How Not to Measure Fragility

by Jennifer Brookland

February 24, 2015

It must have once seemed self-evident: that a poor state could not be strong and stable, and conversely, that middle-income states were less likely to crumble. Using this reasoning, the World Bank pegged its classification of fragile states in part to income, and let its assistance approaches for these troubled areas follow suit.

Experts are now struggling to shift institutional thinking away from this misleading and tenuous perspective on the relationship between fragility and income.

“Income alone is a poor yardstick to measure poverty or fragility,” said Pauline Baker, President Emeritus of the Fund for Peace and a Senior Advisor with Creative Associates International. “In my opinion the best way to look at fragility is on a spectrum: it’s complex.”

Although 55 percent of low-income countries are indeed fragile, 46 percent of middle-income countries and 16 percent of upper-middle-income states are as well, according to Nadia Piffaretti, a Senior Economist on Fragility, Conflict, and Violence with the World Bank.

While income (i.e. poverty) is a common metric for gauging fragility, Baker believes that other critical precursors are being overlooked.

In an aggregate study of 91 countries, Baker found that state legitimacy was the most salient indicator of stability. In fact, demographic pressures, inequality, the presence of militias, human rights violations, public service provision, and group grievances are all more highly correlated to instability than poverty and economic decline.

In her March 2014 paper for Creative, Exploring the Correlates of Economic Growth and Inequality in Conflict Affected Environments, Baker wrote that “Because fragile states present particularly difficult obstacles to development, the way forward for them may require very different strategies than simply pressing for economic growth.”

To fix it, find what is breaking

At a Feb. 13, 2015 panel at the World Bank’s Fragility, Conflict and Violence Forum entitled “Addressing fragility in middle income countries,” Baker and other experts remarked how a more nuanced understanding of fragility would lead to better interventions.

Out of 16 criteria the World Bank currently uses to measure fragility, none focus on social sustainability—factors such as social cleavages, exclusion of minorities, or generational conflict, for example. There are also few that mention empowerment or voice, according to Elisabeth Huybens, the World Bank’s Practice Manager for Social Development, Europe and Central Asia Region.

Huybens found the income-based fragility classification at the expense of these other factors “astonishing.”

“I’m afraid that we have a very, very imperfect tool to identify fragility, and we need to work on that,” she said.

Several panelists pointed out that development policymakers and practitioners also need to change the habit of analyzing and responding to fragility on a national level alone, ignoring higher and lower-level factors that are likely even more important.

“Most of the drivers of fragility happen supra-nationally, sub-nationally, and at other levels and we are blind,” said Piffaretti. “We have no data.”

The opposite of fragility

The World Bank has experience looking beyond national indicators.

It previously changed its approach to measuring poverty from a state-level view to one more grounded in household-level data and “wellbeing,” a concept that includes income as one of multiple factors. This shift could serve as a template for a shift away from national-level assessments of fragility.

But for the Bank and other organizations to reshape the thinking on how to classify fragile states, they will have to look more closely at what fragility really means; what are its counterpoints; and where do they exist. Also: what is its opposite?

Seth Kaplan, a Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, rejected the notion that the opposite of fragility is resilience, which he equates with resistance and static conditions.

“The opposite of fragility,” he said instead, “is dynamism.”

Accepting fragility as the norm leads practitioners to treat it as a quasi-baseline to return to following incidences of violence or jumps in conflict levels. However as Baker pointed out, it’s not enough to achieve stability when a return to the status quo merely means a return to fragility.

“It’s not enough to absorb shocks: we need to prevent them,” she said. “We’re not talking about stabilization, we need to talk about transformation.”

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