OECD's new approach to state fragility: More than a name change

Refugees from South Sudan at a settlement in Uganda. Both countries are listed as “fragile states” in the States of Fragility 2015 report published by the OECD. Photo by: Malini Morzaria / EC / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

The yearly release of lists and indexes of fragile states always seems to prompt criticism about how such handy measures, which attempt to capture weak state capacities, are themselves also fragile, as they fail to portray the nuanced nature of state fragility.

Based on its latest report on state fragility, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which has historically drawn its annual assessment of fragile situations from the World Bank’s harmonized list of fragile situations and the Fund for Peace’s fragile states index, seems to have been listening.

Jolanda Profos, OECD’s peace and conflict adviser and lead author of the organization’s annual fragile states report, pointed out that the purpose of the publication has been to respond to demand from senior policymakers, who at the senior-level forum on development effectiveness in fragile states in 2005 asked the OECD to develop a system for monitoring resource flows to countries beset by poverty, insecurity and weak governance.

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The list approach, according to Profos, has the advantage of attracting attention to the needs and challenges of a particular set of countries and territories. But while the method has been a convenient resource for donors and policymakers, it also has its weaknesses.

“It conveyed the wrong impression that we were looking at ‘fragile states’ as a homogenous group, and perhaps had a stigmatizing effect because too many misunderstood the lists as definitional rather than simply a tool for tracking support or aid flows,” Profos told Devex.

The OECD’s 2015 report has a subtle, but nevertheless significant, change: It uses the phrase “states of fragility” instead of the usual “fragile states.” According to Alan Whaites, team leader of the effective and accountable institutions team at the OECD’s Development Cooperation Directorate, the name change arose from consultations with different groups.

“In one of the discussions, participants felt that the old name simply did not fit a post-2015 development framework, and somebody in the room threw out the idea of ‘states of fragility,'  which really resonated with the group,” Whaites told Devex.

The sustainable development goals, according to Whaites, spurred the re-evaluation of the problem with the annual list of fragile states and led to the recognition that “the old approach has been used partly because ‘there was nothing better.’”

“Attempts to encourage people not to see the old lists as definitional (that is, a categorization) but rather as a tool for tracking support or aid flows often got lost as just a nuance,” Whaites said.

Profos said that the plan is to phase out the traditional list and drop the “fragile states” label “over the next three years or so.” Instead, the OECD will adopt a multidimensional approach that will look at state fragility using five indicators: violence; access to justice for all; effective, accountable and inclusive institutions; economic foundations; and capacity to adapt to social, economic and environmental shocks and disasters.

“This means we no longer want to speak of a binary system of ‘fragile and not fragile’ states, but of many shades,” Profos said.

Still, even this current model is a work in progress.

OECD, Profos said, will hold a series of workshops involving practitioners and academics alike to dig into questions that merit discussion: Should the model be politically negotiated, such as the SDGs? Should it be an agreement of empirically confirmed drivers of fragility? Should it be a predictive tool or a snapshot in time?

Indeed, one of the limitations of lists of fragile states, as outlined by Visions of Humanity in its Global Peace Index 2014 report, is the tendency to focus on “realized” instead of “potential” fragility.

“We recognize that any model has its shortcomings, and that we will never get to the ‘ideal’ model or concept, but rather that it is a first step toward better monitoring, and requires specific in-depth, case-by-case study to find nuance and actual policy responses,” Profos said.

While all important points to consider, the debate surrounding the appropriate methodology has perhaps overshadowed a more urgent concern: how well aid and other forms of support align with the needs of these states and economies.

An analysis of financial flows to fragile situations shows that, while aid continues to be a significant source of funding in these economies, the shares of remittances and foreign direct investment as a percentage of gross domestic product in countries with large diaspora populations and resource-rich nations, respectively, exceed foreign assistance.

“The report is not practice guidance, but it is intended to encourage new thinking and to profile the issues involved in conflict and fragility,” Whaites said. “Hopefully by recognizing the complexity of these issues, it is encouraging effective partnerships and responses.”

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About the author

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    Anna Patricia Valerio

    Anna Patricia Valerio is a former Manila-based development analyst who focused on writing innovative, in-the-know content for senior executives in the international development community. Before joining Devex, Patricia wrote and edited business, technology and health stories for BusinessWorld, a Manila-based business newspaper.

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