As the terrorist attacks on Paris last week once again reminded us, weak or “fragile states” like Syria are often breeding grounds for violence. These states are not only less developed and less affluent—with lower levels of education and far lower levels of tolerance—they are also the least urbanized. In addition to military intervention and national security measures, part of the long-term strategy to revive these dysfunctional states must focus on city-building and urbanization.
Take a look at the map below from the 2015 edition of the Fragile States Index, which is based on a dozen key indicators of social and economic fragility such as poverty and economic decline, brain drain, and human rights for 178 nations. The most fragile areas—mainly in Africa and the Middle East—are highlighted in shades of in red.
Syria, a conflict-torn nation and focal point for terrorists, ranks as one of the world’s ten most fragile states. As the report points out, over the years “Syria continued to crumble as its civil war raged on and Da'esh, or the Islamic State, added a new brutal dimension to the conflict.” Ultimately, the report places Syria in the “high alert” category alongside Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Congo, and Chad. Even less stable are the four African nations of Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, which make up the “very high alert” category.
All in all, 38 nations are placed in “alert,” “high alert,” or “very high alert” categories based on their levels of instability. Conversely, only one nation—Finland—earned the qualification of “very sustainable.” Another 14—mostly European and Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands—qualified as “sustainable,” and another eleven, including the United States and United Kingdom, qualified as “highly stable.”
But what exactly are the characteristics of the world’s fragile states, and what factors tend to be associated with their instability?
With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, I looked into the correlations between the Fragile States Index and a range of demographic, social, and economic characteristics for more than one hundred nations across the world. As usual, I remind readers that these correlations do not necessarily imply causation, but rather point to associations between variables. Still, the findings point to the role of urbanization and city-building, as well as several other factors, in the instability of nations.
Not surprisingly, the world’s fragile states are poorer and less developed. The Fragile States Index is negatively associated with economic output per capita (-.88), the Global Competiveness Index developed by the World Economic Forum (-.82), and the UN’s Human Development Index (-.87). It is also negatively associated with levels of education and human capital (-.80).
Again, not surprisingly, fragile states are also less tolerant. The Fragile States Index is negatively correlated with a combined measure of tolerance toward ethnic and religious minorities and gays and lesbians (-.74).
But in addition to all of this, state instability is closely associated with lower levels of urbanization (with a correlation of -.7). The less urbanized a state, the smaller and less functional its cities, and the more fragile and insecure it tends to be.
Military intervention by its very nature tends to damage and destroy large cities, disperse populations, and lead to a vicious cycle of less urbanization and even greater instability, with Syria being the most obvious case in point today. On the most basic level, if we want to make our world more secure, we will eventually need to build stronger cities in these fragile and broken states. Not only do stable cities lead to economic development and rising living standards, they are also the key to creating a safer, more tolerant, and less violent world.