Chapter 10. How can the international community better address fragility today?

Sara Batmanglich
Development Co-operation Directorate, OECD

States of Fragility 2018 concludes by reaffirming the urgent need to more vigorously address fragility now. This final chapter warns that fragility stands in the way of the world reaching the critical goals set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the sustaining peace agenda. The chapter builds on the report’s main findings about the state of fragility today to set out ways for the development community to more effectively and proactively analyse, programme for, finance and deliver sustainable results that address fragility and build resilience.


Alarms are being sounded about the current state of fragility, conflict and violence and their dire implications for humankind. In his 2018 New Year’s Day message, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres did not stick to an appeal for peace, instead issuing a “red alert for our world” and warning of many of the same issues discussed in this report (UN Secretary-General, 2017[1]). Discussion of the future of global development in many international fora now focuses on the corrosive impact of fragility on efforts to achieve sustainable development and sustainable peace for all the world’s people. Indeed, as some experts are warning, fragility is the new development frontier and this should be considered an “alarm call” because “history will judge today’s development community by how effectively it deals with fragility” (Kharas and Rogerson, 2 October 2017[2]).

Against the backdrop of this growing sense of urgency, States of Fragility 2018 offers a fine-grained snapshot of fragility and development financing today. This stocktaking can make an important contribution as the development community considers its evolving role in tackling fragility more effectively across different settings. The report also aims to put forward salient ideas for discussion within broader debates around the agendas of sustainable development, sustaining peace (UN Security Council, 2016[3]) and “beyond aid” (OECD, 2017[4]). With these objectives in mind, this concluding chapter presents key ideas that can inform better and more strategic approaches, all the while taking account of the current financing landscape, and it offers suggestions for how more demonstrable results can be achieved for people living in fragile contexts.

10.1. Fragility matters to sustainable development and sustaining peace

If no action is taken, more than 80% of the world’s poor could be living in fragile contexts by 2030. In 2017, 11.8 million people worldwide were internally displaced due to violence and conflict and an additional 18.8 million were displaced because of disasters (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2018[5]). That is the equivalent of an average of 80 000 people each day being forced to flee their homes. This reality stands as a stark challenge to the commitment laid out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development “to build a better future for all people, including the millions who have been denied the chance to lead decent, dignified and rewarding lives and to achieve their full human potential” (UN General Assembly, 2015[6]).

Fragility impedes development and human potential, making it possibly the single biggest spoiler to achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the sustaining peace agenda. The success of both of these international agendas thus hinges on whether fragility’s multiple drivers and manifestations can be addressed more proactively and support provided for more robust societies. Ideally, this will result in building resilience – not only to prevent violent conflict, which is one of many types of fragility, but also to mitigate the effects of other political, economic and environmental crises. Success in these areas also means laying foundations for better take-up of the SDGs by fragile contexts and helping those contexts that are chronically fragile to establish more consistent progress.

The world today is interlinked as never before. This presents challenges as well as opportunities. A drive for more inclusive societies is underway while the international order is in flux. Economic structures are changing while a revolution is taking place in information and communications technologies. At the same time, the world is experiencing dramatic demographic change, large-scale movements of people, climate change, transnational organised crime and the spread of harmful ideologies (UN/World Bank, 2018, pp. 49-71[7]). All of these are issues that know no borders. Therefore, all layers of the global system – local, national, regional and international – have a role to play in tackling fragility, and all have the responsibility to prevent fragility from spoiling the universal promises made in the 2030 Agenda. The SDGs provide a useful framework for collective action because they “recognize the deep complexity and interconnectedness on the path to peace and progress” (UN/World Bank, 2018, p. 71[7]). Fragility does not only matter for people living in fragile contexts or for those who have been left behind. It is time to recognise that fragility matters for everyone.

10.2. Fragility requires balancing complexity with simplicity

The analytical work and ability to more accurately frame fragility have evolved impressively in recent years. However, they have reaffirmed the inherent complexity of fragility, meaning that there is no straightforward way to describe the state of fragility in 2018. The sheer breadth of fragility trends discussed in Chapter 1 illustrates the many facets and causal chains of fragility. As the fragility framework in Chapter 2 shows, both the drivers and the consequences of fragility are multidimensional and not easily disaggregated.

