A Venezuelan couple rests after receiving a free lunch at the "Divina Providencia" shelter on the outskirts of Cúcuta, on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, Colombia. Photo by: REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

WASHINGTON — Venezuela is tied for the “most worsened” country in the 2019 fragile states index after it has been “beset by enormous turmoil” and finds itself with two people claiming to be the country’s leader.

“Literally speaking, Venezuela is rapidly getting sicker.”

— J.J. Messner, executive director, the Fund for Peace

Venezuela declined for the sixth year in a row and now ranks as the 32nd most fragile country in the world in the index, which is produced annually by the Fund for Peace and measures risk and vulnerability in 178 countries. The scores for Venezuela “reflect a crisis that is deepening and broadening, reversing decades of progress amid the breakdown in the provision of basic goods and public services,” the index’s report said.

It notes that the country’s rank would likely have been even worse if the political upheaval that has taken place in the first few months of 2019 were included in the data examined for this year’s index.

“With two people now claiming the mantle of presidential legitimacy and millions more refugees and migrants expected to leave the country over the next year, 2019 is likely to see countries outside Venezuela increasingly affected by, and involved in, the crisis,” the index’s report said.

One of those countries is expected to be Brazil, which tied with Venezuela in 2019 for the most worsened country. Brazil, which fell 23 spots in the 2019 index, had a fraught election campaign that saw far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro elected as president. But the ranking found that “the country’s poor performance is more deeply-rooted in a general economic malaise, rampant corruption, and crumbling public services that have seen Brazil’s FSI [fragile states index] score worsen for six straight years.”

This year’s index, released Wednesday, is the 15th year in a row data has been compiled and analyzed according to 12 indicators in four categories labeled cohesion, economic, political, and social. Those indicators help measure things such as how fragile states can be particularly susceptible to shocks or adversely impact regional stability, said J.J. Messner, executive director of the Fund for Peace.

“For people living in the most fragile states, their lives can be beset by poverty, inequality, violence, displacement, and often oppression as well. Fragile states are also vulnerable ones. Where shocks occur, be they natural or man made, they can be especially vulnerable,” Messner said. “Worse still, fragility, poverty and violence form a vicious cycle. When state structures are weak and it is no longer possible to guarantee basic public services or to provide security, conflicts often escalate.”

Once the richest country in South America and a nation that took in refugees from the likes of Colombia and Chile, Venezuela has economically and politically collapsed after years of government mismanagement. Its rapid decline is a lesson that in terms of country stability, “nothing is forever,” Messner said.

“Data suggest that much of the worsening trend in Venezuela actually goes beyond politics alone, and is being recorded in areas such as demographics and health. Literally speaking, Venezuela is rapidly getting sicker,” Messner said.

“Venezuela was the first country in the world to eradicate malaria. And now look where we are … This is a country that only a few decades ago we would have said was the stable beacon of Latin America.”

In addition to health challenges, including malaria — of which there are an estimated 1.2 million cases in Venezuela, a 400% increase in the past 10 years — diseases such as AIDS, diphtheria, and Zika also threaten stability.

The number of people fleeing such conditions in Venezuela is estimated to be 10% of the country’s total population and predicted to continue rising in 2019. This led to a “sharp increase” in the country’s index score for the refugees and IDPs indicator. Neighboring Colombia has taken in over 1 million of the estimated 3 million that have fled and is estimated to receive another 1 million in 2019.

In the past decade, Venezuela is the fifth most-worsened country, after Yemen, Syria, Mali, and Libya. The United States and the United Kingdom are also considered two of the most worsened countries in 2019, with the U.K. fourth — after Venezuela, Brazil, and Nicaragua — due to political turmoil over the Brexit process.

Replacing South Sudan, Yemen was ranked the most fragile country in the world, as a civil war creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis involving near-famine conditions and the spread of cholera continues with no end in sight. South Sudan fell to third, after Somalia and just ahead of Syria.  

Despite those developments, the 15th edition of the index found on the whole that the world is becoming gradually less fragile.

While the fragile states index presents countries in such a way that improvements and deterioration are ranked, Messner warned that the data must be interpreted with more nuance when it comes to prospects for a country’s future development. A country with a poor ranking, such as war-weary Syria, doesn’t necessarily signal that there is no room for investment, he said.

“You should be using the data to inform the kinds of questions you should be asking in terms of due diligence,” Messner said. “It really gets to a very key question of looking at investment in fragile states, because for many investors to look at a country like Syria, it would be a pretty tough sell for many investors to invest in any sort of project in Syria right now. But they have to eventually, and at some point, you have to move from aid to development.”

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.