Where complexity meets fragility

Syria, in 2011, was 43rd on a key fragile state index, which of course seems a bit amazing given what has happened since. So why was that?

Fragile states are states at risk of collapse – often through a mix of social, political, environmental and economic factors. But do we focus too much on current measures of fragility (or stability) – of uneven distribution of wealth, of obvious social unrest, of obvious conflict, of the provision (or lack) of social services? And do we not pay enough attention to past history – how issues of inequality and conflict become embedded and go underground in the social and political frameworks? And, do we give enough consideration to the future – to future potential critical junctures where oil (say) is about to run out or where population growth is fast outstripping available agricultural land, itself squeezed due to climate change and deforestation?

Driven by my immersion in complexity thinking, I notice I have  started to carry around in my head a sort of analytical mantra.

I ask:

  • The past: What has happened in the past that may have led to embedded patterns of inequality and conflict and ‘hidden’ fragility?
  • The present: What is going on now, but also is anything beginning to emerge that may trigger change?
  • The future: What might be on the horizon that is a real threat to stability – economic cliffs, monolithic political regimes bound to break sometime?
  • The little and the big: What is occurring locally but what is also occurring regionally and internationally which is relevant? What about big business and proxy conflicts and regional politics?
  • Round and round: How do different factors – social, political, economic and environmental – work together synergistically to form either vicious or virtuous circles?

So this is a dynamic, systemic way of analysing contexts, taking note of their complexity.

I’ve used this approach in analysing several fragile states and I’ve had to resist, here, trotting out the reflections I made and conclusions I reached, the patterns I felt I uncovered. But do ask if you’d like to know more.

The interesting issue is that this approach did, in some cases, highlight the likelihood of future collapse – where, let’s say, the rate of population growth and the predicted end of oil reserves coupled with increasing drought mean that there will be fewer resources and livelihoods to share amongst increasing numbers of people. And, in other cases, it pointed to possible ‘islands of effectiveness’ or underlying dynamics that could be built on in the future, post-collapse – for example no history of strong sectarianism even though the current situation has whipped it up, and/or an effective, if partisan, administration which could be dusted off in the future.

Another aspect of fragile states I’ve been working on is how a complex systems perspective alerts us to the idea that there are different types of fragility, needing different types of interventions. Duncan Green at Oxfam has blogged about this  and there is yet more to say…

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