The poverty data and worrying lack of progress on the SDGs discussed in Chapter 3 demonstrate why fragility has increasingly been folded into the mainstream development discourse, especially in the context of the commitment to leave no one behind. This suggests that development actors across sectors will have to become fragility specialists to some extent in the SDG era. Therefore, people who work in and study fragile contexts should continue to improve and clarify their communication of what fragility means for specific contexts and specific sectors, so that the term retains genuine meaning and utility for practitioners.

While fragility is complex, not all aspects of delivering programmes to address fragility need to be complicated, provided fragility is well understood at country level. A wider group of actors – donor and partner government officials, civil society and the private sector, to name a few – need to be able to understand and articulate the risks that are faced in a given context and the ways that these interact with coping capacities and sources of resilience. Fragility specialists can help facilitate these efforts by introducing more creative forms of scenario planning, for instance. These can help a range of actors understand the causality, multidimensionality and impacts of fragility. Most importantly, the implications of leaving certain risks unaddressed must be highlighted.

Going forward, the OECD will continue to contribute to the development community’s ability to translate the complex concept of fragility into practical information. It aims to do so by improving the fragility framework and further exploring fragility’s multidimensional aspects, particularly the interplay of risks and coping capacities and how the dimensions themselves interrelate. Additionally, the OECD will examine what the analysis of clusters reveals about possible new typologies of fragility, and it will begin work on trajectories of fragility to better understand fragility’s behaviour over time and how to be more anticipatory. The quest to generate deeper, more accurate and proactive information about fragility will increasingly confront the data limitations raised in Chapters 1 and 3. To overcome these limitations, collective action will be needed to push for the development of new public data sources.

10.3. Systems-based thinking and approaches can help deliver better results

The multidimensional fragility framework introduces a more systems-based approach to fragility. It acknowledges that there are manifold dynamics in fragile contexts which result in fragility manifesting in different ways. States of Fragility 2016 and many of the fragility trends (Chapter 1) also point to the ways in which issues such as violence, climate change, urban fragility and illicit economies are networked and interlinked. Moreover, fragile societies include multiple societal layers beyond national governments and down to the community, household and individual levels. Fragility dynamics both affect and are affected by these different layers of a society, which at the same time are interacting and affecting one another. As discussed in Trend Twelve, international development is yet another system that has impacts on the already complex ecosystems of fragile contexts. These dynamic, mutually impactful interactions between systems help to explain why achieving results in fragile contexts can be so challenging.

Indeed, it is impossible to ignore the impact of systemic issues on the relative success or failure of international engagements. Their interconnectedness also shows the importance of thinking more holistically about the systems in which development and peace are being encouraged. Further, and as Trend Six notes, societies in fragile contexts are fractured into different identity groups and so should not be treated as cohesive entities. Trend Three shows that fragile cities are not only systems themselves but also affect the overall health of countries and economies. As Trend Nine, on violence, argues, systemic change is unlikely if approaches to fragile contexts attempt to isolate and target only specific drivers or dynamics or if interventions are narrowly projectised. Interventions have their own ripple effects so development actors must know these and take them into consideration, just as a business must be aware of the full extent of its value chains.

As illustrated in Chapter 9, systems are useful not only for thinking about fragile contexts and the political economy of development assistance. Systems also should be considered in analysis of the various financial flows to a given fragile context. Equal consideration should be given to the way different policies, such as development policies and trade policies, interact. Development actors, however, still primarily think about aid, just as private sector actors primarily think about foreign direct investment (FDI). Yet each flow has its own comparative advantage. Opportunities exist for synergies across flows and, as highlighted in Chapter 6, for some flows to catalyse others.

While linear thinking is the default tendency, a greater focus on systems thinking and systems analysis is especially relevant for the complexity of fragile contexts. To that end, the international community increasingly is discussing how to work across siloes, for instance across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. Through the International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF), further work also will be done to understand this nexus and its implications for more effective responses. The OECD will continue to explore how systems thinking can help to support better practice at country level. Ultimately, the success of these important new, comprehensive approaches will rest on their ability to understand the systems they are engaging with as well as their own systems and, critically, how these affect one another.

