A panel at the World Economic Forum on Africa. Photo by: Kate Wathen / Devex

DURBAN, South Africa — In recent years there has been an uptick in violence and conflict-related deaths in Africa, all of which is driving an increase in state fragility on the continent.

A lack of governance, inequality and weak institutions are all major drivers, according to a group of panelists at the World Economic Forum on Africa, who said that in order to better understand fragility, it is important to look at some of the root causes and then address solutions.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was a last-minute addition to the panel, a choice some observers found interesting given the civil conflicts and economic disasters that have befallen the country in recent years. But Mugabe argued that not only was his country not a fragile state, but that it was in fact the most highly developed country in the continent after South Africa.

“We are not a poor country. We can’t be a fragile country.  But if someone wants to call us a fragile country they are free to do so.”

He said that there are two causes of fragility a lack of jobs and income inequality, and ideological or religious differences.

Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of Oxfam International and a co-chair of the summit, has been outspoken throughout about the failures of African leadership. She took the opportunity to make a point that drew both laughter and applause, in no small part because she was seated next to Mugabe on the stage.

“You have people with power in the capital who rule us because they have the radio and the guns but have no legitimacy because they don’t have empowered people and empowered communities,” she said. “That’s the problem in our continent: weakness in institutions where people hold the power and can drive their own development.”

Drivers of fragility

Inequality, weak institutions and a lack of empowerment of people and communities are key drivers of instability, Byanyima said. Countries must not abandon segments of their populations and must ensure that all citizens have opportunities so violent extremists do not come in to take over, causing further suffering to marginalized communities.

Byanyima used the example of Ebola as an example of the dangers of fragile states. Sierra Leone and Liberia were hit hard by the virus and it became a pandemic in large part because those countries were fragile states with weak health and governance systems. By contrast Uganda has seen Ebola four times — but each time, even with meager means, Uganda was able to contain the problem, she said. That happened in large part because the country has build a robust and inclusive local government system. Liberia and Sierra Leone, by contrast, didn’t have the same structures or empowered communities so there was no effective vehicle to deliver support, she said.

One underlying cause of fragility is fragile relationships — between different generations, the rich and the poor, urban and rural, said Victor Ochen, the founder of the African Youth Initiative Network.

If a generation feels abandoned and government leaders treat any attempt at conversations as a protest, there is a lack of trust.

“That trust between the institution, which is key, is the reason for why we're seeing more sustained violence and mistrust in the community,” Ochen said. “What we are lacking at the governance level is integrity: the integrity of power, the integrity of position, the integrity of action and we're not accountable to our own system, to our own people and this makes it very difficult for people to get the trust which is needed, which is key in building a nation.”

Young people should be able to present their ideas and should be tools for peace and development, he said.


There are a number of ways that fragility can be addressed, including building more inclusive societies, improving governance and even finding ways to harness remittances, the panel heard.

Finding ways to securitize remittances could help protect fragile situations. In Somalia about $1.6 billion of the total of $2.6 billion in flows into the country comes in the forms of remittances, said Donald Kaberuka, a special envoy to the African Union Peace Fund and the former president of the African Development Bank.

Another key factor to address fragility is to avoid what he calls “a situation of permanent losers.”

“There cannot be peace and stability if you have a people in a particular geography who see themselves as permanent losers,” Kaberuka said. “I do believe we have to give attention to it.”

Inclusion and diversity is therefore key to tackling fragility, but so is responsible leadership, Byanyima said.

“It also means retiring, leaving office, so that others also have a chance to lead. That’s important,” she said. “Elections that are free and fair and reflect the will of the people … those are the things that are lacking in our governance.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ochen said that youth can be a critical part of solving the challenges of fragility but to do so leaders must tap their potential.

“Leaders must reach a point where they resolve their differences and stop problems because people are dying,” he said. “People need to be told that when you get to power you are leading for everybody, you are creating a society where every citizen benefits and they must realize that.”

Christopher Mikkelsen, the co-founder and co-CEO of Refugees United, said that information is critically important in addressing fragility.

“I think that fragile states exist not out of a lack of will but out of a lack of want and I would ask the leaders of these states to reflect on who the future belongs to and educate them and in the process educate themselves.”

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.