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What Defines a Fragile State? It Depends


Pakistanis at a European-financed strengthening rule of law project in Swat, led by the United Nations Development Program. Pakistan ranked the most-improved country by a new global index. 

It will come as no surprise to regular consumers of news that in the new Fragile States Index, published on May 15, South Sudan is at the top of the ranks of endangered countries and tranquil Finland is the most stable of all nations. But the grading and analysis of 178 nations compiled by the Fund for Peace, a nongovernment research organization, presents some counterintuitive results as well as real head-scratchers.

As the latest article in an occasional series of reports on data and research of special interest to followers of international events and trends, PassBlue introduces the 2017 Fragile States Index, at least in summary, with highlights that might prompt further discussion. The exhaustively interactive index, now in its 13th year, is built from a huge trove of information by the Fund for Peace.

The organization, based in Washington, D.C. and Abuja, Nigeria, works in more than 50 countries through partnerships with a wide variety of sectors, including civil-society groups, the military, academics and the private sector.

As always with sweeping, often macro surveys, there will be critics, people who say that they don’t recognize the country described as the one in which they live. There will be outsiders who simply refuse to believe conclusions that make countries with serious problems look too good.

Pakistan, for example, ranks as the most-improved country by the 2017 index. Many diverse factors are taken into account, though Pakistan still ranks high among nations with uncertain long-term stability. (The index reads from worst at the top to most stable at the bottom, which can be a little confusing. Pakistan ranks 17th; Finland is in 178th place.)

Pakistan recorded the most significant improvement of any country in 2017,” the compilers of the index found, adding that this may be more than a “bounce back” move. The country’s “group grievance” indicator continues to rise, the index shows, but the possibility exists that this signifies more public and civil-society activity.

Kathy Gannon, senior correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan for The Associated Press, has lived in the region for more than two decades — and survived a deliberate shooting by an Afghan police officer, which killed the photographer Anja Niedringhaus when the two were covering an election campaign in 2014. Gannon said in an exchange of emails from Islamabad that there are several reasons for Pakistan’s leap in the index.

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Gannon cited “a civilian, democratically elected government finishing its term for a second consecutive time, economic development, largely because of massive infrastructure investment by China, and a second straight year of reduced violence due to militant activity.

“But for me,” she wrote, “the most significant indicator is ordinary people’s sense that things are improving, and while Pakistanis have always been politically engaged, more so than in many countries, people have a growing sense of expectation. They want more from their governments and the longer governments stay in power and the longer the military stays out, the more governments will feel required to respond to those needs.

“All this combines to make Pakistan less fragile but (and there is always a but) Pakistan is in transition as any country that comes out of military rule. Its institutions, which are weak and dysfunctional because of sustained military rule, are getting their legs and sometimes that means overstretching, even causing conflict. It takes time and it also means that while Pakistan may be less fragile, it is still fragile.”

Looking back globally over a decade, the index found that Cuba remains the most-improved country in the last 10 years, partly because of economic reforms and the normalization of relations with the United States.

In 2017, “Georgia, Indonesia, Laos, Panama, Romania, Serbia, and Uzbekistan all continued to improve in accordance with trends over the past decade that demonstrate clear, long-term sustainable improvement,” according to the index. There will be quibbles with those findings, notably on Indonesia and Laos. And Uzbekistan?

Questioners challenging the findings can go to the interactive indicators pages on the Fund for Peace index site, which track national cohesion, economic factors, political developments and cross-cutting social issues. The indicators are accompanied by lists of questions for discussion in each of these areas. There are also maps, graphs and detailed explanations of how information is processed, for truly committed data consumers.

It does not take long to see how the United States slipped down in the index, which although labeled a ranking of fragile states, covers most UN member countries. Brazil, Mexico and South Africa also slipped, while Ethiopian stability dropped most steeply of all.

“The United States has worsened in 2017 despite the majority of its indicators actually improving,” the executive director of the Fund for Peace, J. J. Messner, wrote in an introductory essay about the new index. “[T]he United States has recorded long-term economic improvements and — perhaps remarkably, given recent coverage — improvements in political indicators such as State Legitimacy, Public Services, Human Rights, and Refugees.

“However, these broad improvements have been severely undermined by sharp upticks in three key indicators — Group Grievance, Factionalized Elites, and Security Apparatus,” Messner wrote. “The severe worsening of the Group Grievance and Factionalized Elites indicators can be attributed in part to the highly divisive presidential election campaign in 2016, and in particular the tone of the campaign that tended to focus substantially on societal wedge issues, some of which had racial undertones. Interestingly, these indicators tracked very closely with those of the United Kingdom, which experienced its own highly divisive campaign during 2016 on exiting the European Union.

“It is unclear which of these precipitates the other,” Messner added — “whether divisive rhetoric causes increased societal divisions, or campaigns based on such rhetoric take advantage of pre-existing conditions of deep division, or both. Regardless, the United Kingdom and the United States provide somewhat of a warning, that even where the majority of indicators may be improving, a handful of specific key indicators trending in the opposite direction can have profound effects on a country’s ultimate performance and implications for stability.”


Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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