06/28/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2014

Fragile States/Fragile Families

What do Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan all have in common? Plenty.

In Washington DC, a city consumed by headline stories, Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace this past week teamed up to give an in-depth look at the stories behind all the conflicts and civil wars. The 2014 Fragile States Index (FSI), previously called the Failed States Index, gives an insider's look at the factors contributing to political and social breakdown.

Behind every country that erupts into civil war, falls victim to famine or flubs in respond to a natural disaster is a government that has failed to protect its citizens. Such failures rarely arise overnight. They give plenty of warning signs, and the FSI identifies and analyzes them in hopes of strengthening these "fragile" states, preventing humanitarian disasters and building a country's resilience in the face of conflict, climate change and other threats.

Governments can "fail" in numerous respects. They can fuel ethnic division, perpetuate corruption and economic inequality, abuse human rights, neglect basic services or squander human capital. And when they do, their countries become "fragile," meaning they become far more susceptible to conflict, civil war, drought and other humanitarian disasters.

It's important to note that the governments of these fragile states are often struggling against impossible odds to meet the needs of their citizens. While some governments are victims of their own ineptitude or corruption, others face major external threats like climate change or regional conflict.

In this year's FSI rankings, South Sudan replaced Somalia in the top spot, after the fledgling government failed to calm the ethnic tensions that are undermining progress and national unity. The Central African Republic, which now teeters on the brink of genocidal conflict, was bumped up to third place in the FSI rankings. Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, Chad, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti and Pakistan rounded out the top ten.

There are many factors that distinguish these "fragile" states from one another, but almost without exception they are all struggling to cope with rapid population growth. Rapid population growth can overwhelm a government's ability to tackle chronic hunger, severe poverty, environmental degradation, political unrest and the depletion of water, forests and other resources.

Sixteen of the countries that top this year's Fragile States Index have populations that are projected to double in size over the next 35 years. Chad, which ranked 6th, is on course to trip its population by 2050, while Niger, which tied for 19th on the FSI, could nearly quadruple its population. And these projections assume that fertility rates in these countries will continue to decline.

What makes population growth so challenging for fragile countries is that many of them are already on the front lines of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) publishes a Global Hunger Index. Of the top 20 countries on that list, 15 will double their population in the next 35 years. Four of the remaining five, are projected to increase their population by 60 percent or more. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) publishes a Multidimensional Poverty Index. Eighteen of the top 20 poorest countries will likely double their population in the next 35 years. The other two will increase their populations by 50 percent or more.

Some of the world's most fragile states -- including Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Jordan -- consume 80 percent of more their renewable water resources every year, and yet their populations are projected to increase by 80 percent of more by 2050. No one knows how these countries will meet the anticipated demand for water resources.

The best way to make "fragile" countries stronger and more resilient is to strengthen the family unit. When girls are better educated, women economically empowered and when girls and women are able to space or limit their pregnancies without male or religious coercion, the family is strengthened. Maternal and infant mortality decline. Nutrition and food security improve. Children are better educated and parents are able to devote more resources to improving the family's income, whether it is buying a new sewing machine or more fertilizer for the crops. Smaller, better educated families are also better able to meet the challenges posed by conflict or natural disaster.

The FSI is a crucial start, but it's time for a much larger debate about fragile countries and what can be done to strengthen them. Fragile states rarely receive the assistance they need until they become humanitarian disasters. If made in time, small investments -- including investments in family planning and gender equality -- can pay big dividends.