Fragile States

February 18, 2022 • Volume 32, Issue 6
Can struggling countries become stable, functioning societies?
By Zarrín Caldwell


Nearly a quarter of the world's population — and more than three-quarters of those in extreme poverty — lived in countries and regions classified as “fragile” in 2020. Experts expect those numbers will grow, due to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate crises, the proliferation of militant extremist groups and growing geopolitical competition. The defining attributes of a fragile state include an inability to control its territory, govern effectively and deliver public services, usually because of violence, corruption or political oppression. Unstable governments can fuel refugee migrations, violence and corruption that spill over into other countries. Although the developing world made much economic progress in the post-Cold War period, violent conflict has escalated dramatically over the last decade and shows no signs of declining. Moreover, the U.S. failure — after 20 years of nation-building — to create a strong, democratic government in Afghanistan has fueled new debates among policymakers and development experts about how best to address the multiple challenges posed by fragile states. And today, new questions are being asked about what fragility means, because even developed countries, such as the United States, are showing fractures in social ties.

Photo of refugee children in Idlib, Syria, on November 25, 2021. (Getty Images/Anadolu Agency/Dogukan Keskinkilic)
Fragile states often suffer from conflicts, such as the 11-year-old civil war in Syria, which displaced these children and forced their families to set up a makeshift camp outside of Idlib. Conflicts create internally displaced citizens and millions of refugees who flee to other countries. (Getty Images/Anadolu Agency/Dogukan Keskinkilic)
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Foreign Aid
Feb. 18, 2022  Fragile States
Apr. 23, 2021  U.S. Foreign Aid
Mar. 29, 2019  U.S. Foreign Policy in Transition
Apr. 14, 2017  Rethinking Foreign Aid
May 16, 2014  U.S. Global Engagement
Oct. 02, 2012  Rebuilding Haiti
Mar. 23, 2012  U.S.-Europe Relations
Jun. 17, 2011  Foreign Aid and National Security
Apr. 26, 2002  Foreign Aid After Sept. 11
Sep. 27, 1996  Reassessing Foreign Aid
Sep. 23, 1988  Foreign Aid: a Declining Commitment
Dec. 01, 1965  Development Aid for Poor Nations
Dec. 19, 1962  Foreign Aid Overhaul
Jun. 19, 1957  Population Growth and Foreign Aid
Dec. 12, 1956  Extension of Foreign Aid
Jan. 26, 1955  Aid to Asia
Feb. 04, 1953  Trade Policy and Foreign Aid
May 03, 1951  Future of Foreign Aid
Feb. 09, 1949  American Aid to Greece
Oct. 17, 1947  Conditions for American Aid
Jun. 11, 1947  Financial Aid to Foreign Countries
Aug. 06, 1940  American Relief of Famine in Europe
Feb. 16, 1940  Loans and Credits to Foreign Countries
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Powers and History of the Presidency
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Regional Political Affairs: Middle East and South Asia
U.S. at War: Afghanistan
U.S. at War: Iraq
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