BY J.J. MESSNER
Though South Sudan has returned to top position on the annual Fragile States Index (FSI) for 2017, and Finland continues to maintain its position as the world’s least fragile country, the global tumult of the past year has been borne out in the Index’s trend analysis, as Ethiopia, Mexico, and Turkey recorded the greatest worsening over 2016. A number of developed countries also recorded notable worsening scores across certain indicators, in particular the United States and the United Kingdom, which both experienced highly divisive political campaigns during 2016. The long-term trends of the FSI have also raised red flags on a number of countries – in particular South Africa and Senegal – for which the conditions that could precipitate instability have worsened significantly.
The FSI, now in its thirteenth year, is an assessment of 178 countries based on twelve social, economic, and political indicators that quantifies pressures experienced by countries, and thus their susceptibility to instability. The FSI itself is based on the CAST conflict assessment framework, a methodology developed a quarter of a century ago that continues to be implemented widely by policymakers, field practitioners, and local communities in better understanding the drivers of conflict. The FSI, adapted from the CAST framework, is assessed through a process that triangulates content analysis of over 50 million data points, with quantitative data sets and qualitative research validation.
MOST WORSENED COUNTRIES IN 2017
Much attention has been directed at Turkey recently, not only because of its pivotal geographical position in proximity to the war in Syria, but also because of its continued slide into instability and authoritarianism. The FSI data demonstrates that, since 2011, Turkey has worsened significantly across a range of indicators, declining in its overall score by 10 points over that period. Though the country has experienced increased pressure driven by refugee flows from Syria, much of the worsening has been driven by social and political indicators, in particular Group Grievance, Human Rights, State Legitimacy, Factionalized Elites, and Security Apparatus. Turkey was the third most worsened country since 2016, in no small part due to the attempted coup in July. In the aftermath, Turkey witnessed a major crackdown on political opponents and journalists. Beyond the attempted coup, a series of terrorist attacks, as well as renewed tensions with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has increased the pressures experienced by Turkey. Given that the highly controversial constitutional referendum staged in April 2017 – and its divisive lead-up – was not recorded in the 2017 FSI, the outlook for Turkey in 2018 remains poor.
Limited attention has been given to outbreaks of violence in Ethiopia, as anti-government protests, particularly in the Amhara and Oromia regions, led to a declaration of a state of emergency in October 2016. The state of emergency was also used as a tool to crackdown on political opponents and media. An estimated 400 people have been killed in clashes with security forces in Oromia alone. The increased pressure in 2017 marks a continuation of a long-term worsening trend for Ethiopia, whose score has increased from 91.9 in 2006 to a high of 101.1 in 2017. At the root of some of the increased pressure in Ethiopia are issues that can be traced to climate risks, as the country faces significant drought conditions and pressures on the food supply; further, competition over, and displacement from, grazing land was attributed as an underlying cause of the violence surrounding the planned annexation of land by the city of Addis Ababa as the government sought to expand its boundaries into neighboring Oromia. These pressures are borne out in the fact that Ethiopia’s highest indicator score, 9.8, was recorded for Demographic Pressures; interestingly all three of Ethiopia’s worst indicators are social indicators, pointing to added pressure from Group Grievance and Refugees and IDPs.
Mexico was a constant target of scorn in a highly charged U.S. Presidential campaign, and it was also the equally most worsened country since 2016. However, this score bucks a generally improving long-term trend for Mexico. After recording a high score of 76.1 in 2010, Mexico had improved by over 5 points to 70.4 in 2016, meaning that the 2017 score runs counter to that long-term trend. Much of the additional pressure has been driven by a surge in violence, with the highest number of homicides being recorded in 2012, as well as high-profile cases of organized crime that included the abduction of 43 students in Guerrero. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Security Apparatus indicator remains Mexico’s worst, though the rising pressure on Group Grievance and State Legitimacy is a cause for concern, particularly as Uneven Economic Development is also worsening at a similar rate.
Also recording significantly worsened year-on-year scores were three other countries that experienced significant turmoil during 2016 – Brazil, The Gambia, and South Africa.
