BY DANIEL WOODBURN
As Yogi Berra wisely said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Through an international relations lens, it certainly is tough because 1) we do not know when a crisis might strike, and 2) it is surprisingly difficult to know how a country will perform when confronted by a shock. In light of this, the Fragile States Index is useful for the observation of historical trends, not so much for forecasting. For one thing, an external (or even an internal) shock can overwhelm a country long considered stable. A single devastating weather event can ruin a country’s tourism industry, for example. Or consider France, which is one of the least fragile countries in the world, and which has improved more or less steadily over the past 18 years, yet still appears perpetually perched on the precipice of pseudo-revolution. Although warnings of global pandemics have been sounded for decades, no one could know for sure when or where the next one will strike. When it did eventually strike, COVID-19 cascaded across the globe in unexpected ways.
In the absence of a crystal ball, it would seem that everyone everywhere needs to prepare for everything all the time. But it is human nature to either fight the last war or hope for the best rather than plan for the next bad thing that could happen – which leaves countries exposed when it does. And many countries simply lack the capacity, for example, to plan human settlements around weather events, such as the cyclone that displaced 125,000 Mozambicans in 2019.
Ukraine stands out as a particularly salient example of the complexities of planning for an uncertain future despite a wealth of historical data. In February 2022, Russia made the mistake of assessing Ukraine as a relatively fragile state whose government could be easily toppled. Sixteen months later Russia is embroiled in a protracted war, having had to implement mass conscription. For its part, Ukraine has shown itself to be resilient not just on the battlefield, but across its society, demonstrating an adaptability that mirrors the fervent national pride that has underpinned its resistance. Even if armed with the knowledge of Russia’s imminent invasion, no analyst could have foreseen the twists and turns that the war has taken, and therefore how Ukraine’s levels of fragility would be impacted. And even now that the war is in full swing, it is difficult to predict what will happen next. Even if Ukraine eventually repulses the invasion, its FSI score will not immediately rebound to pre-war levels, considering the damage that has been wrought on its economy, infrastructure and society, with the deaths of tens of thousands of conscripted servicemen, not to mention civilian casualties. Many of those who have taken refuge abroad may not return. Yet so far, Ukraine’s resilience has been rigorously tested, and held firm. One way or another, eventually the violence will end and herald the gradual return of the mundanities of peace-time governance, such as concerns about levels of unemployment, education provision, or basic public services in general, not to mention rebuilding much of the country’s damaged or destroyed infrastructure.
Another country that illustrates the challenges of prediction using the FSI, is the Philippines. As often happens in the wake of an election, the country’s political landscape was substantially altered in 2022, when Bongbong Marcos was elected. This has resulted in the Philippines being among the best performers in the 2023 FSI with a 2.7-point improvement from the year before, to reach its best score since the very first edition of the FSI in 2006.
This improvement comes after a period of elevated fragility during the pandemic when it was among the most worsened, with a 5-place drop in the 2021 FSI ranking due in part to a heavy-handed response to the pandemic. In the absence of mass testing and the slow upstart of a vaccination program, the Philippines relied on a heavily securitized approach to keeping the virus at bay, imposing strict quarantines, curtailing civil rights, and compounding poverty further. With echoes of China’s strict approach to handling the virus (before letting it spread in 2022), unlike the Chinese Communist Party, Filipino authorities’ provision of basic services, such as the distribution of food, left a lot to be desired. Civil Society’s attempts to step in and fill the gaps were even politicized by the government, with do-gooders accused of links to ‘communist’ groups. Meanwhile, the military’s involvement in enforcing the government’s draconian approach to public health led to a spike in human rights abuses. In a country where the government actively adopted a “shoot first, don’t ask any questions later” policy to its drug problem, thousands of alleged drug-dealers were summarily executed by security forces between 2016 and 2022, over the course of President Duterte’s tenure. Paradoxically, where this led to a deterioration of 1.9 points in the Philippines’ Human Rights score between the 2016 and 2023 editions of the FSI, the popularity of Duterte’s approach to the war on drugs with the general Filipino population merely translated to minor fluctuations in the State Legitimacy score during the same period, sometimes for the better (hovering around a high baseline in the 7s where it had been previous to Duterte’s election). Although it is worth noting other factors were at play in that score’s calculation, few other democracies could actively and openly encourage extrajudicial execution of their citizens without seeing a spike in the State Legitimacy score.
On the international front, President Duterte’s election in 2016 apparently hailed a shift away from the Philippine’s long-term trading partner, the United States, and towards China and Russia, before a mid-term climb-down when relations with China were strained by the dynamics of the uneven partnership. In 2021, with his aspirations for an equitable Chinese-Filipino pact in tatters, Duterte’s government worked to mend bridges with Washington and reinstate security ties with the USA. The Chinese realignment was short-lived, and the Philippines completed its about-face with the election of Bongbong Marcos in 2022, who quickly signalled his intention to strengthen the US-Philippines partnership his father – former president Ferdinand Marcos – had upheld during the Cold War. This geopolitical whiplash is emblematic of Filipino politics: presidents are limited to a single 6-year term under the constitution, meaning they have comparatively little time to implement their vision, which often leads to short-sighted and impulsive policymaking. The short-termism that arguably keeps other democratically elected heads of state and government accountable seemingly has had the opposite effect in the Philippines, where the president commands significant power and where checks-and-balances aren’t quite so influential. This leads to political 180° turns, and a lack of consistency, not only from one six-year tenure to the next, but within presidential terms themselves.
The Philippines illustrates the challenges of using the FSI as a predictive tool. The Philippines was the second most improved in the 2023 FSI, placing it alongside the likes of other countries with big improvements like Guyana. However, it has a history of volatility in the FSI, which is in itself signals a kind of fragility – a country buffeted by external shocks like the pandemic, and susceptible to the whims of individual leaders, as evidenced by the ease with which Duterte strengthened security forces’ ability to violate human rights in the name of the war on drugs. While some may see the Philippines as an indictment of democracy and the short-termism it breeds, it is rather a cautionary tale of the dangers of the cult of personality and weak checks-and-balances. Either way, it illustrates the ebbs and flows of fragility and therefore the limitations of using the FSI to predict the political future.
That would seem to leave us where we started: in the intolerable position of everyone everywhere needing to prepare for everything all the time. Or simply throwing up our hands in the absence of capacity and resources. Or just focusing on fighting the last war. To fill this gap, the Fund for Peace partnered with SAS to build the Crisis Sensitivity Simulator (CSS), which takes the 18-year history of each country and juxtaposes that data with the new State Resilience Index to help countries prioritize. In the case of the Philippines, the CSS suggests that it is most sensitive to shocks affecting Demographic Pressures (such as a pandemic), Human Rights, and Security Apparatus. The new administration would do well to focus their efforts on shoring up capacity to manage those risks.
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