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Fragile States Index 2017

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Though South Sudan has returned to top position on the annual Fragile States Index (FSI) for 2017, and Finland continues to maintain its position as the world’s least fragile country, the global tumult of the past year has been borne out in the Index’s trend analysis, as Ethiopia, Mexico, and Turkey recorded the greatest worsening over 2016. A number of developed countries also recorded notable worsening scores across certain indicators, in particular the United States and the United Kingdom, which both experi-enced highly divisive political campaigns during 2016. The long-term trends of the FSI have also raised red flags on a number of countries – in particular South Africa and Senegal – for which the conditions that could precipitate instability have worsened significantly.

The FSI, now in its thirteenth year, is an assessment of 178 countries based on twelve social, economic, and political indicators that quantifies pressures experienced by coun-tries, and thus their susceptibility to instability. The FSI itself is based on the CAST conflict assessment framework, a methodology developed a quarter of a century ago that continues to be implemented widely by policymakers, field practitioners, and local communities in better understanding the drivers of conflict. The FSI, adapted from the CAST framework, is assessed through a process that triangulates content analysis of over 50 million data points, with quantita-tive data sets and qualitative research validation.


Much attention has been directed at Turkey recently, not only because of its pivotal geographical position in proximi-ty to the war in Syria, but also because of its continued slide into instability and authoritarianism. The FSI data demon-strates that, since 2011, Turkey has worsened significantly across a range of indicators, declining in its overall score by 10 points over that period. Though the country has experi-enced increased pressure driven by refugee flows from Syria, much of the worsening has been driven by social and political indicators, in particular Group Grievance, Human Rights, State Legitimacy, Factionalized Elites, and Security Apparatus. Turkey was the third most worsened country since 2016, in no small part due to the attempted coup in July. In the aftermath, Turkey witnessed a major crackdown on political opponents and journalists. Beyond the attempted coup, a series of terrorist attacks, as well as renewed tensions with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has increased the pressures experienced by Turkey. Given that the highly controversial constitutional referendum staged in April 2017 – and its divisive lead-up – was not recorded in the 2017 FSI, the outlook for Turkey in 2018 remains poor.

Limited attention has been given to outbreaks of violence in Ethiopia, as anti-government protests, particularly in the Amhara and Oromia regions, led to a declaration of a state of emergency in October 2016. The state of emergency was also used as a tool to crackdown on political opponents and media. An estimated 400 people have been killed in clashes with security forces in Oromia alone. The increased pressure in 2017 marks a continuation of a long-term worsening trend for Ethiopia, whose score has increased from 91.9 in 2006 to a high of 101.1 in 2017. At the root of some of the increased pressure in Ethiopia are issues that can be traced to climate risks, as the country faces significant drought conditions and pressures on the food supply; further, competition over, and displacement from, grazing land was attributed as an underlying cause of the violence surrounding the planned annexation of land by the city of Addis Ababa as the government sought to expand its boundaries into neighboring Oromia. These pressures are borne out in the fact that Ethiopia’s highest indicator score, 9.8, was recorded for Demographic Pressures; interestingly all three of Ethiopia’s worst indicators are social indicators, pointing to added pressure from Group Grievance and Refugees and IDPs.

Mexico was a constant target of scorn in a highly charged U.S. Presidential campaign, and it was also the equally most worsened country since 2016. However, this score bucks a generally improving long-term trend for Mexico. After recording a high score of 76.1 in 2010, Mexico had improved by over 5 points to 70.4 in 2016, meaning that the 2017 score runs counter to that long-term trend. Much of the additional pressure has been driven by a surge in violence, with the highest number of homicides being recorded in 2012, as well as high-profile cases of organized crime that included the abduction of 43 students in Guerrero. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Security Apparatus indicator remains Mexico’s worst, though the rising pressure on Group Grievance and State Legitimacy is a cause for concern, particularly as Uneven Economic Development is also worsening at a similar rate.

Also recording significantly worsened year-on-year scores were three other countries that experienced significant turmoil during 2016 – Brazil, The Gambia, and South Africa. Brazil experienced a year of immense political turmoil during 2016, as President Dilma Roussef was impeached. Brazil had recorded an impressive trend of improvement through 2014, before turning the opposite direction and displaying a sharp worsening trend over the past four years. The political turmoil has reflected an economic crisis that became a very public issue as the state of Rio de Janeiro declared a state of financial emergency only weeks prior to the Olympic Games, with further protests across the country against austerity policies put in place as a response to the economic crisis. Brazil’s political and economic crises have been further compounded by an increase in crime and the effects on public health of the outbreak of the Zika virus.

