Measuring South Sudan: How Soon is Too Soon?

Published July 6, 2014
J.J. Messner
Fund for Peace – Global Square Blog
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Every year the Fragile States Index (FSI) receives its fair share of compliments and criticism, the former often from those who wish to highlight and measure the challenges faced by countries, the latter often from those whose interests or sensibilities have been offended. This is par for the course for any organization that seeks to undertake the kind of research and analysis that FFP has done for 57 years. But every year we are often surprised by particularly unexpected commentary.

This year, that unexpected commentary has centered on South Sudan. The new nation, beset by fractious politics and severe levels of group and ethnic-based violence, ranked as the world’s most fragile nation for the first time, displacing Somalia, who had been first for six straight years. One might suspect that the criticism would be a fairly straight-forward dismissal of our findings from the usual suspects, namely the government of the country perceived to have been wronged by our analysis.
But a significant portion of the feedback regarding South Sudan’s ranking has not been about us necessarily being wrong or mistaken with our analysis, rather that we’ve just performed it too soon.

The argument runs that, at only three years old this Wednesday, South Sudan is simply too young to be assessed. It is unfair, the critics claim, to declare a country to be the most fragile when it’s barely had its own flag and anthem for a few years.

Fair enough – we recognize that South Sudan is a very young nation. But to not assess South Sudan, despite its age, would actually raise more questions.

Firstly, and most straightforwardly, if we took the decision to not assess South Sudan, the pressures that the country faces would not simply magically evaporate. The whole point of the FSI is to highlight and measure the pressures faced by countries, and to not assess South Sudan would mean those pressures would still exist, it’s just that they would neither be measured nor highlighted.

On the contrary, South Sudan’s recent independence gives policy makers, including FFP, a unique opportunity to measure a country’s progress from the beginning. With our first Index in 2005, we have a data set spanning only a decade – when many countries are decades or even centuries old, this is a tiny time slice available, with no baseline data whatsoever. We are frequently approached by academics seeking to use our data in their research, and remarkably often we are asked if we can possibly perform analysis stretching further back in time than 2005. In most cases, we do not feel that we can do that while keeping the consistency and comparability of our data. But this is what makes South Sudan unique: of any country on the Index, South Sudan’s progress and development (because it will improve, one day) will be all the more evident by having had comprehensive data sets measuring it at the beginning. While we cannot retroactively perform a true baseline assessment on a country that is hundreds of years old and expect to accurately chart progress or lack thereof, we can and will be able to do that with South Sudan. The benefits of this are obvious for both the leaders of the country as well as the nations donating large amounts of foreign aid and assistance into the country – not only to be able to check boxes, but also to chart trends with the metrics available to recognize progress where it exists, and to change strategy where it doesn’t.

Secondly, the argument that South Sudan is “too young” to be assessed or ranked in such an Index appears fairly specious when the obvious follow-up question is posed: so how soon is too soon? Is it fair of anyone to assess the former Yugoslav countries, with only 20-odd years, or less, behind them? (Given their performance, as described below, one would think those countries would be delighted that their progress is being measured.) Is a decade too soon? Two decades? Three? As described above, the pressures we are measuring won’t take an arbitrary vacation, just because they’re not being measured. Furthermore, South Sudan is a full, independent country and UN member state – surely it is a little insulting to South Sudan to say that it shouldn’t be treated as the full independent country that it is.

Third, to say that the FSI is unfair to new nations is to prove only that one has read the headlines and not bothered to peruse the underlying analysis. As we have demonstrated in our decade of trends, the most improved nation for the decade is a new one: Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was born of a brutal, ethnic-based civil war no less, during the 1990s. Indeed, of the top 50 most improved nations of the past decade, 19 came into existence after 1990. Meanwhile, some of the world’s oldest nations – such as Greece and Japan – find themselves among the most worsened countries of the decade. If anything, a casual observer could be led to believe that the FSI rewards new countries, as it charts the rapid improvements that countries are capable of making in the wake of separation, division, or at worst, conflict.

It should absolutely be recognized that South Sudan is a young nation, and like any entity in its early years, it requires attention and assistance. Ranking first on the FSI should not be viewed as some kind of unfair punishment, but rather as a call to action, that there are significant pressures and challenges that face this young nation, and there is much to be done to address those. But by highlighting those pressures, we can call attention to them; by measuring them over the long-term, we can demonstrate when gains are achieved. Just as we are lauding the recovery of Sierra Leone and Liberia over the years from 2005-2014, hopefully we can use those very same trend analyses to be lauding the development of South Sudan a decade from now. But we can only do that if we start measuring them now. In the case of South Sudan, as was the case with the nations of the Former Yugoslavia, it may well be discovered that starting with a clean slate is not such a bad thing after all.