symptoms of fragility you should watch for and consider when preparing strategies or designing and implementing projects in the Pacific:

  1. Pacific countries are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and natural disasters such as cyclones, flooding, and earthquakes. These catastrophes cause great damage to infrastructure and thus can undermine development gains. Rising sea levels as a consequence of global warming are also expected to alter the migratory route of fish species like tuna, a major economic resource for the region. Droughts and increasing soil salinity are also hampering agricultural productivity.
  1. Pacific island states are generally small and geographically isolated, which makes procuring even basic food items and other essential products challenging, as almost everything is imported and is quite expensive due to high transportation costs.
  1. Limited transportation infrastructure hinders access to markets and services, imposes higher costs on producers and consumers, discourages investment, and isolates the population even further. Very remote states such as Kiribati only have two flights per week, while deteriorating or inexistent roads and bridges makes it harder to go to school, work or seek urgent medical attention.
  1. Foreign aid dependence is such that most professionals in Pacific developing countries are employed by the government, which obtains most of its revenue from international donors instead of taxes. The private sector, which should be driving the economy, barely flourishes.
  1. Public service delivery is weak and concentrated in urban areas, so for instance it’s impossible to walk around at dark in the countryside because there are no streetlights, or even electricity. This is the same with clean water, education, health, justice, and jobs. Lack of access to these basic services disempowers people and limits private sector development and economic growth.
  1. Weak institutions and political instability often cause development projects to fail or not be sustained over time. Since institutional systems are not well established, leadership is important as in the culture of most Pacific countries where people always look up to their “big men” or traditional leaders to champion development reforms. Weak leadership leads to weak institutions, which in turn leads to poor service delivery, deficient law and order situation, and rampant corruption.
  1. Lack of skills development results in poor service delivery at all levels. You can order chicken in a restaurant, but the waiter brings you fish. Expats must be recruited even for simple jobs because there is no local talent that is skilled enough, mainly due to poor education and low-density population.

If at least 3 or 4 of these symptoms persist in the country you plan to work in, you should consider conducting a fragility assessment before designing a project.

ADB has piloted fragility assessment tools to better understand the local context and inform its strategies, programs, and projects. We call this the fragility- and conflict-sensitive approach. However, this approach is not yet widely practiced and it is still in its infancy. Using a conflict-sensitive approach in Nepal has shown promising results, and operations in Afghanistan and Myanmar are now following in Nepal’s footsteps.

Fragility assessments in Pacific developing countries have been tested, but need a bigger push to demonstrate that while these nations may not be conflict-affected, they are surely fragile, and so we must pay special attention to them in the same way as we did in Afghanistan or Nepal.