A synthesis report produced by FP Analytics with support from Food for the Hungry

The pandemic and the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine have wreaked havoc on global economies and put exceptional pressure on the world’s most fragile and conflict-affected economies. Global supply chain disruptions, persistent inflation, and geopolitical instability are exacerbating the risks vulnerable populations and fragile states are already facing from longer-term trends, such as climate change and extreme poverty. In light of these compounding risks, strengthening institutions and communities to adapt and manage shocks and complex crises will be vital for economic and human security in countries around the world. An increasing number of policymakers, donors, and practitioners have committed to rethinking and advancing a more strategic approach to resilience in fragile states—with many articulating plans for greater localization—but more collaborative and sustained action is needed to translate intentions to impact on the ground.

To address these issues, Foreign Policy, in partnership with Food for the Hungry, hosted two high-level, virtual events. The first, “Rethinking International Cooperation in the Hardest Places,” was held in September 2022 on the margins of the UN General Assembly with a global audience in attendance. The second, “From Fragility to Resilience,” was a closed-door roundtable convened in February 2023. Both conversations featured global and regional leaders and experts from international organizations, governments, the private sector, academia, and civil society. The discussions were oriented around the broader paradigm shift within the international aid community toward a “systems approach to resilience,” as articulated by Mark Viso, President of Food for the Hungry. One cornerstone of this new strategy is the recently passed U.S. Global Fragility Act, which directs the U.S. government to develop initiatives aimed at stabilizing conflict-affected areas and critically shifts focus to resilience and capacity-building in its implementation. To overcome the challenge of turning commitment into action, development actors have an opportunity to leverage the full range of tools available to them, bring as many stakeholders into the agenda as possible, learn from past crises, and find ways to deepen engagement with each other and with the communities they seek to support.

Fragility to Resilience Virtual Dialogue—Rethinking International Cooperation in the Hardest Places

September 16, 2022

Over the last decade, the concept of resilience-building has evolved into a holistic, multi-dimensional, multi-sectoral issue that is central to the global development agenda. In practice, this calls for an understanding of both the endogenous and exogenous drivers of resilience in fragile contexts and striking a balance between short-term crisis management and resilience and capacity building for the longer term. To achieve this, participants of this virtual dialogue emphasized the importance of building innovative, data-driven, and adaptive multi-stakeholder partnerships around a locally led vision of resilience. Decision-making processes need to be driven by rigorous data and analysis, but also by local communities, especially those who exist in the margins.

In the last few decades, there has been increasing investment in data and analytics from institutions such as the World Bank, in an attempt to better understand the causes of fragility and promote evidence-based policy design. However, as the virtual dialogue’s panelists observed, many aspects of fragility are deeply political, which is often a real challenge for financial institutions. Dr. Alison Evans, the World Bank’s Director-General of Evaluation, shared an important lesson from her experience, which is that data must be analyzed in tandem with the political dynamics within a community for more effective interventions. While data can help aid workers respond more efficiently to a crisis, long-term resilience-building at a systems-level must acknowledge and integrate political sensitivities in order to promote good governance and civil society buy-in. As the U.S. Ambassador to Mozambique Peter Hendrick Vrooman noted, “Even as we look to data to drive a lot of decision-making on large-scale investments, I think we also have to look at the social cohesion that enables communities to bounce back.” The global aid community can help foster that kind of social cohesion by designing human-centered policies underpinned by rigorous data and analysis, but also by adopting an adaptive management style, which depends on the ability to respond to critical feedback, pivot, and attempt a different approach.

International development actors are constantly balancing competing objectives in fragile areas. One example of this tension, and one that was central to this virtual discussion, was the question of how to invest in economic development without further damaging the environment. Panelists underscored the importance of pursuing economic growth and prosperity alongside climate risk reduction and responsible stewardship of natural resources. Saadia Madsbjerg, President of the Coca-Cola Foundation, emphasized the development community’s increasing recognition of the role that nature plays in long-term economic growth and sustainable development. Data shows that prioritizing investments in climate-resilient livelihoods empowers communities to both manage risks and contribute to sustainable development more actively. Investments that were made years ago have been adapted or re-purposed in novel ways to address risks and manage crises, according to Madsbjerg. The return on these investments, Dr. Evans added, is the reduction of existing costs from crisis-related disruptions to infrastructure and economic activity, such as in the case of the 2022 floods in Pakistan. She noted, “One thing we found in looking at the World Bank’s response to the COVID pandemic has been that what we can see, almost in real-time, in the context of the pandemic, is the investments that were made a decade ago, five years ago, beginning to pay off in terms of the resilience of health systems, of social protection systems, in the face of a major shock.” Investing early in local ecosystems in sectors identified by local stakeholders as vital to their economies such as health, agriculture, or entrepreneurship, can help fortify capacities to enable communities to be more resilient in the face of shocks.  

