It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Despite the stories of crises, calamities and contagion, the world is better off today than at any time in human history. Bill Gates and Hans Rosling, among others, have dispelled the myths and misinformation about global changes in mortality, public health, education and wealth. And they are right: unquestionably, the world is less afflicted with conflict and related deaths, enjoys greater prosperity and life expectancy, and is more connected by trade, commerce and technology than ever before.

However, there is another story unfolding – one that is sobering, potentially ominous and threatens global progress. This is a tale of weak global governance and the limitations of institutions to solve big problems; fragmented and increasingly competitive concentrations of political and economic power; clustering of extreme poverty in fragile states; and an unprecedented number of complex humanitarian crises resulting in more people displaced by violence than any time since World War II. The global humanitarian system is clearly overwhelmed.

If the big issues of our times are instability, inequality and non-sustainability, then the narrative of human progress is facing increasing peril. Nowhere is this truer than in “fragile” contexts and countries trapped at the intersection of extreme poverty, conflict and weak governance. And while fragile countries are a minority, we cannot truly celebrate global progress until we see notable changes in these strongholds of fragility.

We stand today at a historical inflection point: one that requires not only courageous leadership, but bold coordinated action to channel the power of markets and the private sector, in combination with the reach, wherewithal and influence of governments, multilateral organizations and civil society. There are no panaceas, fast fixes or shiny solutions to solve fragility and build resilience. However, Mercy Corps’ experience in the world’s toughest places provides some insight into opportunities for collective impact.

Making fragile states resilient

While it may seem counterintuitive to “reward” fragile states with additional aid in a time of constrained budgets and competing priorities, the nature of our interconnected world means neighbouring regions and the broader world may not be able to escape a direct negative impact  – think ISIS and Ebola.

Crises such as natural disasters, conflicts, political upheavals and economic collapse are moments when the status quo can be challenged and opportunities for significant change arise. While humanitarian crises present a moral imperative for the international community to respond, simple stability efforts or disaster recovery cannot combat fragility. Effective efforts begin with a focus on saving lives and reducing immediate suffering, transition quickly to helping communities rapidly recover from crises, and then create mechanisms to help communities overcome recurring shocks and setbacks.

The evidence is clear that good governance and resilience are inextricably linked. In a forthcoming paper from my NGO, Mercy Corps, and the United Nations Development Programme, research indicates that Lebanon’s centralized government and local municipalities are both strained as Syrian refugees have increased the country’s population by 25%. A resilient system requires a decentralized approach, where local governments have the capacity to respond quickly to the people in their communities, whether residents or refugees, and the national government has flexibility to cope with the crisis and prepare for the next shock.

Working to end the cycle of violence

An upcoming Mercy Corps research report supports a growing body of evidence that contradicts the broadly held assumption that greater employment opportunities reduce young people’s propensity to support violent movements. Our research suggests that the best cross-cultural predictor of whether a young person will participate in political violence is injustice.

For example, our research found no relationship between young people’s job status and support for, or participation in, political violence in Somalia. In Afghanistan, we found that increases in youth employment did not lead to significant changes in support for armed opposition groups. In Colombia, key informant interviews with former child soldiers found that increases in employment did not lead to significant changes in support for armed opposition groups. Our analysis of the drivers of political violence among youth in 13 countries across sub-Saharan Africa showed that economic conditions are not the primary drivers of conflict.

Addressing deep-seated social and political marginalization, discrimination, and corruption requires more than single-input investments and training. Stabilization requires a multipronged strategy and commitment to long-term programmes that provide psychosocial support, education, economic development and governance reforms.

Doing business in fragile states

The private sector has proven its ability to have a transformative effect in emerging markets. But in unstable environments, the balance between risk and return must be favourable enough to warrant investment. This missing puzzle piece has to be tackled directly.

Companies can benefit by changing their view of civil society actors from grant recipients to a critical part of the corporate value chain in fragile environments. For companies reluctant to invest without some indication of likely success, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) can be valuable partners. Working for years or decades in a community, INGOs such as Mercy Corps are keenly aware of the challenges and opportunities for viable business gains that simultaneously address social challenges and the process of creating acceptance in unstable environments.

Mercy Corps, for example, has worked in close partnership with MasterCard to develop commercially viable emergency e-transfer solutions to improve the safety, efficiency and speed of aid delivery to those who need it most. Coupled with our work together on business and financial literacy, our growing suite of activities in seven countries is helping us to understand thoughtful ways to drive longer-term financial inclusion at scale.

There are no simple solutions or fast fixes, but we must shift the narrative away from two diverging worlds to one of increasing global cooperation and shared responsibility. As an international community, we need to focus our collective resources on the most fragile places to build long-term resilience. This will enable us to find the common ground where bold business approaches, application of new technologies, social innovation and creative partnerships can come together to provide transformational opportunities.

Author: Neal Keny-Guyer is the Chief Executive Officer of Mercy Corps.

Image: Birds fly over the Atma refugee camp beside the Syrian-Turkish border. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi