Resilience, Refugees, and Fragile States

By Jared Klassen

South Sudanese women

These South Sudanese women are supported by a World Vision program that helps boost food security and community empowerment, while targeting gender-based violence. © 2018 World Vision.

Fragility may prove to be the biggest barrier on the road to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Fragile states, loosely defined as countries that don’t have the capacity to manage the political, economic, social, and environmental risks they face, are already the furthest behind on achieving the SDGs. Contrary to the dramatic progress being made to reduce poverty in stable settings around the world, poverty is on the rise in fragile contexts. By 2030, more than 80% of people living in extreme poverty will be living in fragile states.

The impact of state fragility is also felt beyond borders. In 2017, the number of people forcibly displaced by conflict and violence hit a historic high of 68.5 million, with over 25 million of those individuals registered as refugees. Violent conflict has also spiked in the past 10 years, and more countries experienced violent conflict in 2016 than at any time in nearly 30 years.

With all the progress made towards achieving global development goals, it’s undeniable that there is still plenty of work to do. As the face of poverty changes, and with growing challenges like state fragility, the global refugee crisis, and climate change, our approaches may have to evolve to truly “leave no one behind” by 2030.

Understanding fragility

While each fragile context is different, all fragile states face a burden where the risks they face are greater than their ability to manage these risks.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) points to “social capital” as a key component of whether or not a state is fragile. These shared networks and norms for co-operation within a society build stability and trust. When social capital is missing, communities become divided, and people don’t see their governments as accountable, responsive, or able to provide basic services like health or education to meet their needs.

The OECD’s 2018 States of Fragility Framework uses five factors to illustrate different ways in which the loss of social capital and weak government institutions can make countries fragile. Political, societal, economic, environmental, or security factors can all contribute to instability in different ways.

These five factors also help nuance the term fragility. A country such as Malawi may have relatively stable political institutions, but face more serious environmental or economic risks. Certain regions or demographics within a country may also be confronted with higher risks, such as remote communities, drought-prone areas, or minority groups. Increasingly, the global community is drilling down to analyze fragile contexts rather than fragile states.

To further illustrate the complex nature of fragility, risk factors can be internal, external, or a combination of both. This may be self-evident with environmental factors like climate change, but can also apply to other factors. Conflicts in countries like Yemen and Syria are prolonged by political interests of external actors. Qatar, the richest country per-capita in the world, was recently ranked the most-worsened country on the Fragile State Index because of political and economic blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and UAE.

As the OECD aptly puts it, “fragility is an intricate beast, sometimes exposed, often lurking underneath, but always holding progress back.”

The impact of fragility

The inability to weather the storms of natural or human-made disasters, economic crises, or social unrest has a profound impact on whether or not the world can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Fragility continues to displace people around the world. On average, one person is displaced every two seconds because of conflict and persecution. People are being displaced longer than before, with protracted refugee situations now lasting 26 years on average.

Conflict, violence, and climate change are the leading causes of global hunger. Recent research draws attention to this vicious circle of vulnerability and fragility, estimating that a 5 per cent change in rainfall in Sub-Saharan Africa increased the likelihood of conflict in the following year by 50 per cent. Climate change could push the total number of permanently displaced people as high as 250 million people between now and 2050.

Fragility also hurts economic productivity, with violence costing 12.4% in lost global gross domestic product. Conflict can reverse global progress on reducing poverty and intensify other dimensions of fragility.

Solutions being explored

In contrast to fragility, resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.

Resilience is already a concept promoted in international development efforts, particularly in sectors like food security, climate adaptation, and disaster preparedness. And while it may have been the development buzzword of 2012, resilience focuses on analyzing risks and developing strategies to avoid or manage major crises. We see parallels in today’s efforts to address fragility.

So what’s new? Just as the OECD’s Fragility Framework helps connect the dots on the range of factors that drive instability, it can also be used to guide efforts that build resilience.

A “fragility-to-resilience” perspective is multidimensional, paying closer attention to the social bonds within communities, the strength and inclusivity of political and economic systems, and exposure to climate-related shocks. These factors allow development efforts to not only be risk-aware, but also proactively address root causes of fragility in the first place.

There are many ways that organizations are already putting this awareness into action. Women’s meaningful participation in the workforce, decision-making, and peace processes dramatically reduces the risk of instability. Countries where women make up 40 percent of the workforce compared to 10 percent are 30 times less likely to experience internal conflict.

Conflict-sensitive programming helps organizations understand the social fabric of communities, identifying the issues they face, local strengths for conflict management, and integrating strategies to minimize unintended harm.

Others are focusing on creating opportunities for youth through education and nonviolent civic engagement in contexts like Somalia, effectively reducing youth participation in and support for violence. Encouraging governments to be more inclusive, especially for youth, can prevent experiences of discrimination, abuse, and corruption that drive youth to take up arms.

The willingness to embrace the “fragility-to-resilience” paradigm is gaining traction among development, political, and security actors. Last year, the U.S. Government released a new, multiagency framework that provided a shared definition of “stabilization,” embracing key principles for more effective action.  While global spending efforts on conflict prevention currently represents only a fraction of the amount spent on crisis response and reconstruction, development actors are showing a willingness to change this trend. Last year the World Bank doubled its investments in fragile states. The OECD’s 2018 State of Fragility report also calls for donor countries to provide more and smarter aid in fragile contexts.

At its heart, building resilience acknowledges the goal of healthy relationships between government, civil society, and business. As the UN-World Bank joint report Pathways for Peace acknowledges, “For all countries, addressing inequalities and exclusion, making institutions more inclusive, and ensuring that development strategies are risk-informed” will be critical to building resilience and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.


The following Global Washington members are working to increase resilience in fragile states:

American Red Cross

Armed conflict, international disasters and migration leave millions of people around the globe in urgent need of humanitarian assistance every year. As a truly worldwide network, the volunteers of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent are able to help families reconnect when they have been separated internationally as a result of conflict, disaster, migration or other humanitarian emergency.


Americares saves lives and improves health for people affected by poverty and disasters so they can reach their full potential. Americares responds to an average of 30 disasters each year, shipping medicine and medical supplies and restoring health services to survivors. Using an app called the ‘Fit Tool’ Americares manages and tracks large shipments of medicine and supplies in the field and shares that information with its partners in real time. Collaborating with its partner organizations in this way improves the efficiency and effectiveness of Americares’ approach, allowing it to reach more vulnerable families with critical health programs, medicine and supplies.

Crista/World Concern

World Concern works to build resilience in fragile states, such as South Sudan and Somalia, by training and equipping communities to prevent and recover more quickly from disasters. The organization teaches drought-resistant farming methods, livelihood diversification, and provides livestock restocking, seeds, tools, and training to vulnerable families. World Concern also helps establish self-help and savings groups and income-generating activities in drought- and disaster-prone areas.


The International Rescue Committee (IRC) works in over 40 countries and 27 U.S. cities to help people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and regain control of their future. In Seattle, the IRC is tailoring programs to ensure resettled refugees have access to necessary services and are able to connect with others in their new community.

Medical Teams International

In partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, national ministries of health and other NGOs, Medical Teams International provides life-saving health care to refugees around the world. In Uganda, Lebanon, Turkey, Bangladesh and soon Tanzania, Medical Teams International is the health provider for more than 1 million people in critical need. Flashes of intense violence and persecution have sparked a resurgence in the number of refugees from Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Meanwhile, refugees from South Sudan continue to cross the border into cramped settlements in northern Uganda, where Medical Teams has more than 700 Ugandan health staff.

Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps works in places characterized by fragility and instability, where people are vulnerable to big and persistent challenges that threaten to derail their progress toward a brighter future. In the face of these complex social, economic and environmental challenges, Mercy Corps sees the possibility for lasting change. Mercy Corps believes that when people are connected to the right opportunities, they can learn, adapt and recover in the face of crises, building better lives for themselves and strengthening their communities. Through Mercy Corps’ resilience approach, the organization is helping people around the world transform their communities for good.

Microsoft Philanthropies

Following natural disasters, Microsoft Philanthropies provides technical support as well as technology and cash grants to its non-profit partners. In addition, the initiative resources long-term recovery and building up greater resilience in high-risk communities through long-term engagement programs such as digital skills.


For more than a decade, NetHope has collaborated with its nonprofit members and innovative technology partners to meet the demands of vulnerable communities around the world. This cross-sector collaboration allows for better programs, mitigation of risks, and scaling benefits for greater impact in the communities in which NetHope works. By delivering information technology solutions to the developing world, NetHope helps nonprofits become more effective to achieve great strides for the underserved, and provides tech companies the opportunity to leverage their tools and ideas at scale across the entire sector of development to create successful outcomes, promoting the health and wellbeing for at-risk communities.


Oxfam is a global organization working to right the wrongs of poverty, hunger, and social injustice. Globally, Oxfam works with 22.1 million people in more than 90 countries to create lasting solutions to the injustice of poverty and hunger. Oxfam believes that building mechanisms for resilience within communities is critical to addressing poverty and defines resilience as “the ability of women and men to realize their rights and improve their well-being despite shocks, stresses and uncertainty.” Oxfam’s governance-based approach to enhancing resilient development addresses the impacts of shocks, stresses and uncertainty on people living in poverty, as well as the causes of vulnerability and risks.

World Relief Seattle

World Relief International helps to build resilience in fragile states through community development (health screenings, microfinance, and agricultural extension) conducted in partnership with entities that have historic authority, relationship and capacity. In Washington State, World Relief Seattle has worked for 40 years to build the confidence of newly arriving refugees – helping them to translate their innate resilience and assets, into the U.S. context. World Relief Seattle provides assistance in housing, job placement, food access, English language training, youth programming, legal services and opportunities for integration with the host community. The organization focuses on social and economic integration, which is crucial to combat fragility and isolation once refugees arrive in the U.S.

World Vision

Because the risks that communities in developing countries face are numerous, World Vision takes a comprehensive approach to risk management. In its resilience programming World Vision takes into account the root causes of vulnerability (i.e. no access to land); changing pressures (i.e. increased urbanization); unsafe conditions (i.e. living on a flood plain), as well as the hazards that people face – be it natural (i.e. cyclone) or human made (i.e. violent conflict).

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