BY NATE HAKEN
The last two years have challenged many assumptions about what it means to be fragile and what it means to be resilient. Countries that were thought to be strong proved weak. Problems that were thought to be straightforward proved complex. It takes more than financial and human capital to manage and recover from a crisis.
In 2020, it became painfully obvious that a health crisis can be more than a health crisis. We learned that pandemic preparedness and response require much more than a focus on health systems alone, as many countries with strong health infrastructure did even worse than countries with weak health infrastructure. Other factors measured in the Fragile States Index (FSI), such as social and political cohesion, had as much, or more impact on resilience than access to quality health services. As a result of the pandemic, virtually all countries experienced an economic shock as businesses were shut down, travel curtailed, and global trade and supply chains ground to a halt. In this context, 2020 had the worst recorded global GDP contraction in over 60 years (-3.3%). This took a devasting toll on livelihoods, social protection, and essential services, especially for the most vulnerable. As 2020 came to a close, and the first vaccines were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the new year seemed to promise hope for recovery. Very quickly, in 2021, the economy did roar back to life with the highest global GDP growth (6.1%) since 1973. With the rapid rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, case/fatality rates dropped precipitously, and restrictions were loosened. People went back to work. Businesses reopened. Travel picked up. Global trade resumed.
However, if the lesson of 2020 was that a health crisis was more than a health crisis, the lesson of 2021 was that a booming economy does not guarantee a reduction in fragility. Even as the economy was rebounding, overall COVID deaths increased as the second and third waves of the disease killed the unvaccinated, the elderly, the disabled, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, and others with co-morbidities. According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE), about 1.9 million people died from COVID-19 in 2020. In 2021, that number increased by 3.6 million to about 5.4 million deaths. Even so, according to a study in the Lancet, those numbers could be less than a third of the actual number who died from the pandemic overall.
Meanwhile, as more people were dying from COVID-19 in 2021, a record number of people (an increase of over 20 million) were internally displaced by violence and natural disasters including in places like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Myanmar. According to data compiled by The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), the number of riots and protests and the number of conflict fatalities also increased in 2021 compared to the previous year. And there was an increase in the number of coups and coup attempts across the world.
In the FSI 2022 (which covers calendar year 2021), the five most fragile countries were Yemen, Somalia, Syria, South Sudan, and Central African Republic. With the exception of South Sudan, which was not an independent country until 2011, and Syria, these countries have been among the top 20 most fragile since the FSI started in 2005, with protracted and recurrent crises, making it difficult to gain traction in development and governance. Climbing out of a fragility trap is a generational project, particularly when starting from a disadvantage in terms of resources and external intervention.
It is not impossible, however. Uzbekistan, which started as the 22nd most fragile country in 2005, has been steadily improving for the last 17 years due to a series of political and economic reforms, and positive development outcomes, and was again among the most improved in 2021. Others which improved in 2021 include Cabo Verde and Maldives, which rely heavily on tourism and shipping and were hard hit by the global shutdown in 2020. Like Uzbekistan, Cabo Verde has steadily improved over the last decade, despite facing economic, political, and environmental challenges, due to growing democratic governance and inclusive development policies. Maldives had an enormous 33.4% GDP growth in 2021. Libya, which is heavily reliant on oil exports also improved in 2021. Libya has been in an increasingly volatile cycle of boom and bust since 2010, and 2021 was a major boom year with an unprecedented 177.3% GDP growth. In addition to the startling economic performance, there was also some progress in the peace process which will hopefully be built upon in future years, though Libya remains highly fragile overall. Finally, among the top, most improved counties, is Armenia, which improved in comparison to 2020 during which it was at war with Azerbaijan. Now in a post-conflict phase, there remain lingering geopolitical challenges but with reintegration of displaced persons and efforts at reconstruction, Armenia improved significantly in 2021.
The most worsened were Myanmar, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Haiti, and Lebanon. Myanmar had a coup. Afghanistan had a violent change of power. Burkina Faso had a rise in violent extremism. Haiti’s president was assassinated. Lebanon had a deepening economic and political crisis, and a rise in protest and violence.
But more broadly speaking, the lessons of 2020 and 2021 are as follows:
1) There has been an erosion in public confidence in democratic institutions and an increase in social and political polarization in both rich and poor countries across the globe, which has contributed to a rise in authoritarianism.
2) This bodes ill for country-resilience and the ability to manage the next shock and bounce back successfully. Without an improvement in social and political cohesion scores, even rich countries can be destabilized.
3) Previously, state fragility was seen as something to be contained and mitigated in the developing world so that it does not spread to the rich countries. Now, however, we are discovering that fragility can flow both ways. War in Europe can lead to food crises in Africa. A pandemic can just as easily spread from North to South. Same with xenophobic nationalism and violent extremism. Fragility is something that must be addressed everywhere all at once, and core to that strategy must be a focus on social and political cohesion and inclusiveness.
In the previous year’s FSI, the United States was the most worsened due to the cascading effects of COVID-19, which included growing social and political polarization, economic downturn, rising political violence, and group grievance. Every country can have a bad year. But a resilient country usually improves the following year. In 2021 the United States worsened yet again. Even as the economy and public services improved, and child poverty was significantly reduced, there was a violent mob attack on the Capitol to stop the peaceful transfer of power, an increase in radicalization by extremist groups, crime, and the worst year on record for gun violence.
The FSI 2022 report illustrates how far the world has come. While much progress has been made over the last 17 years in terms of poverty reduction, mortality and public health, and essential service worldwide, it does not mean that the world is necessarily better positioned to withstand the next global shock. And although the worst of COVID-19 may be behind us, we are not out of the woods quite yet.