Fragile states are our collective responsibility

2010-01-31 10:38

THE earthquake in Haiti is a tragedy beyond comprehension. It has

caused ­immeasurable human suffering, shattering families, communities and


Among the many thousands who have lost their lives are good friends

and close colleagues from the UN. I mourn their loss and all those who died in

this disaster.

Fortunately humanitarian aid, provided by countries from all across

the globe and co-ordinated by the UN, is finally beginning to reach those in

need. The immediate priority will, for some time, remain the provision of

medical care, water, food and shelter.

But we must also plan now for the longer-term issues of recovery

and reconstruction. We must not waste this opportunity, however tragic, to get

things right in Haiti. The challenge is to do this in a way that is dignified,

provides hope, creates ­opportunities and builds the capacity of Haitian


But there is a deeper, more basic, point to make. It should not

take a tragedy on this scale to focus on an unacceptable reality that perhaps as

many as a billion humans live in fragile states. Their plight is an ­affront to

human dignity and will ­increasingly have consequences for the security and

prosperity of us all.

There is no single definition of a fragile state, nor any consensus

on how many of them there are. What is important is that the absence of

effective state institutions and reliable governance mechanisms makes their

populations highly susceptible both to domestic and external shocks, be they

climatic, disease-related, economic or political.

Political instability, widespread poverty, and the absence of the

rule of law and economic opportunity don’t just increase people’s vulnerability

to natural disasters. They create conditions in which terrorism, piracy,

corruption and organised crime can thrive and enable these problems to be

exported across their borders. In today’s interconnected world, countering such

trends is in everyone’s interest.

Responding to today’s fragile states must go hand-in-hand with

­anticipating those of tomorrow’s. The predictors are well-known and include

economic contraction, abuse of ­human rights, unaddressed political grievances

and environmental degradation, including climate change. These feed off each

other and make an ugly brew.

Members of the international community, particularly donor

countries, have a responsibility to engage with and repair fragile states, and

to prevent now-stable countries from joining their ranks.

We know what needs to be done.

Many countries are coping with intractable political problems and

face structural disadvantages that complicate their tasks of achieving economic

growth, fighting poverty, protecting the environment and preventing


Their challenges will only have increased as the global economic

crisis puts new pressures on their resources and the fabrics of their

­societies. Coherent international policies – whether on trade, aid,

­investment, migration or climate change?– are needed to give them a real

chance, along with ­adequate ­financial and technical support.

But in fragile states we must go even further. More effort and

urgency is needed to support the development of effective institutions, both

local and national. This includes building and supporting their ­capacity to

provide security, administer justice and deliver basic ­services including

health, education, energy and communication.

We have to be prepared to engage for the long-term, even as world

­attention moves on – possibly, alas, to the next disaster. This means bridging

the gap, one more rooted in institutional mandates than realities on the ground,

between emergency assistance and long-term development. It means empowering

national actors, state and civil society to articulate and achieve their

­social, economic and political objectives. It means creating the conditions in

which the public and ­private sectors are incentivised to work in partnership to

promote ­economic development, create productive jobs and reduce the costs of

goods and services to the poor.

We cannot, of course, prevent natural disasters like the earthquake

in Haiti. But we can help fragile states and their populations to overcome the

chronic vulnerabilities caused by underdevelopment and long-term neglect.

For this we need to be bold. We need to think long-term. And we

need to act together.

The scale and complexity of the challenges?– as is highlighted by

Haiti?– should spur, not deter, ­action. Focused and sustained ­regional and

international support, along with enlightened leadership, can turn a country’s

fortunes around.

Mozambique was once a sad ­example of a fragile state. With

determination, vision and collective effort it has graduated into a peaceful and

democratic country with an economy that is growing strongly.

We need to show the same courage and sustained commitment in our

efforts to support fragile states overcome their problems. If we do, the prize

will not simply be a better life for a billion of our fellow human ­beings, but

more security and prosperity for all of us.

The recent UN Security Council resolution on Haiti, the promising

talk of a donor conference as well as the long-term initiative that former US

president Bill Clinton is expected to launch at next week’s World Economic Forum

in Davos, indicate that in the case of Haiti we may have learnt some


But we must not stop here. There are many other countries,

including ­Afghanistan and Somalia, that ­require concerted and sustained help.

Now, not merely when the next disaster strikes.

  • Annan is the former

    secretary-general of the United Nations

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