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Fragile systems and development

It seems there are as many lists of fragile states as there are countries. All of these lists usually agree that Somalia should be near one end of the spectrum and Denmark near the other, but have different methodologies, approaches, and objectives. They are used for everything, from description to advocacy, prescription, and early warning. I’ve worked on these lists for the World Bank, commented on a number of launches for these lists, and have tried to think seriously about what they mean — how they can be useful and harmful. I’m glad to see our global understanding of fragility maturing. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, “States of Fragility“, reflects how the world is thinking with ‘fuzzier’ classifications. It is time to move past a list of fragile states and into thinking about fragile systems.

Moving from Fragile States Lists …

The term fragile state originated as an alternative to ‘failed state’ – a worldview predominated by assertions about ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ states, with very weak states referred to as ‘failures’, ‘failed states’, etc. Many critics rightly pointed out the naivete of a single dimension in conceptualizing the myriad ways in which states and societies can go wrong. Certainly they can be weak at the center, unable to maintain the Weberian monopoly of violence, but societies can also fail to reconcile grievances between ethnic groups; have disenfranchised minorities at the periphery seeking autonomy; have neighbors at war; are havens for organized crime or trafficking; are instruments of massive corruption or oppression; have economic and political systems that simply have low capacity to deliver essentials of governance; or all of these things and more. Since 2001, the international community has become more nuanced in its understanding of fragility, including World Bank and OECD language on “situations of fragility,” such as “achieving turnaround,” “improving development aid effectiveness,” “creating resilience,” and “making a durable exit from poverty and insecurity.”

It is time to move past a list of fragile states and into thinking about fragile systems.

Unfortunately, fragility has often been defined at the state level out of convenience. We have state level data and state actors are the main counterparts for development actors, for better or worse. As a result, the term ‘fragile states’ should be read as a sort of vernacular shorthand term for countries that cannot manage economic, environmental, or political shocks.

There are a number of problems with defining fragility at the state level. These lists are generally slow to respond to changing conditions, and they create arbitrary and discrete thresholds that don’t reflect a continuum of fragility. The broad use of the term ‘fragile state’ can be pejorative and lead to conceptual fuzziness and oversimplification, which leads to misdiagnosis of complex political dynamics. There are many so-called ‘fragile states’ that have extremely resilient communities and societies within the political boundaries of the state. Likewise, there are fragile societies in otherwise resilient states.

Still, country level analysis is useful for descriptive purposes. Annual analysis by the OECD and the World Bank, among others, usefully reflects global trends within this group of countries, as disparate as they may be. There are good reasons to continue to categorize and monitor a group of countries with similar challenges.

Today, most practitioners define a situation of fragility as that with one or more of the following features: poor or lagging development, weak capacity and/or institutions at the national or local level, low or contested legitimacy, violence or conflict-affected, and/or less resilient (i.e. less likely to rebound from or adapt to shocks).

… to Fragile Systems Thinking

Systems thinking involves understanding how all of the strategic actors engage with each other in processes to produce specific outputs. Collectively, these interconnected parts comprise a system and the performance of the system is measured by its outputs. Systems are interconnected, have amplifying and stabilizing feedback loops, are occasionally cyclical, chaotic, or otherwise non-linear, and are often complex. A popular example is an ecosystem: how air, water, soil, weather and climate, plants and animals, have interconnected effects on the performance of each other and the system as a whole.

Systems thinking goes past linear thinking and ‘engineering’ solutions that suggest an equilibrium is attained only when a problem is solved. I found at the World Bank that this is hard for development economists to do as our instinct is to look and solve for equilibrium solutions. Economists solve for long run solutions, but in fragile situations the road to the long run can involve decades of instability, or even civil wars, pogroms, and mass killings. Keynes famously said “In the long run, we’re all dead.” In fragile situations there may be many dead in the short run and this violence may make some long run equilibria unattainable. A systems approach solution for resilience – or anti-fragility – may be ephemeral, as systems may be dynamic, such that problems are always evolving and good solutions are adapted even as they are implemented.

Economists solve for long run solutions, but in fragile situations, the road to the long run can involve decades of instability, or even civil wars, pogroms, and mass killings.

Because all states and societies are highly interconnected through borders, trade, tourism, financial markets, migration, the Internet, the environment, and other porous membranes, it can be difficult to define the edges of a complex system. Systems can overlap with each other, reside inside other systems, and interact with other systems and the rest of the world. A systems approach is useful for identifying not only complex problems and challenges, but also the very real possibility that there is no ‘best’ solution to these challenges. When challenges are seemingly intractable or are too large to be fully understood, they are often called wicked problems. In most cases, violence has the effect both of magnifying the underlying pressures and eroding the institutions needed to manage them, creating a fragility trap from which it is very difficult to escape. Interactive mapping of such a system can reveal unintended consequences, feedback loops, and other cyclical effects, as well as differences between stakeholders in what the problems are (and what solutions might work).

As the world continues to move away from fragile states and toward thinking about fragile systems, I think it will be useful to link fragile systems in current development theory to the concept of resilience to environmental pressures. The new agenda for sustainable development will require a systems approach to identify systems solutions to complex phenomenon like war, climate change, humanitarian emergencies, poverty, instability, and insecurity.

 Featured image credit: ‘Black Marble – Africa, Europe, and the Middle East’ by NASA. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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