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Defining and measuring state fragility

A conversation with J.J. Messner, Executive Director of The Fund for Peace, and speaker at IFAD’s annual Lecture Series during the Governing Council meeting.

Languages: English

12 February 2018 - No state wants to be defined as fragile. But J.J. Messner’s job as co-director of The Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index is to do just this. The Index tracks and assesses the performance of 178 countries on social, economic and political indicators to measure their fragility.

J.J. Messner’s lecture “We need to talk about state fragility” will be presented on 13 February 2017 at 15:00 and will be webcast at www.ifad.org/gc41 

The following interview has been edited for brevity.

What is the Fragile States Index?

The Fragile States Index is an annual assessment of 178 countries based on a measurement of the social, economic, and political pressures that each country faces. The Index is unique, in that it is based on a platform of content analysis (using algorithms to analyse tens of millions of qualitative data points) that is then triangulated with quantitative data and qualitative research inputs. Now in its fourteenth year, the Index provides over a decade of trend analysis, including long-term trends for each country and the ability to disaggregate those trends to the specific social, economic, and political aspects of the challenges that each country faces.

Why is it important to define and measure fragility?

​In any discipline, it is important for policy objectives to be clear and grounded in solid metrics. For example, sound agricultural policy is based on metrics, such as crop yields, nutritional needs, or commodity prices. State fragility is no different. In formulating policy for development, metrics are important for understanding baselines and objectives. In that sense, data is critical, and where it is lacking, it needs to be generated. That is fundamentally the role that the Fragile States Index fulfils – it helps to inform understanding and response to issues of social, economic, and political fragility based on solid data. But even beyond this, the issue of state fragility is by its nature a sensitive topic. No country wishes to be known as a “fragile state” – but we cannot hope to address issues of fragility if we are not prepared to talk about it. In so doing, it is equally important that such discussions are based on fact and clear metrics, to avoid terms such as “fragile state” being thrown around casually. Conversations about state fragility need to be objective and most of all constructive, and a data-driven approach is critical to ensuring this.

How is the Fragile States Index used?

The Fragile States Index is used extensively by foreign governments and aid agencies to measure their contributions toward development initiatives, and to focus their efforts in identifying further areas in need of development or support. Further, the private sector and financial institutions use the Fragile States Index to better understand risk – not necessarily to determine whether or not to invest or to operate in a certain country, but how to do so in an informed manner that takes account of risk that it then appropriately mitigated. And most importantly of all, the Index is used by countries themselves – governments use the Index to better understand their own challenges and how to address them, whilst local civil society groups use the Index as a tool to advocate for reform. At The Fund for Peace, we never cease to be impressed by the diversity of stakeholders who use our data; ultimately, the data should be used to understand fragility, to inform policy, and to provide a platform for constructive dialogue on collective responses to countries’ challenges.

Does fragility only affect developing countries?

A frequent criticism of any Index – whether it be the Fragile States Index or other organizations’ similar efforts on issues such as transparency or freedom – has been that they are somehow “Western”-centric efforts to undermine or defame developing countries. But the reality is that the Fragile States Index has been quite indiscriminate in its identification of fragility trends. For example, last year the Index ranked the United States as the most-worsened country on the Index’s three “Cohesion” indicators. During much of the past decade, the Index also charted the relative decline of countries such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain as they witnessed the fallout from economic shocks in the mid-2000s. What this demonstrates is that every country – developed or developing alike – experiences fragility to different degrees. What sets countries apart is their resilience, or their ability to withstand shocks, and their capacity to respond effectively to those pressures. Furthermore, in a globalized and interconnected world, fragility, wherever it may be, is everybody’s problem. Fragility ultimately affects everyone, one way or another.

How do countries respond to their ratings in the Index?

The reactions to the Fragile States Index vary widely. Finland, for example, has been quite keen to crow about their exceptional ranking on the Index for some years. Other countries, however, react less positively – the release of the Fragile States Index has in the past led to fiery op-eds, intemperate phone calls, and cranky in-person diplomatic representations to The Fund for Peace from certain Embassies in Washington (who shall remain nameless). We get it – as we say, no country wishes to be known as a “fragile state.” However, what we hope countries will do is to use the data as a platform for informed policy making. For example, some years ago, the government of Moldova convened a cabinet-level committee to examine our findings and see how they could learn from them. Perhaps even more impressively, the government of Kenya presented us with a very thoughtful and reasonable response to our findings – that actually agreed with some of our findings – and together we used it as a platform to engage with Kenyan civil society on how to collectively respond to the areas of identified fragility and how to best direct policy initiatives. That is how we hope countries will use the findings – constructively in order to effect positive change.

Why is measuring state fragility important for a development organisation like IFAD that works to eradicate rural poverty and build sustainable rural economies and communities?

It is significantly easier to address a problem if it can be properly identified and quantified, and measuring fragility is important to ensure that policy responses are informed and properly targeted. Data can assist with identifying areas of need – such as specific communities or groups – and even to help understand the core drivers of their underlying challenges. Policy interventions will always risk being temporary, band-aid solutions unless the core, underlying problems are adequately addressed.  Certainly, it is right that the rural poor should be assisted, but we need to ask why the communities are impoverished in the first place, and what policy responses can address the underlying causes of their poverty and set communities on a road to sustainability.

IFAD’s Governing Council meeting is on the theme ‘From fragility to long-term resilience: Investing in sustainable rural economies’. How does the Fragile States Index inform this topic?


The concept of state fragility is a wide-ranging one, and it is critical to understand how it can be influenced by certain sectors. For example, now more than ever, we are seeing unprecedented human flight from rural areas to urban environments that is changing the profile of each environment, but is also threatening to widen the divide between urban and rural populations, and to fundamentally alter internal dynamics within countries. This can also have effects on issues as diverse as political representation, employment, economics, and population growth. This historic change is occurring against the backdrop of climate change, that is manifesting itself in less predictable crop cycles, desertification, water shortages, more frequent natural disasters, and increasing land competition such as between farmers and pastoralists. All the while, these changes – and in some cases, conflict – are occurring at a time of dire predictions on the world’s increasing inability to feed its growing population. In this sense, it is critical to be able to view these challenges through the lens of fragility and resilience.