Fragile contexts: The world’s most dangerous places

Updated May 25, 2020
Two billion people live in places classified as fragile contexts. Marred by conflict and violence, fragile contexts are some of the world’s most dangerous places to live. In these places, life can change in an instant due to economic instability, political unrest and food shortages. Chronic instability exposes children and their families to extreme levels of food insecurity, exploitation and violence, making life unbearable and unsafe. Experts predict that a staggering 80 per cent of the world’s poorest people will live in these regions by 2030.
  1. What are fragile contexts?
  2. How is fragility determined?
  3. Common characteristics of fragile states
  4. Survive. Adapt. Thrive: World Vision’s approach to fragility
  5. You can help
1. What are fragile contexts?
Fragile contexts are the world’s most dangerous places. They are countries, cities, regions and communities that are fraught with chronic instability, conflict and violence, trapping large numbers of people in a cycle of desperation and poverty.


Fragile pockets
It’s important to note that some fragile contexts can also be found within small pockets of stable or semi-stable countries. With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas, we are seeing an emergence of cities as pockets of fragility where 58 per cent of the world’s refugees live. Honduras is an example of a country with fragile pockets, where children and families face enormous risk due to the high levels of crime and violence found there. Extreme poverty, overcrowding and lack of education and career opportunities also contribute to the challenges Hondurans face each day.

2. How is fragility determined? 
World Vision combines data from three indices – Maplecroft Global Risk Analytics, the Fund for Peace and the Institute for Economics and Peace – to define fragility and build a framework for our work in fragile contexts. These indices are some of the most comprehensive and up-to-date, focusing on political, security and governance considerations, with some child-specific measure. Using data from these sources, World Vision determined that the ten most fragile countries in 2020 are:
  1. Yemen*
  2. Syria
  3. Somalia
  4. South Sudan
  5. Afghanistan
  6. Iraq
  7. Central African Republic
  8. Democratic Republic of the Congo
  9. Sudan
  10. Mali
*To date, World Vision does not operate in Yemen. 

The Fragile States Index
One of the resources we use to create a fragility framework is the Fund for Peace, which publishes an annual report called the Fragile States Index (FSI). The FSI uses 12 factors to measure the level of social, economic and political pressures that each country faces each year. The FSI was created in 2005 to rank 178 countries on their vulnerability to conflict or collapse based on how they score from zero to 10 on the following indicators:
  • Security Apparatus
  • Factionalized Elites
  • Group Grievance
  • Economic Decline and Property
  • Uneven Economic Development
  • Human Flight and Brain Drain
  • State Legitimacy 
  • Public Services 
  • Human Rights and Rule of Law
  • Demographic Pressures
  • Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons
  • External Intervention
The higher the total score, the more fragile – or unstable – the state. 

Getting the big picture
The FSI is a tool that gives us a snapshot of the conditions each country faces from one year to the next to see whether they’re improving or worsening. This data is used
  • To measure the contributions of foreign governments and non-governmental organizations toward development initiatives.
  • To help focus aid efforts toward areas that need further development and support.
  • By the private sector and financial institutions to assess and mitigate the risks involved when investing or operating in a certain country.
  • By governments to better understand and address their own challenges.
  • By human rights or local civil society groups to advocate for reform. 
Check out the Fragile States Index website to get the latest statistics on all countries measured by the FSI. 
3. Common characteristics of fragile states 
While each country faces its own unique challenges, the most dangerous places on earth often share common characteristics that contribute to their fragile state. 

Conflict and displacement
Today, because of armed conflict, disaster and violence These numbers tell us that we’re experiencing levels of forced displacement around the world that haven’t been seen since World War II. If migrants are seeking refuge in places that are only a little less fragile than the homes they left behind, is it possible to rebuild their lives? How long can host countries sustain an influx of refugees if they, too, are barely able to provide for their own populations?  

Although extreme poverty has been cut in half since 1990, fragile contexts were home to 513.6 million people living on just $1.90 USD/day in 2015. Experts predict that with poverty increasingly being concentrated in fragile contexts, 620 million of the world’s poorest people could be living in these regions by 2030. 

But living in poverty doesn’t just mean a lack of income or resources – it means people lack access to basic services like healthcare, security and education. Poverty deprives people of food and nutrition, their social standing and a voice in the decision-making process. 

Extreme poverty makes it difficult to shake off fragility, but it can be done. While the World Bank estimates that it can take between 20-40 years to reverse fragility, more than a dozen states have successfully transitioned out of this perilous ranking over the last decade.    

A young girl holds a baby girl in her arms as they stand in front of a mudbrick wall.
Malnutrition is common in children living in fragile contexts like South Sudan. In the photo, Paska holds her baby sister Rose, who is recovering from severe malnutrition. Photo: Scovia Faida Charles

Weak political infrastructure 
In 2019, Venezuela emerged as one of the countries that fell into the FSI’s Most Worsened category. Some of the factors that led to this event include:
  • heavy dependence on the country’s oil production to generate income, despite decreased global demand leading to plunging oil prices;
  • a rapidly shrinking local economy further exacerbating the nation’s deep recession;
  • a government accused of corruption and fraud, leading to a dispute over who is the country’s rightfully elected president;
  • a humanitarian crisis caused by hyperinflation and shortages of food, basic goods and medicine; and
  • mass exodus of Venezuelans hoping to escape unemployment, rampant violence and poverty.
Power struggles in fragile and conflict-affected regions make it difficult for humanitarian aid agencies to help people caught in the political crossfire. And, while the most vulnerable tend to suffer the most, international action to address serious human rights violations and children’s rights is rare.  

