Urgent priorities for fragile states

No country has been spared the impact of Covid-19. But some—the world’s most ‘fragile states’—face a particularly difficult set of challenges. Before the pandemic arrived, Yemen, Sudan, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Venezuela and other struggling countries were already beset by poverty, conflict, corruption and poor governance. Now, these factors leave them especially ill-equipped to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.

What any country needs to withstand a pandemic is precisely what fragile states lack: a government with the institutional capacity to devise and deliver a comprehensive plan of action, effective police to enforce rules, social programs to deliver money and supplies, and health services to care for the infected.

A lack of state capacity is immediately evident in the domain of public health. Whereas Europe has 4,000 intensive care beds per million people, many parts of Africa have just five per million. Mali has just three ventilators for the entire country.

An effective response also requires trust in government. But, in addition to scarce capacity, governments in most fragile states lack popular legitimacy. In countries recovering from conflict or riven by corruption, many people will be unwilling to follow even a government that proves capable of leading.

A strong private sector is also a necessary component of effective, resilient states. People must be able to work to support their families, and governments must generate tax revenues to help those who cannot. Yet fragile states typically lack the formal economy through which to meet these needs.

Earlier in the crisis, there were hopes that some fragile states would escape the worst of Covid-19’s health impact, owing to their youth and isolation. But, from our perspective as the co-chairs of the new Council on State Fragility, this has not been the case. In recent weeks, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen have all had infection and mortality rates rivalling those in more developed countries that were hit by the coronavirus first.

Worse, the economic impact of the pandemic will surely fall harder on fragile states, not just as a result of internal lockdowns, but because of what is happening overseas. Trade with countries like China has declined massively, revenue from remittances has tumbled, commodity prices and oil revenues have plummeted, and deficits are ballooning. Because fragile states rely on imports for much of their food, there is now increasing talk of hunger and even famine.

We should know by now that poor countries’ problems tend to become the world’s problems, whether in the form of mass migration, organised crime, terrorism or economic spillovers. Given that half the world’s poor will live in fragile states by 2030, these problems will escalate further.

That is why the Council on State Fragility has made it a top priority to draw attention to the unique challenges these countries face. Comprising former world leaders, ministers, diplomats, business figures, academics and heads of development organisations, the council will combine cutting-edge research with detailed policy knowledge to influence the global and national decision-makers who will determine how fragile states fare through this crisis and tackle their broader and deeper challenges.

Decentralisation, adaptability and the savvy use of data will be key. For example, there’s ample evidence to suggest that ‘smart containment’ of local outbreaks is often more appropriate than countrywide lockdowns. Such insights could prove critical in fragile states. But we must act fast before the acute phase of the pandemic ends in the West and the sense of urgency there wanes.

We offer five recommendations. First, social protection must be made simple and fast. Sometimes that will mean universal eligibility rather than precise targeting. Mobile-phone networks should be used to gather evidence on current needs and to distribute small, regular (albeit time-limited) payments.

Second, more domestic food production should be encouraged. Sierra Leone, for example, used to grow rice, but it has becoming increasingly dependent on imports. More broadly, Africa has 60% of the world’s unused arable land. Efforts to produce staple crops locally can and must be scaled up quickly and substantially.

Third, whenever a vaccine becomes available, the international community must ensure that fragile states are not priced out of the market by richer countries. When the threat is a contagious pathogen, no country is safe unless all are. We must encourage and accelerate the production of multiple vaccines to ensure rapid, widespread distribution.

Fourth, businesses in fragile states need direct support. As the best development-finance institutions know, small companies in poorer countries are often overlooked and tend to suffer from the perverse effects of broader targets and rules (because it is easier to hit a target by investing in big projects in big countries). But it is precisely these smaller enterprises that merit greater investment.

Finally, the G20 should do more to support heavily indebted fragile states that are being forced to choose between paying their foreign creditors and saving their people. Countries receiving bilateral development assistance are scheduled to repay about US$40 billion to public and private creditors this year alone.

To forestall that fiscal blow, we call on all G20 members to commit to debt moratoriums, not just until next year, but for the duration of the crisis. Moreover, it is essential that all fragile states secure emergency funding to support efforts to curb Covid-19 and mitigate its economic impact—including countries that are not ordinarily eligible for funding from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

Covid-19 will deepen existing wounds in all of the world’s fragile states. But with swift global action, we can mitigate the pandemic’s worst effects. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this crisis, it’s that lives and livelihoods will be saved if we can move faster than the virus.