In the past dozen years, Pakistan has been hit by eight earthquakes, including a magnitude 7.6 temblor that killed more than 86,000 people. The next quake in Pakistan is not a matter of if, but when. So the humanitarian community has focused on a game-changing idea known as resilience—taking actions that establish a bulwark for communities before the next disaster strikes. If this focus on resilience works in areas vulnerable to natural disasters, can it also be applied to help fragile states, where the social contract between citizens and the government is deeply frayed?

Pakistani men work to rebuild a bridge over a river in Kalam, a village in the Swat Valley formerly used by the Taliban, in Pakistan, Sept. 4, 2010. After scathing criticism that they were unprepared for the disaster and inept in their initial response, government officials, ministers and even President Asif Ali Zardari are crisscrossing flood-affected areas of the country in a frantic effort to ease public anger and despair.
Pakistani men work to rebuild a bridge over a river in Kalam, a village in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, 2010. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Tyler Hicks

Studies show that increasing resilience allows populations to recover more quickly from natural disasters and improves the ability of states to deliver aid efficiently. One recent example is the World Bank-Pakistan partnership to provide the financial support the country needs to strengthen its ability to recover from disasters and reduce their impact.

Translating the concept of resilience to reduce a country’s political fragility instead was the topic at the center of a recent discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace among researchers, practitioners and policymakers. The discussion was held under the “Chatham House Rule,” which keeps the identity of specific speakers and participants confidential to encourage an open discussion. They debated whether, and how, resilience could prevent violent conflict from breaking out or recurring in fragile states, particularly those places where a peace accord between groups has been signed but not yet implemented.

The debate over fragile states must move from the theoretical and semantic to the practical.

For years, the link between fragility and violent conflict has been clear. Today, various indexes identify between 30 and 50 states as fragile, containing nearly a quarter of the world’s population. A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that, of the 53 countries affected by political violence in the last 15 years, most of them are either fragile or failing. The international community has made little progress in reducing fragility or addressing the factors that give rise to fragile states.

At the USIP discussion, one definition of resilience debated was a country’s ability to better manage pressures to the state-society relationship in ordinary times as well as during periods of shocks, when extraordinary conflicts arise. The objective is to prevent these ordinary and extraordinary conflicts from becoming violent and destructive.

Shocks may occur for a variety of reasons, but the relationship between political legitimacy and group grievance is key. One point in the debate was that traditional development approaches are not up to the challenge -- they have not proven to significantly reduce fragility or promote resilience.

Traditional Development: Important But Insufficient

The problem with traditional development, some participants argued, is its focus on three main goals: improving delivery of services to citizens, enhancing the technical skills of state employees and supporting civil society advocacy. Those are important, but insufficient to the extent that they fail to address the underlying factors that give rise to fragility, such as inequality, social exclusion, group grievances, factionalism and low political legitimacy.

Instead, one proposal suggests a new development process called transformational governance, which would build the capacity of government to fulfill its obligations to its citizens and the ability of a citizenry to participate in the governing process. Of course, any development strategy would claim that it strives for this, but few do. Transformational governance aims at transforming, not simply relieving, a fragile state’s underlying challenges by creating a very different relationship between state and society that prioritizes leadership, trust and legitimacy, before working on the technical aspects of service delivery.

In the case of Pakistan, which faces threats from political instability in addition to natural disasters, transformational governance could be pursued, for example, by increasing the protection and involvement of women in questions of peace and security. As researcher Zeenia Faraz notes in a USIP report, Pakistan would benefit from “concrete measures at social and political levels” that transform the role of women in the country’s efforts at peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

The idea of transformational governance kicked off a lively debate in the USIP discussion, especially over semantics. Some claimed the term “transformational” to be potentially misleading if it were to be understood as an immediately recognizable change but the kind of change being sought was long-term and gradual. Others proposed the term “adaptability” as a better descriptor than “resilience” for the actions necessary to strengthen the state-society relationship. But supporters of transformational governance would counter that adaptability suggests adjusting to the status quo of a dysfunctional state-society relationship, which should be unacceptable.

There was broad agreement that the debate over fragile states must move from the theoretical and semantic to the practical. Identifying which countries are fragile and focusing on what is dysfunctional about them is important, but the group agreed it is time to develop concrete plans for action, because the world’s problems cry out for solutions.

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