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The Urgency of Fragility

Matthew Bishop — Former Managing Director, Bellagio & Fellows Program

This piece is part of our 2018 United Nations General Assembly series.

“You cannot have inclusive development without stability, and you cannot have stability without development.” – Kofi Annan

When world leaders descend on New York at the end of this month for the annual United Nations General Assembly, much of the talk will be about how to strengthen countries that are in fragile and conflict-affected situations. One of them, Syria, will provide a case study in how wicked a problem this can be, with no easy solutions. Yet unless the world can find ways to repair states that fall apart, or better still, prevent them from collapsing in the first place, there is little chance of the world achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 adopted at the UNGA gathering just three years ago.

Some 3 billion people, roughly 43% of those in extreme poverty, live in the world’s 50 most fragile states. And, lest anyone be tempted to think that this is just a problem for those states and their citizens, it is important to remember that more and more of these fragile states give rise to challenges to security and prosperity throughout our deeply connected world – including pandemics, violent extremism, migration, extreme poverty, and the rise of political populism.  While there is a growing global consensus on the threats posed by fragile states, we lack the necessary approaches and tools to effectively address the complex risks these states create.

“You cannot have inclusive development without stability, and you cannot have stability without development,” observed Kofi Annan in a June meeting at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center on “The Future of Fragile States”, co-hosted with Britain’s Overseas Development Institute and the U.S. Institute of Peace. Making one of his final appearances before his death last month, the former UN Secretary-General captured both the impatience and ambition of his fellow attendees, committing to do everything possible to help states break out of the fragility trap, especially in the world’s most difficult places.

Other participants ranged from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia, and Oxford University economist Paul Collier to the former head of the African Development Bank Donald Kaberuka, a Rockefeller Foundation trustee who co-chaired the LSE-Oxford Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development with former British Prime Minister David Cameron.  The Commission’s report Escaping the Fragility Trap is essential reading for anyone interested in this topic.

There was a strong agreement at the meeting that we must seize pivotal moments and fully turn an emerging consensus on fragility into sustained action that can make a difference.  Three points stand out above all:

  • Success can only come through country ownership. Work towards achieving this goal should be led by legitimate local or national actors, with support from outside as appropriate. Country-ownership requires inclusion, accountability, and citizen engagement that rebuilds the social contract and trust in a common purpose.
  • Keep politics at the center: sustainably addressing fragility is not a technocratic process. No amount of goodwill, resources, or military might can create the conditions for sustainable peace absent an inclusive political settlement and a minimum level of decision-making capacity that lets local actors make and own the victories and mistakes.
  • Investment vehicles for inclusive economic growth should be carefully tailored to the specific circumstances of fragile environments, including large pooled-funding mechanisms that can effectively compact donors with country-owned priorities. The potential for inclusive growth and investment in fragile environments is greatly under-realized.  Confidence in long-term economic, social, and political progress is essential. Short-term achievements sustain positive expectations among citizens and elites that change is possible. Long-term political support for reform depends on that confidence.

The entire convening, and global efforts underway on fragile states remind us that urgent collective action is needed. For our part, The Rockefeller Foundation is working to broaden a coalition of actors, notably local actors, who will drive forward this agenda to truly make a difference.

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