10.4. Aid must be more ambitious

As outlined in Chapter 4, fragile contexts receive more external finance flows than any other grouping of countries. In 2016, USD 68.2 billion went to these places. However, growth in total ODA to fragile contexts is mainly due to the increase in humanitarian assistance, which rose by 38% from 2015 to 2016. Humanitarian aid represents about one-fourth of total ODA to all fragile contexts but half of all ODA in extremely fragile contexts. The humanitarian needs in extremely fragile contexts are undeniable. Nonetheless, the trend of aid increasingly being used for stopgap “firefighting” (OECD, 2016, p. 26[8]) but ultimately prolonged humanitarian purposes, rather than for longer-term development, is worryingly inconsistent with visions for sustaining peace and sustainable development.

With humanitarian assistance, donors are responding to needs that last far longer than the typical 12- to 18-month funding cycles. Instead of strategic programming aimed at achieving more ambitious and long-lasting progress, the use of development aid for humanitarian emergencies can actually increase costs and decrease efficiency (Fabre, Cyprien, 2017[9]). As discussed in Chapter 9, an alternative that is gaining traction is the idea of “development wherever possible, humanitarian only when necessary” – a principle that is meant to encourage a reversal of the trend that has seen development stopping during crises even though crises are becoming increasingly protracted and so require development engagement throughout.

This changing use of aid is related to the larger question of the ambition for aid in the 21st century. No one would disagree that aid is for saving lives. But aid should also have a broader purpose. Much attention is now focused on moving beyond aid. The prospect offers exciting potential for developing countries everywhere. However, as this report illustrates, fragile contexts have unique challenges. For instance, two especially positive trends in the developing world – the reduction of extreme poverty and better access to diverse forms of development finance – unfortunately have not yet become trends in fragile contexts (Chandy, Seidel and Zhang, 2016[10]). As highlighted in Chapter 6, remittances and FDI benefit relatively few fragile contexts; 70% of remittances go to just five contexts; and less than 10% of FDI going to ODA-eligible countries reaches fragile contexts. Further, as described in Chapter 7, fragile contexts still struggle with generating enough, and the right mixture of, domestic resources.

Therefore, for the foreseeable future, ODA will continue to be critical to filling the financing gap and it must do so. While aid spending should take account of the five dimensions of fragility (Chapter 8), support to fragile contexts must also be more ambitious and targeted so that aid serves as a more profound lever of change. Different approaches will be appropriate in different contexts. But for all fragile contexts, aid is the only flow that can catalyse reform and support resilient foundations that other flows can then reinforce and help build upon. To this end, the OECD will continue to prioritise work on better development financing solutions for fragile contexts including how to make both development and humanitarian aid most effective.

10.5. Peace cannot be bought, but prevention is cost-effective

While aid is critical and often irreplaceable for fragile environments and societies, it cannot cure all their ills. More financial resources, for example, do not automatically bring or sustain peace. Nor is peace a direct by-product of development. Indeed, ODA to the 15 extremely fragile contexts in the fragility framework already far exceeds ODA to the other 43 fragile contexts. The so-called aid darlings, notably Afghanistan and Iraq, have not shown dramatic progress on either score despite being two of the top recipients of ODA for many years.

It matters what this money supports. The analysis put forward in Chapter 5 shows there is not nearly enough direct support for peace. In 2016, just 2% of total gross ODA going to fragile contexts was directed towards conflict, peace and security activities, despite the well-recognised crises around the world. Only 10% of total gross ODA was spent in 2016 on the broader category of activities considered to be peacebuilding. Analysis of ODA through multiple perspectives also finds ODA-eligible security activities are consistently underfunded. As shown in Chapter 8, only 2% of all ODA to the 15 extremely fragile contexts is allocated to security, although 9 of these places are experiencing active conflict. The money that is being spent on security, and it is substantial, is taking place outside of ODA, which means there are no safeguards to ensure the funds have a clear developmental benefit for the partner country or that they do no harm.

The 2016 States of Fragility report urged investment in prevention. The recent UN-World Bank study on preventing violent conflict makes an even more explicit case for the need to invest more in prevention (UN/World Bank, 2018[7]). Indeed, the recommendation is repeated far and wide these days, demonstrating its importance as well as the dearth of action around it. This can be seen in the issue of financing for prevention. The cost-benefit analysis at the heart of the UN-World Bank study finds that more effective preventive activities potentially can save as much as USD 70 billion per year (UN/World Bank, 2018, p. 3[7]). The analysis conducted for this report, however, shows that financing has yet to catch up to this logical imperative. One reason is that the prevention conversation remains at the policy level and has yet to be translated into reality for national governments and the practitioners who are tasked with implementation.

