Users’ Guide on Measuring Fragility

Javier Mata, Sebastian Ziaja


This Users’ Guide on Measuring Fragility presents a comparative analysis of 11 cross-country fragility indices. It assesses their conceptual premises, methodological approach and possible uses.

The interest in understanding and predicting situations of fragility has grown exponentially amongst research and policy communities in the last years, in parallel to debates around poor governance performance, development challenges and aid effectiveness. As a response to this interest, various fragility indices are periodically published, reflecting a diverse range of interests, purposes and aspirations. Despite the proliferation and ever-increasing use of and reference to these indices, to date no systematic, comprehensive study of such indices has been produced.

This Users’ Guide aims to provide a rigorous, comprehensible and user-friendly examination of country-level indices measuring facets of fragility. Although there is no common, undisputed definition of fragility, a country could be said to be fragile when it suffers from a weakness or a failure in one or several central attributes of the state such as its effectiveness in providing services to citizens, its authority (including a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence) and legitimacy. Fragility often also relates to one or more specific sectors, i.e. security, economic, political or social/cultural, environmental. The ’fragility indices‘ in the Guide directly address many of these aspects. It is aimed at empowering the user with greater knowledge and critical understanding of the subject matter, addressing key questions such as:

  • What fragility indices are there?
  • What concepts do they intend to measure?
  • How well do they measure these concepts?
  • How should fragility indices be applied?

This Guide is informed by a desk review of state-of-the-art research and policy debate and tools on measuring situations of fragility by quantitative means. In addition, the mapping, selection and analysis of fragility indices were supplemented by in-person, phone and email interviews with the producers of such indices.

Key Findings:

The Users’ Guide lays out five principles for applying fragility indices:

1. Needs determine the selection. As a starting point, consider what you need the index for and choose accordingly. Keep in mind that the stated purpose and the claimed reach of an index may not match the de facto operationalisation, setting limits to what the index can indeed be used for.

2. No index is perfect. Probably even more than other socio-political measurements, the degree of uncertainty of fragility indices should not be neglected. Still, this uncertainty does not lead to the conclusion to discard them.

3. Know the index. As uncertainty is unavoidable, users should do their best to control it. They should understand the index’s methodology and thus be capable of managing its deficiencies.

4. Plurality works better. Considering fragility indices’ imperfections, and depending on your application needs, you may want to use an index in combination with other measurement tools, either quantitative or qualitative.

5. Consider the consequences. Basing policy decisions on index scores is a dangerous practice. Fragility indices should never be used as the sole source of information for guiding policies. Moreover, quantified results and conclusions may be used beyond their original purpose and inadvertently influence policy-making circles.


Mata, J. & Ziaja, S. (2009). Users’ Guide on Measuring Fragility. Bonn: German Development Institute/UNDP.