Intelligence of the “Fragile”: An Untapped Market of Creativity and Innovation

Lindsey Doyle is a Master’s candidate and Rotary Peace Fellow at Uppsala University’s Department of Peace and Conflict Research. She coordinated this year’s Master’s Practicum on Security and Development to increase student exposure to the policy-research link through the Stockholm Forum on Security and Development hosted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Prior to pursuing a Master’s degree, she worked in both government and non-profit organizations focused on violence prevention and mitigation.

There is a dominant narrative about the weakness, vulnerability, and “at-risk” nature of people living in fragile contexts. This narrative focuses on what is prone to breaking. As a result of this thinking, antiquated paradigms of international development in fragile states have long rested on the assumption that external, third parties are best positioned to decide what local communities affected by violence and instability need. Such ideas suggest that donors should make the decisions about what, how, and where peacebuilding goods and services are provided. This has created a market distortion whereby the end users, or clients, of peacebuilding are not in a position to accept or refuse what is offered. As a result, excess and inefficiency abound.

Meanwhile, the positive adaptations exhibited by those living in fragile states, like calculating risk quickly and intuitively in sometimes daily situations of life or death, go unnoticed. Extreme need is characterized not only by a ‘lack of,’ but rather, by the resourcefulness that such need creates among people.

In the 2016 Stockholm Forum on Security and Development, three sessions in particular challenged these old paradigms: ‘Shadow Economies: Illicit and Informal Markets in Fragile States’, ‘Overcoming Barriers to Employment and Livelihoods’ and ‘Resilient, Sustainable Cities.’ From these three sessions emerged a common theme of how third parties, such as policymakers, researchers, and practitioners, could better capitalize on the ‘natural,’ or preexisting, ways in which people living in fragile contexts are able to cope financially and socially in the midst of extreme hardship. Findings from these discussions highlight that people living in fragile contexts know how to best spend their own time and resources to get what they need, and that third party development actors should work exclusively ‘behind the scenes.’

Four key recommendations aimed at third party development actors illustrate this shift in thinking:

  1. Analyze Fragile Contexts According to their Preexisting Resiliencies, Regardless of Normative Value. The session on resilient, sustainable cities highlighted a people-centered perspective that examines who sustains functionality in the midst of violence; against which kinds of shocks and stressors are those actors resilient; and what kinds of dignity-re-enforcing activities sustain them. Examples from Pakistan and urban centers in the United States exemplified that analysis should look for the iterative, adaptive, learned, and connective approaches that help people live their daily lives in both normatively positive and negative ways. Findings from the session on shadow economies implicitly called for similar analysis in that informal (and even illicit) markets can be conceptualized as a source of resilience among some community members. Such analysis should be used to work with communities to build activities that augment, not recreate, processes of inclusive self-organization, local governance, and small business development.

  1. Support Innovation in Unassuming Places. Individuals faced with hardship are innovative – more innovative than their counterparts in stable, developed contexts, research suggests. Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley, argues that the creative tension that results from hardship is the key ingredient for innovation and positive social change. This kind of hardship abounds in fragile contexts, but is viewed as something to be overcome, rather than channeled. The constant demands on individuals’ abilities to fulfill basic needs strengthen people in many ways. As a result of this process, many living in fragile states exhibit a different kind of intelligence that is undervalued in the mainstream development discourse. There remains untapped potential within adolescents and young adults, particularly, who have internalized lessons from their surroundings and developed the skills to successfully operate in high-risk environments, often without realizing it. Many youth apply these skills in informal or illicit markets, as the session on shadow economies examined. These are skills that their middle- or high-income counterparts do not have by virtue of living in lower-risk environments and that are marketable. The informal economy, better than the formal economy to some degree, more effectively supports individuals who employ these kinds of coping mechanisms to excel in fragile situations. It is now a question of how these skills can be repurposed within the formal labor market to contribute to more hopeful livelihoods and inclusive economic growth. 

  1. Use Market Forces in a Nuanced Way. Building on resilience-aware analysis and support for innovation, the session on employment and livelihoods highlighted that, in the face of increasing private sector involvement in fragile contexts, it is insufficient to generically say, “The private sector must be involved in peacebuilding.” Rather, we must ask, “How will the private sector be involved?” A growing innovation sector including organizations such as the Global Innovation Fund, American Refugee Committee, and the Skoll Foundation are experimenting with new ways of funding projects in fragile contexts in order to transform donors into investors, thus allowing local communities to lead. Given that peacebuilding is a long-term endeavor in most post-conflict areas, rethinking funding structures that work with, not against, market forces and measuring the impact thereof would be steps in the right direction. Reframing the way that fragile states are viewed might also assist larger, transnational firms in deciding whether to invest in fragile contexts, as well as how to do so effectively. If the potential of fragile contexts remains unexamined, it should be no surprise that investors are reticent to bank on peacebuilding.

  1. Reframe the Global Narrative on Migration. Migration is a coping mechanism – a natural escape hatch for populations that face possible harm or death as a result of violence, oppression, climate change, and extreme poverty. Refugees under pressure are in fact some of the most industrious and innovative people. For example, Syrian refugees living in Turkey have been opening up new businesses at an almost exponential rate since 2011, according to the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey. Syrian firms now constitute a quarter of all foreign-owned firms in Turkey. Moreover, the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University has shown the myriad ways that displaced people – 60 million worldwide as of 2014 – are innovating in their daily lives independent of third party involvement. It is about time we start seeing migration as a self-preservation mechanism that brings with it widespread innovations that are life-sustaining. Immigration can also serve as an engine of innovation in developed economies, and new focus should be placed upon the positive skills and experiences that newly-arrived immigrants bring to host countries.

In sum, there is no shortage of challenges to examine in places deeply affected by poverty, armed conflict, and instability. However, as “outsiders” to those communities, those challenges are not ours to own. It is not our place to exclusively focus on what is broken – in our analyses, approaches, and funding mechanisms. As a field and as individuals, we have a responsibility to see, highlight, and support the daily innovations that allow people to live in the face of enormous challenges and drive positive change within their communities.