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Fragile states + aid

Nancy Lindborg on what ‘fragility’ actually means

What do we mean when we talk about fragile states?

Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

The nature of war is changing. Whereas in the 1960s, almost 70% of conflict took place in the poorest countries, by the 2000s, middle-income countries were seeing the largest share of conflict. These are places like Syria, Nigeria and Myanmar — relatively rich countries, at least judging by GDP, but with localized or widespread violence and massive displacement. Before the civil war began in 2011, Syria was one of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East. Now, 13.5 million Syrians are in need of food, water, medical care and education, and over 5 million more have fled the country.

Syria and countries like it are what political scientists call fragile states. They share a unique set of conditions that make it especially difficult to end conflict and help people in need, according to Nancy Lindborg, this week’s guest on Displaced.

Lindborg is the first woman to serve as the president of the United States Institute for Peace, a federally-funded think tank developing solutions for peace that lasts. Prior to joining USIP, Lindborg spent 14 years as the president of Mercy Corps before joining USAID to lead teams responding to civil war in Syria, droughts in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, the Arab Spring and the 2014 Ebola epidemic.

Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States Institute for Peace

Lindborg tells Grant and Ravi that a fragile state is one where the social contract between government and citizens has dissolved. Not only are fragile states — which political scientists used to call “failed states” — unable to provide basic services, they are often repressive and characterized by extreme wealth inequality, social division and pockets of insurgency. And supporting people in need in fragile states is especially difficult because national governments do not exercise uniform authority or possess the ability to reach all citizens. Lindborg says that working in fragile states therefore imposes a responsibility on donors and aid agencies to be as coordinated as possible — not that it always happens.

In Afghanistan, for example, Lindborg says that coalition partners “actually had three separate lines of effort: … the intelligence effort seeking to understand what was going on with al-Qaida. You had a military effort seeking to defeat the Taliban. And you had a development effort that was seeking to rebuild the state. In effect, those efforts cancel each other out. The kinds of activities and approaches that were pursued in the first two undercut the effort to rebuild the state.”

In this episode, Lindborg, Grant and Ravi dissect why aid and development efforts haven’t worked in places like Afghanistan and Iraq — and what that means for how we approach places like Syria, Nigeria and Myanmar.

When [...] 80% of global humanitarian assistance today is for victims of violent conflict, versus a decade ago when 80% was for victims of natural disaster, it really pushes us to think differently about what we do with that humanitarian assistance and how we use it in a way that begins to create more solid foundations for moving forward and connecting it more deeply to peacebuilding and development initiatives.

Related Resources

Fragility 2.0: Ideas to Action — Brookings, Nancy Lindborg

The Jihadist Threat Won’t End with ISIS’ Defeat — Foreign Affairs, Barbara Walter

Boko Haram and the Crisis in Nigeria, Explained — Vox

Shoring up the Fragile State — Foreign Policy, Seth Kaplan

Aid Effectiveness in Fragile States: How Bad Is it, And How Can We Improve? — Brookings, Laurence Chandy, Brina Seidel, and Christine Zhang

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.