An index measuring country stability finds the U.S. dropping

The Fragile States Index shows a worrying trend—and it hasn’t yet accounted for the events of 2020 and 2021.

By Rachel Hartigan, Lawson Parker, Kelsey Nowakowski, Diana Marques
Published 18 Jan 2021, 17:08 GMT
January 6 2021: Trump supporters storm the Capitol building, in culmination of unrest in the wake ...

January 6 2021: Trump supporters storm the Capitol building, in culmination of unrest in the wake of the presidential election. The events of this day will likely cause the 'social and political cohesion' score to drop for 2021. 

Photograph by lev radin, Alamy

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 blindsided many in the United States and abroad. But it may not have surprised close readers of the Fragile States Index. Produced annually by the nonprofit organisation Fund for Peace, the index assesses pressures on individual countries that potentially undermine their stability.

Over the past decade, many countries have become less fragile. The U.S., on the other hand, has become less stable. Indeed, the country is among 20 states that have seen the highest percent increase in relative fragility over the past 10 years—a list that includes Syria, Venezuela, and the United Kingdom.

Though the U.S. is stable according to some of the index’s economic, political, and social measurements, it has seen a stark drop in what the index labels as cohesion, an indicator that reflects internal divisions. Given the pandemic, recession, protests, and political turmoil, the 2020 score, which hasn’t been calculated yet, will likely drop further.

“I anticipate a significant worsening in the U.S. score, both at the level of the individual indicators and overall,” says Nate Haken, programs director at the Fund for Peace. “When it comes to fragility, it is the confluence of interdependent factors that really signal a flashing red light.”

Still, the index does not capture the characteristics that help a country withstand the pressures threatening it. “You might have a state,” says Natalie Fiertz, programs manager with the Fund for Peace, “that has a very high level of pressure but also has quite high resilience capacity to deal with those pressures.”

It may be too soon to tell how resilient the United States will be.

The Fragile States Index is based on national-level assessments that are generated using data sets from international statistical agencies such as the United Nations, analyses of news articles and reports, and independent reviews by a team of social science researchers. While the index ranks a country’s fragility against other countries, its main function is to measure trends within each state. The scores are based on 12 key political, social, and economic indicators that are grouped into the four categories below; 2020 data are not yet available.

Social and political cohesion

These indicators describe social and political polarisation that makes collective action difficult. Over the past decade, the U.S. has seen an increase in political and social divisions, as well as governmental gridlock. The U.S. cohesion score is projected to decline for 2020 because of election rhetoric, Black Lives Matter protests, and the police response to protests. The attack on the Capitol by supporters of President Trump will adversely affect the 2021 score.

Economic livelihood

These indicators describe pressures on livelihoods and opportunities for individuals and communities to economically thrive. There is significant income inequality in the U.S., but wage growth for the lowest-paid workers and greater availability of affordable health care have contributed to long-term improvement in this category. The U.S. score is expected to drop in 2020 because of the pandemic-induced recession.

Political stability and government effectiveness

These indicators describe a government’s openness and effectiveness, as well as its relationship with the citizenry. In recent years, the U.S. state legitimacy score has declined because of major protests such as the Women’s March and poor response to several natural disasters. The public service score is expected to decrease for 2020 due to nationwide lockdowns, school closures, and overwhelmed health systems.

Social and environmental stresses

These indicators describe factors that can put stress on the most vulnerable segments of society, including refugees and the very poor. Health, mortality, natural disasters, and population growth rates can undermine the ability of individuals and communities to cope with crises. The U.S. has been faring well in these indicators but has recently experienced increasing demographic pressures arising from COVID-19 and natural disasters.


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