The very structure of a country, even a healthy one, can be challenged by overwhelming events during the course of a year — and the consequences inform not only the legitimacy of the state, but also the experiences of its citizens, often for decades to come. For 10 years now, the Fragile States Index, created by The Fund for Peace and published by Foreign Policy, has put countries into perspective by providing an annual snapshot of their vitality and stability (or lack thereof) and ranking them accordingly. (This year, the name of the project has been changed from the Failed States Index to the Fragile States Index. While the methodology remains the same, the new title is an acknowledgment that all states, to different degrees, face conditions that threaten the livelihoods of their citizens.)
What these metrics often show is that rarely, if ever, do states change fundamentally from year to year: Nine of the index’s 10 most fragile states in 2013, for instance, held the same distinction the prior year. Look a little closer, however, and there are significant, even surprising, developments and trends — in single countries, across regions, and even within the index’s 12 political, economic, and social indicators.
The 2013 overview uses data gathered throughout that calendar year (so readers will have to wait a while longer to learn how Russia’s foray into Ukraine affected both countries). The index shows how, within a relatively short time frame, the promise of nascent democracies can quickly unravel. The hope for groundbreaking change in Libya was quashed, as the embattled central government struggled to bring armed militias to heel. And despite optimism from its economic and political benefactors in the West, South Sudan — the world’s newest country — took a dive in stability as it descended into civil war.
But there is good news too. Iran, having initiated tentative nuclear negotiations with the West, has the most improved score on the index. And several emerging economic powerhouses weathered internal strife — an unprecedented corruption crackdown in China and anti-government protests in Turkey, for instance — to see improvement in their scores.
More unexpected, perhaps, is that North Korea is less fragile than one might think, as the index’s “Human Flight” indicator shows. And though the West likes to pride itself on being stable in comparison with the rest of the world, the data show this isn’t necessarily the case on all fronts: Partisan bickering and the controversial activities of the National Security Agency, for instance, worsened the U.S. score.
Although the overall picture here might seem familiar, the numbers themselves reveal narratives that were unforeseen, and perhaps overlooked, in 2013.