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*This post is co-authored by Kaysie Brown
The World Bank's Operations Evaluation Division has just released a lengthy report documenting a rise in the world's "fragile states" and drawing a direct connection between state weakness and transnational threats. As Karen DeYoung reports in today's Washington Post,

“Fragile" countries, whose deepening poverty puts them at risk from terrorism, armed conflict and epidemic disease, have jumped to 26 from 17 since the report was last issued in 2000.

Increased attention to development and stability in fragile states by both the World Bank and the U.S. Government signals the importance of and challenges associated with providing assistance in these critical yet vulnerable states. CGD recently launched the Engaging Fragile States initiative to focus on key unanswered questions for the development community working in these tough environments. A quick read of the Bank report raises a number of issues that our work is focusing on:

  1. As we’ve written before, claims about the connection between fragile states and transnational security threats are frequently made but insufficiently documented. Testing these claims empirically is one of the central priorities of our new initiative.
  2. There is the conceptual problem of how to define state fragility: is it primarily a matter of a country's lack of capacity to provide services to its people, or is it a matter of a lack of will by its leaders to initiate crucial reforms? Similarly, should the category be restricted to a subset of the poorest states - the World Bank approach - or should it be expanded to include lower-middle (or even middle) income countries?
  3. The donor community needs to provide additional aid resources, and in a more targeted manner, to fragile states. The Bank has been doing its part, but most other donors, including the U.S., are lagging behind. It is true, as the Post notes, that foreign aid has surged under the Bush administration. But --as we point out in our recent paper, Fragile States and U.S. Foreign Assistance: Show Me the Money--only a tiny fraction of this aid actually supports fragile states.
  4. Global foreign aid is distributed too unevenly, and sporadically, across fragile states. The World Bank report documented that assistance from all donors varied from nearly $200 per capita for East Timor to $15 per capita for the Central African Republic. In the case of the U.S., close to half of all bilateral foreign aid to fragile states goes to two countries--Iraq and Afghanistan--with clear losers being Bangladesh, Niger, Eritrea and the Central African Republic.
  5. If aid to such countries is to be effective, the U.S. and others need to improve the coherence of their own national efforts - to ensure that their development assistance, diplomatic efforts, and defense engagement with fragile states are mutually reinforcing. We are currently studying efforts across key bilateral donors to reorganize government-wide policies toward fragile states, and early analysis indicates that surges in interest in interagency coordination have yet to translate into sustained results, both here in DC (even with the U.S. foreign aid reform agenda) and elsewhere.

If nothing else, the Washington Post article should serve as a wake up call: even as the number of fragile states is rising, and despite an increasing amount of attention paid to the topic, our knowledge of the factors that make states fragile, as well as policies and programs that could reverse the trend, is very much in early stages.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.