To further put these costs in perspective, the approximate average budget for a project through the UN Peacebuilding Fund is USD 1.6 million.1 One Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, according to a recent estimate, costs USD 1.4 million (Macias, 2018[11]). Another way to look at this is to compare total world military expenditure to ODA in 2017. Military spending was USD 1.739 trillion, almost 12 times the total ODA from OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors of USD 146.6 billion (SIPRI, 2018[12]; Gurría, 2018[13]). Development, it is clear, is much less expensive than military expenditures and prevention is even cheaper than development. However, more financing for prevention will have only limited impact if it is not accompanied by strong, collective political conviction and voice. Governments must powerfully communicate the message that the 21st century has already seen too much conflict and violence. It is therefore hoped that this same recommendation will not need to feature again in the next States of Fragility report.

10.6. Focus on fragility for more effective and differentiated programming

While financing for prevention has yet to meet recommendations, the sustaining peace and prevention agendas have been difficult to translate into action because there is a lack of clarity around what this means for programming. As this report notes, fragility suffers from much the same disconnect, in that it is a concept that makes sense on paper but becomes more nebulous at the point of operationalisation. These issues will remain conceptual until they are made easy as well as convincing to all elements across donor and partner governments, beyond just the current allies. The onus is now on the still relatively small community of practice to push out these ideas so that they are accessible and actionable for a wider audience and to pitch the importance of focusing on fragility.

The analysis in Chapters 5 and 8 shows there is surprisingly little variation in the spread of allocations between fragile and non-fragile contexts. This raises the question of how donors are differentiating their approaches to the unique needs of each fragile context, if they are not doing so through allocations. At the same time, as with the message about more finance not equalling more peace, it is important to emphasise that just because allocations are well balanced across the five dimensions, fragility is not automatically being addressed. To more effectively and systematically focus on fragility requires common analysis or understanding of the structural vulnerabilities or risks, in addition to the coping capacities and sources of resilience. The OECD Resilience Systems Analysis is one of the tools that can assist with this process (OECD, 2014[14]). Strategies to address fragility can then be formulated appropriately and, in the vast majority of contexts, will be complementary to and accelerators of national development plans.

In addition to direct peacebuilding or reconciliation programmes, a number of standard development projects and programmes already operating in fragile contexts, with adjustment, can have a preventive effect and address drivers of fragility. For instance, the French development agency (AFD) designs what it calls “double dividend” operations that finance development goods (social services, public infrastructure, economic productivity, etc.) but at the same time reduce fragility and reinforce the capacity of states and societies to address crises (AFD, 2016[15]).

To make such adjustments for prevention in development projects and programmes, donors need to ask deeper questions about their portfolios in fragile contexts and reflect on issues such as geographic focus, thematic focus, beneficiary focus and support to local capacity building. Additionally, it means considering the scale of engagement; what other development actors are undertaking simultaneously; where inequalities exist and why; and local perceptions of the delivery of development dividends. Importantly, as noted in the discussion of systems thinking, this re-focus also requires donors to understand the impact that the various systems have on one another. And it is necessary to have a longer time horizon and a vision, rather than a precise path, guiding the journey throughout. For instance, the German government’s “transitional development assistance” designs programmes that are explicitly intended from the outset to be cross-sectoral, to strengthen resilience of individuals and institutions, to remain suitably flexible and to lay the foundation for more long-term programming.

As noted in Chapter 9, these understandings should be accompanied by a sound financing strategy, one that enables and incentivises the pursuit of a vision for sustainable development and addresses core aspects of fragility. Without this critical part of the puzzle, good ideas will be infinitely more challenging to move from paper to practice. Development itself needs to become more investable (OECD, 2017[16]). The business case for prevention has been built. Now actors in fragile contexts need to build business cases and identify opportunities for investment in resilience. This will mean better articulating how they are going to deliver real results, ones that politically resonate with governments in fragile contexts precisely because they matter most for their people.

