The world is more stable than the news suggests

13:00   17 May 2017    1523

But fragility increased in some unexpected places last year according to a new index

2016 was a dismal year for liberal internationalism. Britain voted to leave the European Union; Donald Trump was elected as America’s president and the grip of authoritarians tightened in China, Russia and Turkey. Despite all efforts to dissuade it, North Korea continued its march towards nuclear-power status; bloody wars continued in South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. It might seem obvious, then, that it was a year in which the world became less stable.

But a new index of global “fragility” by the Fund for Peace (FfP), a think-tank, suggests that, overall, it did not. Since 2005 the FfP has measured the stability of 178 countries by combining three different types of information. First, its researchers scour 40m-50m English-language articles from 10,000 sources to find evidence of fragility, from landslides to displaced people. Second, they use quantitative data from multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF. Finally, experts sense-check the result to ensure that each country’s score aligns with expectations. In total, 100 measures are blended into 12 indicators of fragility, from “group grievances” to the quality of public services.

The result is a single score for each country, with fragility measured from zero to 120 (least fragile to most). There are few big surprises: Finland is the world’s most stable country and South Sudan the least.

After weighting each country’s score by its population, overall global fragility changed little from 2015 to 2016. But this masks regional shifts: greater stability in Asia and the European Union has been balanced by greater fragility in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. Last year’s polarising American presidential election increased the country’s fragility score by 1.6 points.

The index is perhaps most valuable as an early-warning signal for potential conflict. For that, what matters are changes from year to year, rather than long-lasting differences between nations—although there are some counter-intuitive results. For example, Brazil's stability deteriorated twice as fast as Venezuela’s in 2016 (though from a much better base). Meanwhile, South Africa’s fragility score increased by 2.4 points last year, and would be worse if it were not for the strength of its institutions, says J. J. Messner, the FfP’s director.

Ethiopia, long a darling of development experts, is currently causing concern: drought has led to conflict over grazing land. What eventually lights the tinder box can be hard to predict.

It is “phenomenal just how resilient individuals can be”, says Mr Messner. But there is a limit to the hardship people will endure before demanding change by any means they can.

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