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From ‘fragility’ to ‘complexity’: reframing development in difficult places

Dr Gary Milante and Suyoun Jang

In 2014, at the inaugural Stockholm Forum on Security and Development, East Timorese Finance Minister Emilia Pires reflected on the word 'fragile', noting that many beautiful things, like crystal, are fragile, and that the term should be reclaimed by fragile states that require special care but are precious in their own way. While it is important for fragile and conflict-affected states to construct their own development paths, it is also time for the international community to move beyond the word 'fragility' when describing how development works in difficult places. The term 'complexity' is more useful as it more accurately reflects the development challenge in fragile countries.

Why do fragile and conflict-affected states (including the states collectively known as the g7+) matter? As we consider a new round of global goal setting in the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) process, the community is stocktaking on development progress in fragile and conflict-affected countries that lag behind other countries on development. Security challenges and high levels of extreme poverty are increasingly concentrated where there is conflict and war, poor governance, low social cohesion and political and economic exclusion.

By 2030 most of the world’s poverty will be concentrated in countries affected by conflict or persistent instability. Children in these countries today are twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday than their counterparts in other developing countries and, if they survive, three times less likely to be in primary school. These countries often have high rates of population growth and will continue to have large youth bulges over the coming decades.

From development to fragility

The development challenge in fragile countries transcends the normal socioeconomic sphere. Development, diplomatic, humanitarian and security actors are all challenged by recurring and frequent crises in their work in complex environments. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) recently declared an unprecedented five simultaneous ‘level 3’ humanitarian crises in the Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia, South Sudan and Syria. Each will require responses across the development, diplomatic, humanitarian and security fields to not only respond to and contain each crisis, but rebuild sustainable systems that can weather future crises.

For many of the states currently considered ‘fragile’, human security—that is, security of people and political stability—remains of deep concern. The number of refugees and displaced persons from Syria and other crises has increased significantly in recent years. Regions of insecurity provide opportunities for trade in illicit markets (including drugs, people and weapons) and increasing incentives for the import of weapons. As a result, conflict can have local, regional and international impacts. Moving away from ‘fragile states’ or even ‘fragile situations’ would open the door to finding common solutions to complex challenges at the local, regional or global level.

Actions on the challenges in these complex development environments must be multi-dimensional. As discussed above, work in the humanitarian, development, security and diplomatic domains cannot be undertaken independently and is likely to have amplifier effects when undertaken collaboratively. Information sharing across agencies is vital in information poor environments. Systems problems like disaster response, climate change, conflict and instability require systems solutions. The United Nations refers to this type of collective action as ‘delivering as one’; aid agencies in the US and Australia speak of a ‘whole-of-government’ approach; and the European Union (EU) refers to its ‘comprehensive approach’.

From fragility to resilience

These terms are not just semantics—they reflect a changing relationship between developing countries and donors and new systems thinking on how development works (and doesn’t work). The ‘fragile’ states concept and related terms like ‘failed’, ‘stressed’ and ‘troubled’ states are not new. The term ‘failed states’ emerged in the early 1990s in the wake of the cold war to identify and describe the new sources of threats and state failure. The outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia and factional conflicts in Somalia provided examples of states that could no longer perform basic security and development functions, and had no effective control over their own territory and borders. After the terrorist attacks on the USA of 11 September 2001, such countries were seen as launching pads for terrorist operations.

As the range of threats has broadened and varied, post-conflict societies and different forms of weak or stressed states in fragile complex environments have received new attention. International development agencies depicted countries in which the legitimacy, authority and capacity of state institutions are dramatically declining, weak or broken as ‘fragile states’. The international community has responded by adopting common approaches and thereby making aid more effective in complex settings, and by working hard to ensure the inclusion of fragile states in various global initiatives.

The Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda for Action included commitments by fragile states to make progress towards effective governance, undertake dialogue with donors on development planning, and encourage broad national participation in development processes. However, the g7+ prefers greater emphasis on complementary peacebuilding and statebuilding activities. In fact, at the 2011 Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, g7+ states took ownership of their own transition out of fragility and towards ‘resilience’ as a prerequisite for peacebuilding and state-building. In this sense, some progress has been made.

From resilience to complexity

The international community has also explored the concept of resilience as the positive side of fragility. In the natural sciences, resilience refers to the ability of a system to ‘adjust to a perturbation’ and ‘maintain its core functions unaltered’. When applied to state systems, it refers to the ability of the state to cope with and react to changes in capacity, effectiveness or legitimacy. In this respect, resilience derives from a combination of capacity and resources, effective and capable institutions and legitimacy, which underpin sustainable development. Insufficiently resilient states or communities are more vulnerable to changes or threats and, consequently, are more fragile.

A resilience-based approach aims to (a) understand the changes, threats and stresses that people, communities, or states are exposed to; (b) equip governments and communities with tools to respond and mitigate the impacts of economic, health-related, political, or social shocks; and (c) reduce vulnerability and fragility over time. Resilience is, therefore, a useful concept, although, like the term fragile, it has its own baggage and linguistic nuances. It is unwieldy to speak of ‘non-resilient’ or ‘less-resilient’ states or situations.

‘Complexity’ better reflects the depth of both the systems and the concept of resilience. As we approach the process of global-development goal setting for the next 15 years, it is time for the international community, and especially for states with complex development challenges, to come to a common understanding of the term. In early 2015 SIPRI will once again bring together security and development experts, practitioners and policymakers at the second Stockholm Forum on Security and Development.

We look forward to continuing the dialogue on fragility and complexity at the Forum, and to building further consensus around these important concepts.



Dr Gary Milante is the Director of the Peace and Development Programme.
Suyoun Jang is a Researcher in the Peace and Development programme, currently seconded to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).