Don't Just Define Fragility – Understand It, Act on It

Women carrying firewood in rural Myanmar.
Women carrying firewood in rural Myanmar.

By Patrick Safran

For our development projects to be effective, we must learn the root causes of conflict and fragility, and use that knowledge to guide our planning and implementation efforts.

Doing development in fragile and conflict-affected situations (FCAS) comes with unique challenges, to be dealt with through the right actions based on a proper understanding – not just based on narrow definitions.

Understanding and acting on fragility are by far more important than defining it. For instance, both Afghanistan and Tuvalu, to name just two of ADB developing member countries identified as in FCAS, both suffer political instability, weak governance and institutional capacity, economic and social insecurity, and greater vulnerability to climate change. But for development projects to be effective in Afghanistan, we must learn the root causes of conflict and fragility there, and use that knowledge to guide our planning and implementation efforts. We should apply a similar approach to Tuvalu and the other countries on our FCAS list: Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Myanmar, Nauru, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste.

An ADB study released today maps out the major weaknesses of each of its fragile countries, based on the results of country performance assessments (CPAs), to identify issues we should pay particular attention to when preparing our development projects. The report focuses on four CPA clusters—economic management, structural policies, policies for social inclusion/equity, and public sector management and institutions—and recommends that equal attention and resources be channeled to states that experience both fragile and conflict-affected situations.

In a development context, fragility is an evolving state that can stagnate, deteriorate, or improve. But even if a country sees positive developments, shaking off fragility fully may take decades. Conflict, on the other hand, is the ultimate stage of fragility – fragility at its climax. Although the complex and multi-faceted issues found in FCAS are a huge constraint to planning for development interventions, the report sheds some light on a few priority areas we should concentrate our efforts on.

1. Mainstream gender equality at the local level. Gender inequality is pronounced in all FCAS countries (see Figure 1). Women, particularly those in rural and marginalized areas, have little access to economic resources and social services, and are poorly represented in national political systems. Gender-based violence is also a common problem, compounded by weak justice systems that often overlook domestic violence.

Figure 1: Comparison of Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries with Low Scores on Policies for Social Inclusion/Equity, 2015

Source: ADB.

2. Strengthen accountability mechanisms for public resource use. All FCAS countries have serious deficiencies in public sector management and institutions (see Figure 2). Most have a narrow income tax base as a result of dependence on grants, limited economic activities, and weak capacity to absorb external aid due to inadequately educated and trained human resources, and the poor capacity and resources of core government institutions. 

Figure 2: Comparison of Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries with Low Scores on Public Sector Management and Institutions, 2015

Source: ADB.

3. Increase investment in health and education. The public education and training systems in FCAS countries are far from international standards, and often have few qualified teachers, limited teaching resources, and poor infrastructure facilities. Limited access to health, clean water, and sanitation is also a major challenge, especially in rural areas.

4. Build local capacity for environmental institutions. FCAS countries are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and natural hazards like cyclones, floods, landslides, storm surges, and droughts. Climate change exacerbates fragility. Governments in FCAS countries have a low adaptive capacity to climate change, as they are generally lacking in financial and human resources to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

5. Develop an innovative policy framework on land use. Policy restrictions on land use are prominent in the Pacific island states. For instance, customary ownership of lands in these countries makes it hard to access financing to start a business.

6. Improve regulatory frameworks for trade, finance, and business. Afghanistan, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Myanmar, Nauru, Tuvalu, and Timor-Leste all have weak regulatory frameworks for the trade, financing, and business sectors. Processes in customs administration, securing credit, and business registration and licensing are all cumbersome. This constrains private sector investment, resulting in limited economic activities.

These recommendations are not premised on the definition of fragility per se; they are deduced from the common local dynamics of fragility that have been mapped out in the ADB study. They aim to boost public service delivery by addressing the key weaknesses of FCAS countries. Every fragile situation calls for a unique response, and addressing fragility issues needs to consider the local context. The ultimate goal is political stability and socio-economic growth, to be achieved through appropriate structural reforms that deliver effective and efficient governance and encourage social inclusion and equity.