By Piyumani Ranasinghe
Sri Lanka, an island nation strategically located in the Indian Ocean, is home to a rich history commonly defined by ethnic and religious aspirations. Once a nation known for its multiculturalism and tea, today it is scrutinised for being a soldier and victim of a three-decade ethnic war and its various economic, political and social implications on domestic institutions.
Supplemented by a strong political and military leadership, Sri Lanka concluded this deadly war in May 2009, breaking a new light of reconciliation and amity between its diverse ethnic groups in the north and south.
The 2016 Fragile States Index (FSI), compiled by the US think tank the ‘Fund for Peace’ (FFP) and the magazine ‘Foreign Policy’, listed Sri Lanka as the most improved country in 2016 out of an analysis of 178 other nations, highlighting its improving trends on various indicators that define state fragility and strength. This revives the international debate on Sri Lanka’s trend towards a more sustainable future and highlights the global perspective propounded upon the State’s institutional success in the post-war reconciliation era.
Why does the index matter?
The index is built upon the central idea of sustainable security. According to the FFP, it is the ability of a State to solve its own problems peacefully without an external military or administrative presence. In the post-ISIS age of destabilising regions and complexity, the idea of sustainable security is extremely important, especially to a reconciliatory nation such as
Moreover, the index is compiled by a non-partisan, independent and non-profit research and educational institution and does not only highlight the common pressures faced by States but also indicates perilous tensions that push States towards the brink of failure.
Based on the FFP’s proprietary Conflict Assessment System Tool (CAST) analytical platform, where 12 key political, social and economic indicators and over 100 sub-indicators are taken into consideration, the FSI has been outlining the trends of advancement or disintegration based on the different levels of State stability since 2005.
FFP defines the common attributes of State fragility as: “The loss of physical control of territory/monopoly of violence; the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions; inability to provide reasonable public services and to interact with other States as a full member of the international community.”
Thus, its ability to assess political risks and outline early warnings of conflict and instability makes the index a very practical listing, which comprises a colossal body of information, presented in an informative and digestible manner.
The most significant aspect of such an index is that it enables decision-makers to access distilled information which can be utilised in efficient and effective policymaking processes in order to improve the “rules and the players of the game”. Moreover, it underpins the areas that require further improvement using quantitative and qualitative evidence, directing States onto the path of sustainable security reforms.
The global perspective on Sri Lanka’s journey thus far
Despite the worsening trends that peaked in 2009, it is apparent that the post-2009 era rapidly picked up on a journey of improvement, however notably, with challenges. In the latter years of the Rajapaksa regime, the trend descended unfavourably where Group Grievances, Human Rights and the Rule of Law were decisive factors. A significant change of the trends can be seen in 2016 where the FSI score lowered to 87.7, from a score of 93.0 in 2014 (Figure 1).
However, Sri Lanka ranking 43rd in the ‘High Warning’ zone cannot be ignored. “Even more concerning for a post-conflict country, indicators such as Group Grievance and Factionalized Elites (along with Human Rights), which suggest deep schisms within society, remain perilously high,” noted the report. Hence, despite its achievements it is apparent that there is still much more to be done in order to sustain the improving trends since 2009. After all, 135 other States have excelled, overshadowing Sri Lanka and there are many lessons to be learnt from those global neighbours, including the 42 other nations which are failing States in the current context.
Simultaneously, interpreting the State’s performance in a proper context, giving recognition to the improvement of economic and political stability since the conclusion of the war is vital. As J. J. Messner (2016) notes, improvements in Sri Lanka should not be taken to be a wholesale endorsement of Government policy or for the Government’s widely-criticised strategy towards the end of the civil war, but rather in recognition of the economic development and political stability that have improved since the conclusion of the war.
In 2016, Demographic Pressures are depreciating to a moderate level followed by moderate improvements seen in Public Services. The decade trend of Poverty and Economic Decline shows an equally moderate improvement of -0.4 and it shows that the country’s economic stability and development is heading north, where uneven economic development indicates an improving decade trend as well.
However, it should be understood that Sri Lanka is currently facing a large debt crisis where generations to come will be in debt which is far from sustainable. Moreover, the Refugees and IDPs indicator is 7.9 and despite the rapid decline of refugees and IDPs since 2010, it is a weak improvement especially due to the slow-moving Government response to the war and other disasters that have displaced populations.
In 2016, human flight and brain drain rates continue to increase despite the conclusion of the war in 2009. This shows an increasingly negative trend in terms of the country’s human capital development, which is a faction which has consumed and continues to consume the majority of State investment. As a defining factor of the economic development of a State, its further demise may pose graver economic consequences for the State if an immediate action plan is not implemented to combat this long-term trend.
State Legitimacy, which is mutually interdependent on elements such as Human Rights, Group Grievances, Factionalized Elites and the Rule of Law, is another determinant that remains weak despite the improving trends noted after 2009.
These key indicators underpin the notion of accountability, inclusiveness and responsiveness of State institutions over citizens and thus should be strengthened to avoid State failure. Regretfully, Human Rights within the domestic boundaries remain poor, alongside Group Grievances and Factionalized Elites. High levels of Group Grievances indicate that there is lack of trust and bridging social capital in society which is not sustainable. Strong democratic as well as inclusive reforms thus emerge essential within the State fabric.
Additionally, these factors can also supplement the weaknesses found within the State Security Apparatus and the External Intervention trends. Failure risk elements such as corruption, crime and conflict undermine the State’s monopoly over violence thereby serving to degenerate the system of governance within domestic boundaries. This creates leeway for external intervention on domestic affairs which can compromise the Westphalian notion of sovereignty of the State.
Room for improvement?
The FSI is an important narrative on the direction that the State is headed. Whilst it recognises that Sri Lanka has shown impressive strengths in upholding political stability and economic development despite its post-war challenges, it also notes that development requires State assurance of necessary human freedoms and inter-group trust in order for it to be sustainable.
Amartya Sen (1999) outlined development as freedom guaranteed by equitable opportunities and rights. In this light, the index shows that there is more room for progression in terms of strengthening the State’s ability to create a sustainable security environment for its citizens. Given the post-war society that still persists, it is vital to keep in mind those vulnerabilities that still exist due to slow-healing wounds.
Trust and social capital is vital in this regard. Thus, the FSI outlines that strengthening the institutional framework of the State and achieving a state of Sustainable Security is the fundamental goal that Sri Lanka should be heading towards.
(The writer is a Research Analyst (intern) at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) and an International Relations graduate from the University of London. This report does not reflect the stance of the INSSSL or the Government of Sri Lanka. It is the author’s independent analysis based on the Fragile States Index which can be accessed at http://fsi.fundforpeace.org, http://fsi.fundforpeace.org/2016-srilanka)