How — and Why — the U.S. Should Address At-Risk Countries

August 9, 2016 By Sean Hansen

While the Republican and Democratic National Conventions painted different challenges for the next administration, speakers at both recognized the threats posed by weak and fragile states to America’s safety and prosperity.

President Obama and others recently made a strong case for why the next administration must continue to invest in global development at this year’s Global Development Summit. The recently released Fragile States Index provides a useful snapshot of where we should invest.

Measuring Fragility

Given the estimated 1.4 billion people living in fragile states, the Fund for Peace’s annual Fragile States Index highlights the global impact of many fragile states currently in conflict, such as Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. It noted that last year’s “long-simmering crises crossed borders, even continents, in a reminder that it takes very little for regional instability to go global.”

As millions of Syrian refugees made their way toward Europe, the needs of providing humanitarian assistance has challenged some of America’s closest allies in Turkey, Germany, Jordan, and even Norway. These states, along with others such as Hungary, Greece, Austria, and Sweden, showed the most worsened “Refugee Indicator” scores, according to this year’s report.

But as Nancy Lindborg, the President of the U.S. Institute of Peace, has pointed out, “We don’t have a refugee crisis. We have a fragility, conflict, and violence crisis.” Refugee displacement is just one of many indicators used by the FSI to measure fragility. The index also monitors social, economic, political, and military indicators, including demographic pressures, poverty, human rights, uneven economic development, state legitimacy, and the security apparatus. These factors weaken nations, increase the likelihood on conflict, and in turn can create security challenges for countries far beyond their borders.

Addressing Fragility

Strategic investments in diplomacy and development can prevent crises and be more effective and less costly than emergency response in weak and fragile states. The U.S. is engaged in fragile states around the world, promoting inclusive governments and rule of law, building stronger health systems, and fostering economic growth that can address the root causes of state fragility.

The findings in this year’s FSI report identify areas of weakness and opportunities to prevent violence from erupting or another humanitarian emergency from unfolding – by helping grow markets by building roads and infrastructure, reforming the security sector to ensure it is under democratic rule, reducing trade barriers, and combating infectious diseases.

One proposal recommends the U.S. prioritize countries on the cusp of greater instability that have not yet failed. John Norris at the Center for American Progress has called for 5 year compacts similar in spirit to the mission of the Millennium Challenge Corporation. These Inclusion, Growth, and Peace Compacts seek to foster greater stability in at-risk countries by strengthening democratic and transparent institutions, fostering economic prosperity, and providing security assistance.

Norris cites Colombia and Liberia as examples of fragile states that have achieved success through similar U.S. programs in the past—and highlights countries such as Ethiopia, Tunisia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Rwanda that might also be moved out of the category of fragile states.

What Comes Next?

By 2030, almost two billion people will live in fragile states—nearly a quarter of the world’s population. The case of South Sudan—ranked number two on this year’s FSI—illustrates the pressing need to address state weakness.

The U.S. has invested over $1.5 billion in South Sudan to combat instability with strategic investments in food security and health programs to combat extreme poverty and hopeless since 2014. But the UNHCR predicts more than 250,000 South Sudanese will to flee their homes this year, underscoring the need for a long-term strategy to address fragility. As Norris notes, “Making the transition fully out of fragility is a long process, typically requiring at least 10 years of relative stability for genuine power-sharing to occur and for a country to begin attracting broader levels of foreign direct investment and trade, which are crucial to prolonged stability and growth.”

This will certainly require sustained investment in development efforts from the next and future administrations. Looking ahead, the question isn’t whether we should promote global development in weak and fragile states, but how.

Photo: Flickr, CC.