Climate stress
Countries that struggle with fragility tend to feel the impact of climate change and natural disasters more keenly than others that rank lower on the FSI. In fact, they often intensify a fragile country’s existing vulnerabilities and/or create new ones. 

It’s not uncommon for most highly fragile states to experience a combination of climate hazards, like:
  • floods
  • wildfires
  • chronic drought
  • rainfall anomalies
  • cyclones
  • coastal inundation
Climate change affects countries in various ways and at different levels of intensity. But when fragile contexts experience multiple hazards on the fragility and climate fronts, the diverse threats and required responses can put a major strain on the country’s limited resources. And when governments are forced to prioritize one issue over another due to lack of resources, the cycle of fragility just keeps going.  

A boy sits on an empty bucket on dry gravel ground. There is a crowd of people in the far background.
People line up for hours - sometimes all day - to collect water from one of the boreholes that World Vision has helped reconstruct in Southern Angola, a region striken by drought. Photo: Brianna Piazza

Poor access to healthcare
The World Health Organization states that half of the world’s population can’t access essential health services – not necessarily because they live in the world’s poorest countries, but because their governments do not prioritize developing their health-care systems. 

It can take years to rebuild the health-care system of a country that has been ravaged by war. Health-care systems in countries like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have been impaired by decades of fighting, weak infrastructure and lack of human and financial resources. 

South Sudan (which ranked third-highest on the FSI in 2019) has been caught in the grip of a brutal civil war for years, making access to health care practically non-existent for people living in remote areas of the country. But, with a government that only allocates two per cent of its national budget toward the health ministry, even those living in urban centres will have a difficult time accessing adequate medical care when they need it. 

The health-care situation in the DRC is just as dire. Most Congolese have little or no access to health care due to a 30-year-long collapse of the country’s economic and political infrastructure. While certain parts of the country are no longer at war, the DRC endured the world’s second deadliest Ebola outbreak in 2019, causing unimaginable suffering to the thousands of people who were affected. 
  Four young children from the Democratic Republic of Congo playfully smile and wave at the camera.
World Vision’s approach to fragility helps children and families survive, recover and become more resilient, meeting their immediate needs so they can build a better future. Photo: Jon Warren

4. Survive. Adapt. Thrive: World Vision’s approach to fragility
The situation may seem hopeless, but hope is never lost. World Vision is working in some of the most dangerous places in the world – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo – to help people rise above their circumstances using a fragile contexts program approach.

When disasters strike, we help people in crisis meet their immediate needs by providing:
  • Food and non-food items
  • Health and nutrition
  • Water and sanitation
  • Shelter
  • Protection 
  • Information 
As unstable situations improve, we help institutions to re-establish essential services to communities. We also help people to:
  • Rebuild or diversify livelihoods
  • Identify risks, develop preparedness plans and implement early warning systems
  • Restore community infrastructure
  • Reconcile relationships and build trust between diverse groups
  • Access education, wash, health and nutrition, community-based child protection
  • Hold us accountable to the core humanitarian standard
Once crisis situations become increasingly stable, we activate our thrive response to increase the resilience of children and communities to build a better future. We help people to:
  • Address their priorities for child well-being
  • Address underlying causes of fragility
  • (Re) Establish positive relationships across divisions
  • Hold the state accountable for provision of quality basic services
We also work shoulder to shoulder with institutions and faith leaders to:
  • Rehabilitate governance and service provision
  • Restore relations between communities and the institutions that govern them
  • Address structures that create fragility
  • Promote positive social norms and behaviours 
  • Build interfaith relations
A classroom of young girls in Afghanistan sit at desks and raise their hands.
Your support can help us protect vulnerable children in places like Afghanistan, where street children are subjected to child labour and threats of physical, mental and sexual abuse. Photo: Brett Tarver

5. You can help
Life in fragile states can change in an instant, leaving children and families vulnerable to circumstances beyond their control. But it’s also possible for an unsafe situation to quickly stabilize – with support. Your help matters and makes a real impact. 

When you donate to Raw Hope, your support enables World Vision to meet the immediate needs of those living in the world’s most dangerous places. Together, we can help make sure that children living in these fragile regions have what they need to survive, rebuild their lives and hope for a better future.  

Because they persevere, so must we. 

More stories for you

Refugee voices at the table Born from Canada’s inspiring Together for Learning Campaign, the Refugee Education Council (REC) has been a driving force in advocating for quality education for refugees and displaced youth. We are proud to announce our dynamic 2024-2025 cohort—a diverse collective of 12 refugee leaders and advocates from 10 different countries.
Empowering urban Tanzanian dads for adolescent health and rights As traditional powerholders, men can serve as influential gender equality advocates. By working with other men and boys to speak out against discriminatory gender norms that perpetuate discrimination, violence and inequality, men serve as positive role models. The AHADI project has adapted the MenCare program to promote gender equality with a focus on adolescent girls.
The science of play Children’s play is more than simple amusement or a way to burn off natural energy. Play is a fundamental component of cognitive development, cultivating critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, teamwork, and communication skills.