10.7. People-centred development has the best chance at enduring, sustainable results

What matters most for people must move back to the centre of development and be the beacon that guides aid, especially in contexts where parts of the population already are being left behind. Policies set at the global level are too often disconnected from their impacts on people’s everyday lives. It is not just a matter of numbers: GDP is growing at a rate of 6% in Sierra Leone, for instance, and only 2.1% in Finland, but people in the two countries experience life very differently (World Bank, 2018[17]). Without the introduction of alternative metrics to weigh success, and the inclusion of people in fragile contexts as arbiters, it will be difficult to ascertain whether development is really being successfully delivered in a way that does no harm and that also builds resilience and reinforces the social contract.

Hope matters, as Trend Eight argues. The delivery of development must take into account its impact on people. Attempts to find technical, surface solutions will overlook deeper feelings and perceptions of dissatisfaction, inequality and injustice, and they will undermine sustainability. Development that is not people-centred risks alienating populations when programmes fail to meet their expectations. Indeed, as noted in Trend Six, the social contract is the glue of resilient and peaceful societies. It depends on the ability of groups to work together and find collective purpose; it defines how people build relationships; and, in places that have experienced violent conflict, it helps to repair fractured relationships (UNDP, 2018, p. 9[18]). People in government and leadership positions play as critical a role as citizens, despite the fact that institutions and structures tend to be more commonly discussed with respect to statebuilding. Which pathway a society forges, as noted in the UN-World Bank study, depends on the agency of people in that society and the decisions they take (UN/World Bank, 2018, p. 85[7]).

Keeping people at the centre of development policy and actions also can address the issues raised in Trend Four regarding values-driven and interests-driven aid. Aid decisions increasingly reflect the tension between national interest, which in many places is being defined by fear, and the core value of helping people in fragile contexts improve their circumstances, reduce suffering and flourish as individuals. A recent evaluation of the European Union (EU) crisis response in Libya took note of this tension: “The securitisation of migration, and the framing of the latter as a crisis with destabilising potential, have led to the EU’s normative commitments being overlooked, if not abandoned, in spite of their relevance precisely in time of crisis” (Loschi, Raineri and Strazzari, 2018, p. 24[19]). The EU is not alone in having short-term political imperatives increasingly dictate decisions about aid to fragile contexts. But putting people back at the centre will allow decisions, processes and planning to be made under a different set of principles.

Economists also are increasingly recognising that economic policies should be designed and assessed based on their contribution to people’s economic and social rights (Anderlini et al., 2017, p. 9[20]). The OECD is in the process of developing a New Economic Narrative, one that acknowledges that traditional economic models based on GDP and income per capita do not capture the distributional consequences of policies. This is because they do not look at issues such as justice, trust or social cohesion or pay enough heed to the fact that real people’s lives “are shaped by their hopes, aspirations, history, culture, tradition, family, friends, language, identity, the media, community and other influences” (Ramos, 23 June 2017[21]; OECD, 2017[22]).

In particular, young people hold the potential to be the “connective tissue” that bridges the nexus of development, human rights, humanitarian affairs, and peace and security and also bridges the local to the global (UN General Assembly/UN Security Council, 2018, p. 18[23]). Youth are the leaders of the future and so also hold the potential to be agents of transformational change. Development must support the meaningful inclusion of all people including youth within their societies to achieve a more peaceful and resilient future.

History indeed will judge the development community on how it manages, or not, to improve the state of fragility. The verdict is not in yet. But as this report confirms, it is abundantly clear that effectiveness and progress on fragility will have to be accelerated to bring about the transformational change that must happen in most of the 58 fragile contexts featured in the 2018 fragility framework. Change cannot wait until 2029 or for many more years of red alerts and high-level warnings; it must be planned, programmed for and financed now (Eliasson, 2018[24]). Investment in the future – by all actors – must begin today and benefit all people.


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[20] Anderlini, S. et al. (2017), From the Ground Up: A Preliminary Dialogue on the Nexus of Economic Policy, Gender and Violent Extremism, International Civil Society Action Network,

[10] Chandy, L., B. Seidel and C. Zhang (2016), Aid effectiveness in fragile states: How bad Is it and how can it improve?, The Brookings Institution,

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[9] Fabre, Cyprien (2017), Multi-year humanitarian funding, OECD, Paris,

[13] Gurría, A. (2018), “Launch of ODA figures 2017”, (accessed on 15 May 2018).

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← 1. This figure is based on a calculation of the average project budget for all projects approved over the lifetime of the Peacebuilding Fund by the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO).

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