Let’s Rethink How We Work in Fragile States

Children fishing in the Marshall Islands, one of 9 ADB developing member countries listed as fragile.
Children fishing in the Marshall Islands, one of 9 ADB developing member countries listed as fragile.

By Patrick Safran

The OECD has finally acknowledged the diversity of risks and vulnerabilities that lead to fragility. ADB’s own proposed fragility index considers fragility as a complex and multidimensional issue.

“Without addressing fragility we cannot achieve sustained development progress.”

This statement was made recently by Dr. Rui Maria de Araújo, Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, one of several countries in Asia and the Pacific where development progress has traditionally been hampered by fragile and conflict-affected situations. In fragile states such as Timor-Leste, which gained its independence in 2002, achieving development gains is particularly challenging due to weak institutions, political instability or long exposure to internal conflict, and vulnerability to economic shocks or climate change in the form of natural disasters.

When we think of states affected by conflict and fragility, though, we tend to think that the latter is a mere consequence of the former. But that is not true at all, as was discussed in a joint ADB-The Asia Foundation workshop on fragility recently held in Bangkok. For instance, most of Asia’s subnational armed conflicts—many of which have been running for generations—take place in generally stable, middle-income countries, with relatively strong governments, regular elections, and capable security forces. This demonstrates that large-scale, armed violence can occur and endure in strong states as well as weak ones, and presents development organizations with a distinct set of challenges that demand a new way of thinking about fragility in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) era.

The OECD has long recognized this, and a few months ago came up with a new tool for assessing fragility that is more comprehensive than the traditional single categorization of “fragile states,” and finally acknowledges the diversity of risks and vulnerabilities that lead to fragility. The tool helps identifying “fragile” countries as those highly prone to five dimensions of risk and vulnerability linked to fragility, and asks how these will affect the chances of meeting the new Sustainable Development Goals: (i) violence; (ii) access to justice; (iii) effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions; (iv) economic foundations; and (v) capacity to adapt to social, economic, and environmental shocks and disasters.

The fragility index developed by ADB is in line with the OECD tool and considers fragility as a complex and multidimensional issue with four core dimensions (economic; state; security and peace; and conflict and justice) and two additional dimensions (environment and world risk) to incorporate environmental and climate change aspects.

Cycle of fragility.

ADB currently identifies 9 countries (Afghanistan, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Myanmar, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, and Tuvalu) as fragile based on country performance assessment scores. Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Vanuatu are not listed, but both countries present dimensions of fragility, so a fragility-sensitive approach should be applied to all development projects there.

The proposed fragility index could serve as a guide for achieving more impact with development in these countries, always taking into account the nature and degree of fragility reflected in the index. The guide also draws from lessons we’ve learned on how to do development work in fragile and conflict-affected situations:

  1. Make the right call. Fragility assessments are typically viewed as added burden to project design and implementation, but if they are done properly, these evaluations can help shape the program and enhance impact. Fragility assessments were introduced in ADB's 2016-20 Country Partnership Strategy for PNG.
  2. Identify fragility at an early stage. Early recognition of fragility, its drivers and causal factors, and adapting the project to that specific context helps allocate resources better, and avoids many potential problems later on. In Afghanistan, we have learned for instance that resettlement plans in road projects are best prepared and implemented with the close participation of communities and affected persons in a seamless process, immediately after funding approval.
  3. Apply a context-sensitive approach. Understand dimensions of fragility in the local context and incorporate them at the concept stage before project design, and keep those dimensions in mind during the implementation phase to prevent operational risks that may result from ignoring local fragility dynamics and how they interact with societies, institutional cultures, structures, and systems. ADB's conflict-sensitive approach piloted in Nepal has shown promising results.

Our experience in fragile and conflict-affected situations shows that the nature of fragility evolves over time, and so our understanding of fragility must evolve, too, by taking the specific local context as the starting point through fragility assessments. These evaluations should be taken much more seriously than before, and must involve all stakeholders, including non-state actors.

This shift in mindset is long overdue, and we hope others within the development community will join is in our resolve to achieve much more impact for our programs in countries affected by conflict and fragility, the ones most in need of our assistance.