Small is Beautiful, but Fragile in the Pacific

Seafarers training in Tuvalu.
Seafarers training in Tuvalu.

By Patrick Safran

Since beauty can be deceiving, we must take into consideration the root causes of fragility when doing development work in small Pacific island nations like Tuvalu.

The presence of violent conflict in a country is often a major red flag for the development community. One good example is Afghanistan, which appears in four clusters (violence, justice, resilience, and economics foundations) in the OECD States of Fragility 2015 report. ADB has very well learned its lesson on the need to apply a conflict-sensitive approach to operations in Afghanistan by using risk assessments, security measures, special financing policies, and flexible procedures in development programs and projects.

Operating in an environment where “conflict begets fragility, and fragility begets conflict” is indeed complicated, and the development community does pay special attention to conflict-affected countries. This idea, however, does not hold true in small Pacific island nations, most of which are considerably peaceful but equally fragile. Pacific countries may not be buffeted with violent conflict, but they do experience other dimensions of fragility. For example, Kiribati is found in two clusters (resilience and economic foundations) in the OECD report.

Moreover, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu are as fragile as conflict-affected states such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Nepal – except for violence and conflict. For instance, when we compare fragility in Afghanistan and in the smallest ADB member country, Tuvalu, violence there is not a significant social problem. But this does not mean that there are lesser risks for development work in Tuvalu than in conflict-affected Afghanistan.

Fragility in beautiful, peaceful Tuvalu simply doesn’t stand out as much as insecurity in Afghanistan, and one may need a magnifying glass to spot problems that are easy to miss at first glance. Both country performance assessments feature low scores (a rating of 3.2 or less defines a fragile situation) on economic management, structural policies, social inclusion, and public sector management. Afghanistan and Tuvalu show the same nature of fragility, although the main drivers or root causes of their fragility differ significantly.

Figure 1: Afghanistan Country Performance Assessment, 2008-2015

Figure 2: Tuvalu Country Performance Assessment, 2006-2015

Afghanistan’s weak scores in performance indicators are driven by decades of war and political instability, resulting in the government’s lack of capacity to provide basic services such as education, health, jobs, justice, and security. Out of desperation, some Afghans resort to terrorism and illicit trade, making it even more difficult for the government to mitigate conflict. Islamic and tribal traditions strongly oppose the modernization of governance and society. An estimated 97% of Afghanistan’s roughly $15.7 billion GDP comes from international military and development aid, and spending in the country by foreign troops. Despite the billions of dollars of aid poured into the country, pockets of poverty are still lurking in Afghanistan, where there are still high rates of poverty indicators like illiteracy, unemployment, and maternal and infant mortality. The living conditions of the Afghan people remain among the worst in the world, lacking the most basic needs such as shelter, medical care, and clean and safe water.

Tuvalu, one of the smallest and the most remote countries on the planet, has limited land area (26 square kilometers) and a small population of about 10,000. The nation hardly achieves and sustains any economic growth at all. It faces challenges like a narrow economic base, dependence on imports, exposure to volatility in global markets, heavy reliance on income from external sources, high risk of debt distress, and limited human and financial resources. The generally inefficient public sector is the main driver of growth, while the private sector is small, restricted by high transport costs and with limited opportunities for entrepreneurial activities. Development is further hampered by public policy on land, which limits land ownership to natives, and weak institutions make most land transactions informal. Tuvalu is also one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change, mainly shrinking space due to sea level rise, which is exacerbated by a growing population, neglect of traditional resource management practices, unsustainable use of natural resources, and poor waste management and pollution control.

The OECD’s 5 dimensions of fragility can capture a state’s fragility, but only at the surface. These dimensions are driven by deeper layers of fragility, which are unique to each fragile state. The root causes of fragility are the ones that need to be addressed, and these cannot be represented by any intellectual model. A different approach for each unique situation is the main principle that should be applied when providing development aid to fragile state.

If a conflict-sensitive approach is applied to development programs in conflict-affected countries, a fragility-sensitive approach should be applied to small fragile Pacific island states such as Tuvalu. The fragility-sensitive approach may entail:

  1. Understanding the local context. Incorporate political economy and fragility assessments in the planning phase—and continue using them during implementation—to mitigate possible operational risks.
  2. Institutional capacity building. Strengthen core institutions with a long-term approach to facilitate development.
  3. Country ownership. Involve not only the government but also the private sector, NGOs and local communities in development programs to ensure projects are sustainable and will “live” after the foreign experts leave and the donor funds stop flowing.

The case of Tuvalu shows us how indeed beauty can be deceiving, so we must look not at what’s on the outside, but at what’s on the inside. Small is beautiful, but we must take into consideration the root causes of fragility when doing development work in the Pacific. The OECD’s framework understanding of fragility may not need further revision, but each dimension could be further broken down to capture the uniqueness of each fragile situation.

First published in the OECD blog Institutions and Stability.