How can we improve development co-operation in fragile contexts?

By Jessica Voorhees, Digital Communications Officer, OECD

We live in an age of crises. Some places are better able to manage and absorb these shocks than others: countries and territories that are exposed to economic, environmental, political and societal risks, but lack the capacity to cope with them, are considered “fragile” by the OECD. This article explores how development actors can support these populations in addressing not only the impact of crises but also the root causes of fragility.

A quarter of the global population and three-quarters of people living in extreme poverty live in 60 fragile contexts. Ninety-five percent of the 274 million people needing humanitarian assistance and protection live in fragile places. Needs are especially severe in countries classified as extremely fragile, such as Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Central African Republic.

Three major drivers of fragility

The pandemic has widened the gap between rich and poor countries. Only 37% of the population in fragile contexts has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 78% in OECD member countries. The pandemic also highlighted an acute digital divide, where access to digital services, such as the Internet, varies significantly between and within countries. Only 35% of Haiti’s population had access to the Internet in 2020, and just 7% of women and girls, affecting learning and job opportunities.

Climate change and environmental degradation are also disproportionately affecting fragile contexts. Though these countries and territories account for only 4% of global CO2 emissions, they are home to a quarter of natural disaster events and nearly half of deaths from disasters. Sahel countries excluding Mauritania feature in the top 15% of countries vulnerable to climate change, and their environmental fragility is closely linked to food insecurity and violence.

Violent conflict plagues one third of all fragile contexts. Fatalities due to non-state violence were higher in 2021 than any other year since 2015, and episodes of government repression and targeting of citizens reached a historical high between 2020 and 2021. Violent conflict is also a driver of devastating food crises, with 750 000 people facing starvation in Ethiopia, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan today. Almost all “hunger hotspots” are fragile and most are affected by conflict.

Donors have responded to global shocks with increased volumes of official development assistance (ODA), which has proven a stable source of development financing through previous crises. However, in 2020, OECD Development Assistance Committee members’ share of aid to fragile contexts plummeted to its lowest level since 2016. In extremely fragile places, aid for shorter-term humanitarian action has risen to outweigh development financing, though investment in long-term development has proven effective and saves money. The urgent needs of Ukraine and its citizens, related food and energy crises in developing countries, high debt levels and rising inflation will continue to put pressure on ODA budgets this year. This raises the question of how to prioritise when everything is priority.

Three ambitions for development partners:

1. Embrace a multidimensional approach

Though clearly related, fragility and conflict are not synonymous: only nine of the 60 fragile contexts were in a state of war in 2021. Development partners should move beyond a narrow focus on conflict to consider the other complex risks and root causes of fragility, such as economic instability and ecological vulnerabilities. To do this, investments in quality data and analysis are essential, especially for capacity building within fragile contexts themselves. Donors must also consider how the broader context may affect the outcome of their approach in a particular sector. For example, beyond providing doses to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates, programmes must also consider societal perceptions of vaccination that may restrict the rates in certain regions.

2. Promote collective action in financing, policy and programming

Sustaining current levels of development financing is not enough to meet the magnitude of current needs. It is just as important to ensure that different donors are working in coherent, complementary and co-ordinated ways beyond ODA-funded activities. For example, through joint programming, the European Union (EU) aligns its responses with partner countries’ national development plans. The EU’s initiatives in fragile contexts account for 48% of its joint programming worldwide. In Lao People’s Democratic Republic, environmental health risks, such as air pollution, contribute to 10 000 deaths annually, increase health treatment costs and decrease economic productivity. To address these challenges, EU and partner responses are aligned across three priority areas: green and inclusive economy, human capital and good governance.

3. Bridge the divide between development and peace

When development and peace actors deploy parallel – not to say divergent – efforts, effectiveness suffers, such as we saw in Afghanistan, the Sahel and South Sudan . While prevention is at the core of effective response, it remains chronically underfunded across humanitarian, development and peace activities in fragile contexts.  For prevention to work, it must be conducted in a comprehensive way by responding to risks across dimensions of fragility and not just those solely associated with security.  The Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus provides the framework for international and local actors to work together towards shared goals and resilience building in fragile settings.

Watch the online discussion organised by the OECD Development Centre on Building a more resilient world in a multi-crisis era