ODA influx needed to prevent 'terrifying' SDG backslide in fragile states

Children walk at a camp for internally displaced people near Abs of Hajjah province, Yemen. Photo by: Eissa Alragehi / Reuters

WASHINGTON — With elusive progress on the Sustainable Development Goals in fragile contexts drastically compromised by COVID-19, there is a critical need for effective aid spending, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s “States of Fragility 2020” report.

The annual report examined the most fragile contexts in 2020 in two parts: the global state of fragility before the virus struck, and how the resulting pandemic is dramatically impacting that landscape. It examines fragile state progress on the SDGs, and reviews levels of finance available to support them, calling for urgent action by OECD countries to maintain official development assistance levels, support access to other types of financing, and promote policies for fragile contexts.  

“Fragile states need ODA more than anyone else. They find it hardest to get foreign investment ...”

— Susanna Moorehead, chair, OECD Development Assistance Committee

Of those living in extreme poverty globally, 76.5% live in fragile contexts — representing 23% of the world’s population. Only small improvements were found in the 2020 analysis of 57 countries and territories, and they are expected to be jeopardized by COVID-19, which has contributed to mass unemployment, increased poverty, heightened inequalities, political unrest, and rising gender-based violence.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a global health, economic, and social crisis without precedent in living memory. It’s also revealed the immense importance of strong states, efficient governments, and solid social security systems to confront the pandemic,” said Jorge Moreira da Silva, director of the OECD Development Cooperation Directorate, at a launch event on Thursday. “The early estimates, using the most recent projections from the World Bank, suggest that the pandemic will result in 26 million additional people in fragile contexts falling into extreme poverty by the end of this year.”

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Susanna Moorehead, OECD Development Assistance Committee chair, called the numbers in the report “terrifying” and said the figures show that poverty reduction is not merely off-track, but in reverse. She said DAC must mobilize political momentum and resources for fragile countries by spending ODA more wisely and making funds go further.

In 2018, $76 billion in bilateral ODA went to fragile contexts — more than ever before. After remittances, ODA is the second largest form of external finance to fragile countries, and it has increased every year since 2014.

“Fragile states need ODA more than anyone else. They find it hardest to get foreign investment … Official development assistance is under enormous pressure and it is certain that demand will outstrip supply,” Moorehead said. “You only have to think about the humanitarian burden that the world’s facing, and it is DAC donors who will pick up a very substantial part of the costs of that over the course of the next year or so. But fragility, we know, is expensive … if you don’t invest in stability, it costs you more.”

Making ODA more effective means making sure the international community is coordinating assistance and that there is less competition between agencies. It also requires a focus on programs that prioritize resilience and investment in conflict prevention and peace building, she said.

Helder da Costa, general secretary of the g7+, a group of fragile states, said that despite the pandemic, ending active conflict and war around the world must remain the number one priority.

“Conflict prevention cannot and should not be summed up as compilation of ad hoc projects and activities funded and fragmented in analysis and theories. Pursuing stability that rests on a capable state, functioning institutions, and [a] vibrant economy should be our end,” da Costa said. “For the g7+ countries, we did not need a pandemic to learn this hard lesson. Our member countries have been living such a reality for decades.”

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said that the coronavirus has aggravated multiplied issues of fragility — the burden of which tends to disproportionately fall “on those who are already vulnerable and marginalized.” Before COVID-19, only 8 of the 48 fragile contexts where data is available were on track to meet SDG 1, ending poverty.

Thirteen of the countries examined in the report are categorized as extremely fragile, with the top five being Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Between 2012 and 2018, the gap in levels of fragility between the extremely fragile states and non-fragile contexts increased every year. In 11 of the 13 extremely fragile states, progress has stagnated on hunger and gender equality-related SDGs while in more than half of nonfragile contexts, progress is increasing or on track for meeting the goal.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.