Africa's fragile states need extra help

Data shows that 10 African countries will remain fragile for much longer than previously anticipated.

It is true for Mali and Somalia. But not for Burkina Faso or Kenya. To be labelled a ‘fragile state’ is not something any country in Africa welcomes. The category implies that a country is unable to borrow on the market and faces stringent conditionalities put in place by international financial institutions such as the World Bank. It carries the stigma of incapacity and lack of progress; of poverty, violence and poor governance.

Despite the welcome news of ‘Africa rising’, new research shows that ten African states will remain fragile for much longer than previously anticipated.

In a recent policy paper, Africa’s 55 countries have been classified as either ‘more fragile’ or ‘more resilient’. By 2050 more than 1 billion people, about half Africa’s population, are forecast to be living in ‘more fragile’ countries. Yet this number could be reduced to only 372 million, or 16% of the continent’s population, with the right interventions.

In compiling the list of the 26 ‘more fragile’ countries, the most recent harmonised list of 19 conflict-affected and fragile countries used by the African Development Bank and the World Bank was employed as a starting point. Seven other countries that repeatedly showed up on other lists of fragility and state failure were added to this. The key characteristics of this group of 26 ‘more fragile’ countries were then analysed to see which could exit from the fragility syndrome over time, and what effect changes in violence, governance, poverty and exclusion would have.

Using the International Futures forecasting system (IFs), ten countries are likely to remain in the ‘fragility trap’ beyond 2050, namely Comoros, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Republic of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Togo. However, others in the original grouping – Eritrea, Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone – should exit from the fragility syndrome between 2030 and 2050. The remaining 12 countries in the original group of 26 – Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Uganda and Zimbabwe – might shake off the label of fragility by 2030 or even earlier.

A fragile state is one in which armed conflict and violence threaten the lives of the country’s citizens and prevent them from making a decent living. It is a state where inequality and exclusion are rife, with the majority of the population remaining poor, despite its having rich natural resources in many cases. It is also a country with very poor governance, where the state is often simply absent and doesn’t provide basic services such as schools, hospitals and roads. All these factors are often present at the same time; an explosive cocktail of problems that trap countries in constant fragility.

Clearly, conflict zones are particularly fragile. They are caught in a vicious circle in which instability prevents people from undertaking normal economic activities and prevents the state from functioning as it should. In other words, it undermines development and governance. This, in turn, creates poverty and state weakness, which provide fertile ground for more conflict.

Experts agree that old wars lead to new ones. A country with a history of armed conflict is more likely to slide back into war than one that has never experienced it. Recent events in Mozambique, hitherto seen as a poster child for development, show how deeply embedded conflict and instability can be, with violence erupting even after several decades of relative peace.

Unsurprisingly, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and the DRC are all trapped in conflict situations that are very difficult to untangle. The data gathered for this study clearly indicates that there should be a greater commitment to peacebuilding and development in the war-ravaged Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region, where the majority of ‘more fragile’ countries are located.

History certainly can’t be swept under the carpet in the discussion about fragile states. One must keep in mind, for instance, that the delayed process of state formation in Africa’s more fragile countries is taking place in a rushed and sometimes chaotic way. Three historical processes of state formation are evident from studies on Europe and elsewhere – the consolidation of state security, building of state capacity and the transformation to greater inclusion. In other parts of the world these processes took place over a long time, but they are happening simultaneously in Africa. The process is open-ended and the state is constantly being challenged by the impact of globalisation.

Ultimately, the process of moving from greater fragility to greater resilience is deeply political. It is, after all, essentially about ‘defining and redefining the relationship between the government and its citizens’ within a specific territorial unit.

Fortunately, state fragility is not cast in stone. With the necessary domestic ownership, leadership and external support, more countries can move from being more fragile towards greater resilience. In this process, the benefits in higher GDP and income per capita that appropriate policies could hold for each of the 26 more fragile countries are quantified.

Innovations that have worked elsewhere in Africa could be put in place in fragile states to better the lives of their citizens. Countries like Ethiopia, Malawi, Liberia, Sierra Leone and possibly Niger could in the near future get important windfalls from newly discovered oil and gas resources. If some of the associated income were distributed in the form of cash grants to the poorest of the poor, this could raise their standard of living to such an extent that they could become productive and hopefully taxpaying citizens. This in turn could strengthen the state.

If governments don’t spread the wealth, they should be brought to book and named and shamed by international initiatives such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and Publish What You Pay. These also force private companies and multinationals to play the game and help build a better Africa.

International donors and financial institutions like the African Development Bank and the World Bank have a role to play in lifting the most fragile countries out of a perpetual state of crisis. However, it is necessary to have good data on what is really going on in many of these less frequented locations in order to draw up effective strategies.

The analysis referred to here is based on the best data available internationally, but much of that data is outdated and may even be misleading. So-called ‘big data’ can help by filling the gaps in our existing system of knowledge. Certainly fresh ideas are needed in this difficult and long-term process to help Africa’s most vulnerable states, and the study concludes with a series of recommendations that seek to address some of the more common challenges.

Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director, ISS and Timothy D. Sisk, Professor of International and Comparative Politics, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

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