.sqs-featured-posts-gallery .title-desc-wrapper .view-post

Fragile States: Five Imperatives

By Katherine Marshall

Joel Hellman Speaking About Poverty and the Challenges to Global Governance


Dr. Joel Hellman is the Dean of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He was formerly the World Bank‘s first Chief Institutional Economist and, earlier, as director of the World Bank’s Fragile and Conflict Affected States department, based in Nairobi, Kenya. 

I want to start with a positive note on global governance. If we look at the level of extreme poverty, the share of the population that’s living under $1.25 a day, which is the standard poverty line, what we see is that extreme poverty is declining at an unprecedented rate. It’s the fastest decline in extreme poverty in recorded human history. Since 1993 to 2011 the extreme poverty share has fallen by more than half. It is an extraordinary achievement. So we start in the global governance on a very positive note.

At the same time if we look behind the numbers on that extreme reduction what we see is that China and India with their very large populations and their very rapid growth rates over the last two decades have been really the dominant force behind that reduction in extreme poverty. And if we look at a group of countries, which I’ll describe in a minute that we call the fragile states we actually see that the poverty rates there pretty much stayed stable over a long period of time. And in fact even more recently there has been an uptick in poverty rates in the fragile states.

Who are these fragile states? There are many different definitions, but we are going back to the definition of the World Bank classification of 33 countries as fragile states based on the quality of their institutions, and the extent to which there has been peace keeping forces or active conflict in the countries. There are 33 as I said, largely concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa but across most of the world.

Now if we look at fragile states as a share of all developing countries’ populations it’s actually a rather small share, about seven percent of the world’s less developed population. If we look at the share of the fragile states in population of the extreme poor we see that that seven percent jumps to about 16 percent. So right now the 33 fragile states make up about 16 percent of the world’s extreme poor. Now if we start to go beyond 2010 and we project numbers through the growth rates of the developing world and the growth rates of the most difficult fragile states and we project out poverty rates, what we see is that the fragile states will go from 16 percent to about 37 percent of the world’s extreme poor….

The text above is an excerpt from the Global Futures Lecture that Professor Hellman delivered September 9, 2015 at Georgetown University. Go here for the full text.


Joel Hellmann argues persuasively that the challenges that fragile states present are absolutely central not only for those focused on international development and poverty but far beyond. They cut to the core issues for international relations, tightly linked to security, refugees and migration, and governance institutions, not to mention, inter alia, crime, humanitarian challenges, and the qualities of life that human rights are all about.

Hellmann focuses on countries that fall under the carefully crafted World Bank definition, which today includes 33 fragile states that make up about 16 percent of the world’s extreme poor; but projections indicate that the 16 percent will grow to about 37 percent of the world’s extreme poor and even to 60 percent. The 33 states currently make up 84 percent of the world population of refugees. In short, the extreme poverty problem is heavily concentrated in fragile states. And some failed state indices cast a wider net. Adding Bangladesh and Kenya, for example, as some do, drives the point further home that this is the central global governance challenge for us all.

Hellmann’s September 9 presentation focused on five challenges that the fragile states present for global governance. Paraphrasing a bit, he pinpoints: (a) a host of issues around security, ranging from protecting aid workers and projects to dealing with military civilian siloes; (b) the hazards of the results-focused short timeframe that is the modus operandi of development work today; (c) large gaps in knowledge and wisdom on what kinds of institutions might work (the so-called art of state building); (d) the massive challenges of advancing human development in fragile situations; and (e) building human capacity with the guts, savvy, and creativity needed to respond to the challenges. Good points all of them. Hellmann also focused on the question of what it costs, highlighting above all huge disparities in where funds flowing to fragile states actually end up (Afghanistan and Iraq eat a huge portion).

I would add five topics that are informed by my own experience, at the World Bank and at Georgetown and the World Faiths Development Dialogue. As a first comment, the quantity of aid flows seems to me far, far less important than how it is used. Since randomized control trials and other popular judging tools are unlikely to be of much use in these situations, figuring out the hows and learning from experience demands a premium on common sense and wisdom.

(1)  Diversity, and avoiding one size fits all solutions. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy countries are rather alike but each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way. Aggregating numbers, whether of poor people or education challenges in various fragile state situations actually does not tell us much of anything. What that means in practice is that intensive effort needs to go to understanding each fragile state situation and crafting solutions. Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, and Bangladesh, when you delve into them, call not only for different core knowledge and skills but thoughtful appreciation of history, narratives, and psychology as well as robust economic and social analysis.

(2)   Country ownership versus responsibility to protect. Responsibility for leading and guiding any society must truly rest with the people directly involved, but we do need to move beyond the mantra of home grown when horrors like Syria are at issue. There are global responsibilities to act and even to intervene, but the global governance challenges involved are poorly framed. Sovereignty and self-determination are important but so are human welfare and obligations to fellow human beings.

(3)   Tackling large obstacles and sources of grievances like corruption and capture of extractive industries. True, there is corruption in all societies and zero tolerance is hardly feasible in the heat of crisis. But there are tools and approaches to the problem and above all forthright discussion is a starting point. Extractive industries are tightly connected to conflicts and fragility and are also a feasible point of departure in many situations.

(4)   Listen to the women. Women suffer disproportionately in fragile situations for many reasons, over represented in personal violence and refugee streams, for example. But they are notoriously invisible at policy tables and frankly marginal in most policy solutions. As a start every table should include at least half women and all should listen to them.

(5)   Focus on religion. Hellman underscores the potential of the Jesuit networks, a worthy point. But that’s just the start. Religious beliefs, tensions, actors, institutions, and practices are a core part of every fragile state situation. Understanding this complex of issues and acting on that understanding should be a top priority for anyone interested in tackling the enormous challenges ahead.

Joel Hellman wisely cautions against unreasonable time frames. He’s right. But a good dose of impatience, especially with bureaucratic obstacles, does seem warranted. As we know, the possible takes a long time, the impossible a little longer.