One key priority of both events was to understand the dynamics of collective action and partnerships in fragile contexts. Panelists offered recommendations on how to leverage international actors’ unique capacities, insights, and relationships to mitigate acute crises, while also underscoring the role of long-term investments in systems reform.

“From Fragility to Resilience” Virtual Roundtable

February 7, 2022

This closed-door virtual roundtable convened high-level development practitioners under Chatham House Rule to discuss challenges at the nexus of disaster relief, sustainable development, and peacebuilding, against the backdrop of a global polycrisis. The term “polycrisis” was coined by the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Risks Report published earlier this year and refers to the protracted, compounding global crises that are eroding resilience and international cooperation. These persistent shocks are disproportionately borne by fragile states, as articulated by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, leading the international aid community to craft a new resilience framework that is fit for the current risk landscape. Participants of the roundtable discussion addressed the role of emerging technologies, innovative financing, and adaptive and scalable solutions to managing multi-dimensional fragility. In order to build resilience, the global aid community will have to leverage and maximize the untapped potential of existing investments, infrastructure, and partnerships, while continuing to learn and adapt to new challenges.

Participants of both events emphasized the importance of centering local communities’ leadership, vision, and livelihoods in the development and implementation of future policies to strengthen resilience. As one expert noted, a bottom-up approach to resilience-building is one that starts with identifying and connecting local champions and reformers. Partnering with local reform coalitions can help lay the foundation for inclusive growth and provide an avenue to challenge political barriers. They can speak to the underlying drivers of fragility—the patterns of marginalization, elitism, and patronage that underpin many of the risks and crises that hinder development. Unresolved conflicts and other long-standing tensions, other key disruptors of resilience efforts, prevent the national political cohesion that is necessary to sustain peace and development against changing geopolitical dynamics. This lack of cohesion causes fragility to become a reinforcing phenomenon, otherwise known as the “fragility trap.” For this reason, experts highlighted the need for stakeholders to promote and pursue reconciliatory dialogue at the national level rather than steering clear of political sensitivities.

Another key concern the roundtable experts raised was about the protractedness of fragility, and how it is creating risk more quickly than the global community can manage. They pointed to technology and innovation as a means to address this problem, both for supporting governments’ economic development goals and for bolstering communities’ human capital development and livelihoods. Technology and innovation can also allow for solutions to be replicated, scaled, and refined, when used in consultation with, and for the empowerment of, local communities. However, one participant pointed out that in addition to technological interventions, balancing short-term crisis and long-term resilience-building response requires cultivating societies’ absorptive, adaptive, and transformative capacities. These are the functions that allow institutions, markets, and communities to mitigate shocks, learn from past crises, and address the systems of marginalization afflicting the most vulnerable groups more effectively and sustainably.

In discussing capacity-building and innovation, participants of both events pointed to public-private partnerships as an area with unlimited promise. In order to leverage private-sector financing, the aid community must re-evaluate existing investments in short-term deals and pilots, and provide more targeted and appropriate incentives as well as address real and perceived risk. These incentives include creating de-risking mechanisms for capital, repurposing wasteful subsidies, and pushing for public policy reform that is conducive to responsible business and market transformation. Economic growth in fragile countries is often constrained or volatile, rather than transformative, especially when political economy dynamics are neglected. However, fostering an ecosystem of international actors committed to service provision in difficult areas, will help allow small enterprises to achieve greater economies of scale and support growth for the long run. It would also benefit businesses by raising their ESG standards, as one expert pointed out. Ongoing efforts to establish and refine country platforms—which are government-led coordination bodies that can convey complex socio-political dynamics and align investors and other partners’ actions with local priorities—show promise and rising support among international partners.

Looking Ahead

Geopolitical instability, economic volatility, climate-related disasters, and other threats continue to place inordinate pressure on countries around the world, and in particular, populations within fragile and conflict-affected states. Members of the international aid community, along with other leaders from business and civil society, have an opportunity to strategically pivot to a paradigm of resilience- and capacity-building to support local communities more effectively within existing political settlements, institutions, markets, and local contexts. Sustaining action-oriented dialogue on these issues and engaging in a manner that is cognizant of context, attuned with local political economies, and aligned with regional actors will be vital to this effort. While the shift toward resilience has been a decade in the making, participants from both events underscored the value of patience and persistence in managing multi-dimensional risks, especially as investments from five to ten years ago begin to yield promising results. Identifying what’s working, refining mechanisms of support, and leveraging technology will be essential for these collaborative efforts to drive sustainable impacts at scale.

By Anjana Nair (Policy Fellow, FP Analytics) and Allison Carlson (Managing Director, FP Analytics & FP Events).