Brazil experienced a year of immense political turmoil during 2016, as President Dilma Roussef was impeached. Brazil had recorded an impressive trend of improvement through 2014, before turning the opposite direction and displaying a sharp worsening trend over the past four years. The political turmoil has reflected an economic crisis that became a very public issue as the state of Rio de Janeiro declared a state of financial emergency only weeks prior to the Olympic Games, with further protests across the country against austerity policies put in place as a response to the economic crisis. Brazil’s political and economic crises have been further compounded by an increase in crime and the effects on public health of the outbreak of the Zika virus.
The Gambia had largely flown under the radar for much of the world’s media until the disputed election of December 2016 when Yahya Jammeh, who had been President for over 20 years, lost unexpectedly to Adama Barrow, sparking a crisis when Jammeh first accepted, then rejected the result. Though the crisis was eventually resolved by ECOWAS in early 2017 – an action that will likely be picked up in the 2018 FSI – the long-term trends in the FSI demonstrated that this instability was a long anticipated. The Gambia is the eighth-most worsened country of the past decade, and has worsened in almost every year since the beginning of the FSI, with State Legitimacy and Human Rights worsening over the long-term, but Factionalized Elites and Group Grievance sharply increasing immediately ahead of the elections. It is likely that the sharp uptick in the latter two indicators reflects the largely unprecedented widespread protests in the lead-up to the December 2016 vote.
South Africa’s trend is particularly alarming. As the economic engine – and in many respects, the political giant – of Africa, the FSI has tracked a rapid decline in the country over the past decade, with only Libya, Syria, Yemen, Mali, and Senegal having worsened more in the past ten years. In 2006, the FSI assessed South Africa at 55.7, within the Stable category. Now, in 2017, South Africa finds itself at 72.3, within the Elevated Warning category, and has been surpassed by both Ghana and Botswana, which are now the most stable countries on the continent. In the past year, the country has experienced increasing economic pressure that has been a major driver of strikes, protests, and political instability, that has crystalized into the growing calls for President Jacob Zuma – who is also embroiled in scandal – to step down.
Fragility is certainly not confined to developing countries – among the ten most worsened countries in 2017 were Japan, Italy, South Korea, and Belgium, with the United States not far behind as the 14th most worsened.
Belgium experienced a serious terrorist attack in March 2016, and this has further fueled controversy over refugee flows into the country. Notably, this is reflected in the Security Apparatus, Group Grievance, and Refugees indicators being among those that sharply worsened over the past year.
Italy had begun to show signs of improvement in recent years, however the combination of significant earthquakes, continued pressure from refugee flows, and in particular tensions surrounding the failed constitutional referendum and the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi all served to undermine Italy’s performance in the 2017 FSI.
Japan had demonstrated an improving trend in recent years following the earthquake and nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011. However, increasing Demographic Pressures, coupled with a continuing increase in educated Japanese leaving the country, as well as further serious natural disasters – including a typhoon and two major earthquakes – are contributing to Japan’s worsened performance.
Though South Korea has been experiencing an economic slowdown, in many ways it is possible to attribute the significant worsening of South Korea in 2017 on one person – disgraced former president Park Guen-hye. President Park’s incredible story of corruption and influence peddling with the daughter of a cult leader rocked South Korea, leading to widespread protests and eventual impeachment by parliament, has served to destabilize the country.
The United States has worsened in 2017 despite the majority of its indicators actually improving. Based on the FSI analysis, the United States has recorded long-term economic improvements and – perhaps remarkably, given recent coverage – improvements in political indicators such as State Legitimacy, Public Services, Human Rights, and Refugees. However, these broad improvements have been severely undermined by sharp upticks in three key indicators – Group Grievance, Factionalized Elites, and Security Apparatus. The severe worsening of the Group Grievance and Factionalized Elites indicators can be attributed in part to the highly divisive presidential election campaign in 2016, and in particular the tone of the campaign that tended to focus substantially on societal wedge issues, some of which had racial undertones. Interestingly, these indicators tracked very closely with those of the United Kingdom, which experienced its own highly divisive campaign during 2016 on exiting the European Union. It is unclear which of these precipitates the other – whether divisive rhetoric causes increased societal divisions, or campaigns based on such rhetoric take advantage of pre-existing conditions of deep division, or both. Regardless, the United Kingdom and the United States provide somewhat of a warning, that even where the majority of indicators may be improving, a handful of specific key indicators trending in the opposite direction can have profound effects on a country’s ultimate performance and implications for stability.