The Gambia had largely flown under the radar for much of the world’s media until the disputed election of December 2016 when Yahya Jammeh, who had been President for over 20 years, lost unexpectedly to Adama Barrow, sparking a crisis when Jammeh first accepted, then rejected the result. Though the crisis was eventually resolved by ECOWAS in early 2017 – an action that will likely be picked up in the 2018 FSI – the long-term trends in the FSI demonstrated that this instability was a long anticipated. The Gambia is the eighth-most worsened country of the past decade, and has worsened in almost every year since the beginning of the FSI, with State Legitimacy and Human Rights worsening over the long-term, but Factionalized Elites and Group Grievance sharply increasing immediately ahead of the elections. It is likely that the sharp uptick in the latter two indicators reflects the largely unprecedented widespread protests in the lead-up to the December 2016 vote.

South Africa’s trend is particularly alarming. As the eco-nomic engine – and in many respects, the political giant – of Africa, the FSI has tracked a rapid decline in the country over the past decade, with only Libya, Syria, Yemen, Mali, and Senegal having worsened more in the past ten years. In 2006, the FSI assessed South Africa at 55.7, within the Stable category. Now, in 2017, South Africa finds itself at 72.3, within the Elevated Warning category, and has been surpassed by both Ghana and Botswana, which are now the most stable countries on the continent. In the past year, the country has experienced increasing economic pressure that has been a major driver of strikes, protests, and political instability, that has crystalized into the growing calls for President Jacob Zuma – who is also embroiled in scandal – to step down.

Fragility is certainly not confined to developing countries – among the ten most worsened countries in 2017 were Japan, Italy, South Korea, and Belgium, with the United States not far behind as the 14th most worsened.

Belgium experienced a serious terrorist attack in March 2016, and this has further fueled controversy over refugee flows into the country. Notably, this is reflected in the Security Apparatus, Group Grievance, and Refugees indicators being among those that sharply worsened over the past year.
Italy had begun to show signs of improvement in recent years, however the combination of significant earthquakes, continued pressure from refugee flows, and in particular tensions surrounding the failed constitutional referendum and the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi all served to undermine Italy’s performance in the 2017 FSI.

Japan had demonstrated an improving trend in recent years following the earthquake and nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011. However, increasing Demographic Pressures, coupled with a continuing increase in educated Japanese leaving the country, as well as further serious natural disasters – including a typhoon and two major earthquakes – are contributing to Japan’s worsened performance.

Though South Korea has been experiencing an economic slowdown, in many ways it is possible to attribute the significant worsening of South Korea in 2017 on one person – disgraced former president Park Guen-hye. President Park’s incredible story of corruption and influence peddling with the daughter of a cult leader rocked South Korea, leading to widespread protests and eventual impeachment by parlia-ment, has served to destabilize the country.

The United States has worsened in 2017 despite the majority of its indicators actually improving. Based on the FSI analysis, the United States has recorded long-term economic improvements and – perhaps remarkably, given recent coverage – improvements in political indicators such as State Legitimacy, Public Services, Human Rights, and Refugees. However, these broad improvements have been severely undermined by sharp upticks in three key indicators – Group Grievance, Factionalized Elites, and Security Appa-ratus. The severe worsening of the Group Grievance and Factionalized Elites indicators can be attributed in part to the highly divisive presidential election campaign in 2016, and in particular the tone of the campaign that tended to focus substantially on societal wedge issues, some of which had racial undertones. Interestingly, these indicators tracked very closely with those of the United Kingdom, which experienced its own highly divisive campaign during 2016 on exiting the European Union. It is unclear which of these precipitates the other – whether divisive rhetoric causes increased societal divisions, or campaigns based on such rhetoric take advantage of pre-existing conditions of deep division, or both. Regardless, the United Kingdom and the United States provide somewhat of a warning, that even where the majority of indicators may be improving, a handful of specific key indicators trending in the opposite direction can have profound effects on a country’s ultimate performance and implications for stability.