A new/better way of measuring the fragility of states?

June 12, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with the much-quoted line ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its fragile stampown way.’ Does the same apply to states?

The OECD’s new report on Fragile States goes some way down that route. Instead of its past (much criticised) single dimension of ‘fragile/non fragile’, it assesses fragility across five dimensions: Violence, Justice, Institutions, Economic Foundations and Resilience. This is definitely progress – with the new framework, it is clear that Benin — vulnerable in resilience and economics — has different development needs than Cambodia — vulnerable in justice and institutions.

There is of course, a price to pay. Instead of a simple list of fragile states, we have a funky, but more complicated, five pointed star.

SoF Venn Diagram June 03 2015

Only 9 benighted countries tick all five dimensions and end up in the middle of the star:

  • Central African Republic
  • Chad
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Cote d’Ivoire
  • Guinea
  • Haiti
  • Sudan
  • Swaziland
  • Yemen


The others are ranged across different combinations of dimensions.

On the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, Thomas Scherer promptly jumped on the report, claiming that the OECD had got its numbers wrong and that ‘Only 30 of the 70 listed states are classified correctly.’ The OECD replied, defending the data (they said Scherer had used different datasets and years to those used by the OECD, but acknowledging some mistakes with the graphic – I’ve used their cleaned up one).

As always there’s a tension – the more precise you are, the closer you get to saying ‘every state is fragile in its own way’ a la Tolstoy. That might be a better way to acknowledge that these issues apply to all countries, not just a fairly arbitrary subset, but then it becomes subsumed within general discussions of development, whereas the Fragile States lobbyists want to argue that a subset of countries are so fragile that they need special treatment.

Certainly, simply having a fragile/non-fragile binary is too crude, but predictably the choice of the five dimensions and the indicators provoked challenges. Frauke de Weijer of ECDPM felt that the most important gap was external stresses – arms trade, illicit financial flows, organized crime etc.

According to report author Jolanda Profos ‘We have had a lot of feedback on extra dimensions that we should add in 2016, but less feedback on which of the current dimensions we might drop – the problem with a multi-dimensional model of fragility is where do you stop in terms of numbers of issues? It does seem likely that we will try to add a `social dimension’ as the lack of one has been the most consistent area of feedback.   But there has also been a suggestion that we should look at the peacebuilding goals.’

At least having a discussion about the different dimensions of fragility allows harder thinking about the whole issue of the role of the state, how effective institutions emerge and the role of aid/other external forces. And if some of the projections are true that fragile states are going to be home to the vast majority of the world’s poor in a few years’ time, thinking about states and institutions is likely to form an ever larger part of the development discussion.

Your views?

June 12, 2015
Duncan Green