MOST IMPROVED COUNTRIES IN 2017
At the other end of the trend analysis for the past year, Pakistan recorded the most significant improvement of any country in 2017. However, in analyzing the improvement of any country year-on-year, it is important to understand that improvement within the context of longer-term trends. A country’s year-on-year improvement will tend to fall into one of two categories – either a “bounce back”, where a country is not so much improving but rather recovering from a shock that might have worsened its score in previous years (in other words, the country is not necessarily performing well, but simply less badly than last year); or, sustainable improvement, where the country’s improvement is another step forward on a long-term trend of decreasing fragility and increasing stability. In the case of Pakistan, it would appear that there have been some important improvements – for example on economic indicators and even security indicators – however, whether this signifies a trend is less clear, particularly as the Group Grievance indicator continues to rise, counter to the country’s overall performance.
Among the other most improved countries for 2017, Georgia, Indonesia, Laos, Panama, Romania, Serbia, and Uzbekistan all continued to improve in accordance with trends over the past decade that demonstrate clear, long-term sustainable improvement. Though Thailand, Mali, and Cameroon were also among the most improved for the year, their longer-term trends suggest that improvements over the past year are more likely “bounce backs” from earlier shocks rather than evidence that overall pressures in those countries are decreasing.
LONG-TERM DECADE TRENDS
Cuba remains the most improved country of the past 10 years, as the government has instituted economic reforms – as well as some limited political reforms – and has significantly opened up to the outside world, in particular normalizing relations with the United States. Among the other most improved countries are the constituent states of the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, and Macedonia are all among the Top 30 most improved) as well as former Soviet states (7 of the Top 40 most improved), demonstrating a clear post-conflict (or post-Cold War) peace dividend for those countries. Other notable improvements within the Top 20 Most Significantly Improved over the past decade include Colombia, where the level of stability has rapidly consolidated as the decades-long internal conflict with the FARC has come to an end; Germany, where despite the economic and social pressures wracking many of its neighbors, has managed to improve significantly in spite of those pressures; and Indonesia, as the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation is the 9th most improved country, driven by economic development and increasing political stability.
Meanwhile, of the most worsened countries of the past decade there are likely few surprises at the very top – but equally a number of countries whose performance should herald a strong warning. Though the four most critically worsened for the decade – Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Mali – are likely obvious candidates, a number of other countries that have worsened significantly – such as Senegal, Eritrea, Mozambique, Central African Republic, and Guinea-Bissau – receive little attention in the world’s media. It is worth recognizing that the FSI had been tracking the significant worsening trend of The Gambia ahead of the political crisis at the end of 2016, and has similarly been tracking the worsening trend of South Africa ahead of the growing civil unrest there that is beginning to gain broader international attention now.
… BUT LET’S ALSO NOT FORGET THE RANKINGS
Any index inherently ranks different countries, making some more fragile than others. Though we attempt as much as possible to focus more on the short– and long-term trends and specific indicator fluctuations within the FSI, the rankings are nonetheless informative in understanding where severe fragility continues to persist.
The most fragile states topping the index this year remain relatively unchanged. South Sudan returned to the number one spot, amid deepening food insecurity, ongoing conflict between supporters of President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, reports of ethnic cleansing, and suspended elections. Somalia took second place, improving slightly from last year as battle-related deaths dropped as part of the ongoing conflict with al-Shabaab; though it still faces ongoing state pressures with insecurity, poverty and state legitimacy. The remaining countries in the Very High Alert category of the 2017 FSI include Central African Republic, Yemen, Sudan and Syria – all of which face different cycles of conflict and violence, leading to weak governance and levels of external intervention.
Though the FSI does not predict unrest or turmoil, it does provide early warning of the conditions that can likely give rise to instability. To that end, the short and long-term trends suggest that policymakers and practitioners should be mindful of the growing potential for the conditions of further instability in those countries and recognize that if a shock of some variety were to occur – from a natural disaster to a recession to localized communal violence – that such events in any of these countries could have dire consequences given the pre-existing conditions of fragility.