Event Recap: Escaping the Fragility Trap – Effective Approaches to Sustainable Development in Fragile Contexts

By: Angelia Miranda

Editor’s Note: This event took place at Microsoft campus in Redmond, WA on January 24, 2019. Also check out our related video interview with World Vision’s executive advisor on fragile states, Jonathan Papoulidis.

Read Global Washington’s January Newsletter on this topic of building greater resilience in fragile states.

With only eleven years left to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, it is increasingly clear that a crucial part of the world is being left behind: fragile states.

In fragile states, where the government and civil society lack the ability to mitigate risk, the population is left vulnerable to economic, political, environmental, and social crises. Without the ability to cope, these crises can turn into national disasters.

This year, Global Washington is launching an initiative to advance the Sustainable Development Goals by catalyzing the power of its members in private and nonprofit sectors. Addressing the problems of fragility, therefore, is an essential part of that initiative. On January 24, Global Washington hosted a panel of experts to share insights into best strategies for helping states escape fragility and move toward resilience.

The panel represented a coming together of actors from different sectors: Cameron Birge, Senior Program Manager of Humanitarian Response and Innovative Tech at Microsoft Philanthropies; John Norris, Deputy Director of Policy and Strategic Insight at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Rebecca Wolfe, Director of Evidence and Influence at Mercy Corps. The dialogue was moderated by Kristen Dailey, Executive Director of Global Washington.

Dispelling misconceptions of fragility

Designing solutions to fragility requires an understanding of fragility and its root causes. Yet even those who work in development and humanitarian aid fall prey to common misconceptions about fragility.

“When you think ‘fragility,’ you think of the first five minutes of Saving Private Ryan,” said John Norris. “Your mind goes to South Sudan. Somalia. Syria. The worst cases.” But fragility is more than extreme poverty or deadly conflict. In fact, over half of current fragile states are middle-income countries. “Poor countries don’t always fall into conflict, and wealthy countries sometimes do,” Rebecca Wolfe added.

Wolfe, a leading expert on political violence, dispelled the misconception that violent extremism causes fragility, explaining that it works the other way. When fragile states with weak institutions fall short in providing security and services, violent extremist groups come forward and claim to fill the void.

The importance of strong institutions emerged as a recurring theme. Cameron Birge spoke of the “powerful and amazing things” that institutions and bureaucracies can accomplish when they are transparent and trusted by the people they serve.

Local communities need to see the government as their partner, which starts with the perception that the government is responsive to their needs. Development can strengthen local governments and institutions, but it can also undermine them. When the two are at odds, nobody wins.

Wolfe pointed to a program she implemented in Nigeria that addressed conflict between pastoralists and farmers. Government leaders later passed laws that counter-acted the success of the program. Without fixing the disconnect between local populations and national governance, development and peace-building efforts are left to “tread water” without ever becoming more effective.

With a better understanding of the concept of fragility comes the realization that fostering resilience is the key for countries to escape it.

Strategies for finding a path to resiliency

The world is experiencing a 25-year peak in violence that threatens to reverse hard-fought gains in development. A better understanding of how to help states move along a path of “fragility-to-resilience” can prevent such a reversal.

“No one intervention is going to be sufficient,” moderator Kristen Dailey emphasized. Reflecting on their work and firsthand experiences, the panelists pointed to comprehensive strategies as the path towards stability and resilience in fragile states.

Humanitarian aid is increasingly going towards violent conflict rather than to natural disasters, so strategies must adapt in kind. Unlike natural disasters, which are immediate and concentrated, violent conflict can move around and persevere for years, making the coordination of response efforts difficult.

Rebecca Wolfe pointed to Mercy Corps as an example of a multidimensional effort that attempts to “break down the silos” in international development. Its programs are intentionally designed to incorporate humanitarian, development, and peace-building efforts to build lasting resilience in fragile states, a strategy that could be taken up by others seeking to address the larger social fissures involved in fragility.

Timing is another important consideration for a comprehensive strategy.

Before an organization can implement long-term programming, it has to think about what is immediately impacting the community. An organization might provide a vital training, but if attendees are too worried about a lack of food or meager income, their minds are elsewhere. “We don’t think about that enough,” Wolfe said. A strategy that pursues short and long-term programs concurrently rather than sequentially is crucial to ensuring stability in the short-term while sowing the seeds for long-term resilience.

Of course, any strategy needs to start with a willingness to intervene. To those who regard intervention in fragile states as too political, John Norris said, “The real fact is that all development is political.”

The future of international efforts

What is needed for future work in fragile states is an awareness about the reality of fragility and a drive to do better by understanding how to do the work better. According to the panelists, it starts by working together.

Norris warned of the high cost when the international community turns its back on cases seen as “too hard” to sort out. In a time when the status quo is uncertain, countries without well-developed safety nets are increasingly defenseless to the risk of fragility, and those risks are intensifying. Birge called upon the various actors in development and humanitarian work to help fragile states build their safety nets by “coming together more” and responsibly sharing frameworks to collaborate.

At the end of the day, everyone has a role to play. Birge spoke of the moral obligation of Microsoft and other private sector companies to provide tools and resources to those working in fragile regions of the world so the experts can do their jobs more effectively. In this way, they can help people to “access services, to empower themselves, and to exist.”

Fittingly, the panel left the audience with a technique for evaluating whether or not a program is comprehensive and inclusive. It starts with asking harder questions. Who benefits? Are the benefits distributed equitably across genders, religions, and birthplaces? Or does it instead suppress the identities and opportunities of one group over another?

By asking these questions and having these conversations, organizations across all sectors can have a transformative impact on fragile societies, promote positive relationships between government, civil society, and local populations, and ensure that no region of the world is left behind.

Angelia Miranda is a senior at the University of Washington majoring in International Studies and Philosophy. Currently, she works as director of University Affairs for student government where she advocates for students on faculty, administrative, and legislative levels. Her research focuses on international law with a focus on South African jurisprudence, and she serves as project manager for an undergraduate task force on cybersecurity.