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Beyond Fragile States: Spotting Fragile Cities is Key

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 1/04/2016 Manal Omar
DAMASCUS © Jupiterimages via Getty Images DAMASCUS

Governments, researchers and practitioners from across the globe met earlier this month at the World Bank to tackle the sustainable development agenda in the midst of conflict. The agenda would be considered ambitious in any context: How can the world achieve these goals of development while also addressing the fragile state status of most of the partners on the frontlines?

Fragile states have diverse problems. Some are experiencing armed conflict or just emerging from it; others are affected by acute political, social, and economic vulnerabilities or under threat of chronic forms of organized criminal violence. With such a range of qualifying factors, part of the solution may not be to just look at the ever-growing category of fragile states. Instead, exploring fragility at the city level could provide the key to preventative measures.

City-level fragility may well be an early detection warning sign, because looking at a national level can be misleading. Adopting an approach of identifying fragile cities, particular those outside the capital, could serve as an essential indicator. Research has shown cities provide insights into the drivers of fragility and opportunities to intervene; looking at inequality in income, social class, religion, gender, and service deliveries may serve as canaries in the coal mine, in addition to weak governance.

Nonetheless, many fragile states end up doing the opposite because authoritarian regimes often invest in the capital at the expense of rural cities. Perhaps one of most dramatic examples of this can be seen in the developments surrounding the city of Benghazi. Inhabitants warned that a mass exodus of international support the moment Tripoli was liberated would cause a new conflict; they foretold the disaster of the political divide and competition that emerged between. The failure to incorporate their advice is one of the key lessons learned in paying attention to cities outside of the capital.

Focus on Comprehensive, Non-sequential Programming

Comprehensive programming in fragile states must address a wide variety of issues concurrently without relying on sequential timeframes. During times of humanitarian crisis, we need to still examine core issues of fragility like urban poverty and inequality rather than waiting for the crisis to subside. At times, this type of approach may need to be implemented area by area when dealing with protracted conflicts on a national level. Syria is a prime example of a protracted conflict. There are too many competing priorities to follow a sequential humanitarian, relief, stabilization, transition, and post-conflict timeline. When phases are merging together, programs, agencies, and responses need to be just as fluid.

For example, USIP implemented a project focused on the Syrian city of al-Qahtaniya, the administrative sub-district of the de facto capital of the Syrian Kurdish autonomous region. Since the uprisings in 2011, the area has experienced conflict among Kurdish groups, between Kurdish groups and the regime, and between Kurdish and Arab communities. USIP's program sought to convene religious, tribal, and civic leaders from the area with the objectives of building their capacities in local conflict prevention and mitigation and facilitating sustained dialogue and joint action by the group within their communities. Whereas the Syria conflict is still at its peak, the experience in al-Qahtaniya resulted in a localized success, with families returning home, roads opening, and goodwill planted for future collaborative problem solving.

Identifying the Silver Lining
City-level fragility could also lead to windows of opportunity. When breakdowns occur in moments of transition, structures and institutions need to be rebuilt; a new social contract will need to be negotiated as people struggle to understand their relationship with government representatives. This also presents an opportunity for rebuilding governance structures or social structures in a more resilient and inclusive models at the local level.

Practitioners are often quick to point to the development trajectory in the city of Kigali in Rwanda, where Rwandans were able to secure women's participation at the highest levels of national representation. Within the governance of the city, there has been a deliberate effort to distance from ethnic politics that once led to genocide by cultivating an inclusive social and political environment. Although still predominantly rural, Rwanda is one of the world's fastest-urbanizing countries; research exploring the Rwandan Patriotic Front's (RPF) approach to urban development sheds some light on addressing governance of land reform, urban planning, expropriation and property taxation in the face of a once fragile city, in turn providing greater insight on the trajectory of the country as a whole.

Resilience is the Antidote to Fragility
The ultimate antidote to combat fragility is building resilience, with investment on the local, national, and international levels. If an area is fragile, it means the institutions cannot handle natural or man-made shocks, with crises frequently linked to internal and external stresses ranging from rapid political transformations, systemic youth unemployment, and acute corruption to global market volatility, transnational organized crime, and climate change.
Looking at Iraq as a country in the midst of high-level conflict, it is difficult to discuss successes. Nonetheless, investment on local and district levels across the country has led to local level stabilization and dialogue initiatives. In 2012, USIP and NIF intervened in Nineveh province to mitigate brewing tensions and prevent violence between Shabak and Christian communities in Bartella. Currently, USIP's stabilization and communal dialogue strategy focuses on addressing conflicts in communities liberated from ISIL, particularly in Anbar and Salahaddin; work includes identifying the needs and concerns of the IDPs for return, communicating them to relevant authorities (civilian and military), and leading dialogues that can facilitate their safe return.
To be sure, fragile states are tremendous problems when viewed at the national level, and no uniform set of prescriptions fits every unique situation. Sometimes, the key is to focus in on local conflicts where symptoms can be more easily identified and treated. Stabilization will require addressing concerns ranging from the issues of revenge and disputes over power and resources to the creation of responsive and effective justice and security services. But by looking to the city level for warning signs, opportunities, and environments to build resistance, policymakers inside and outside fragile states can start building communities from the ground up.

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