Seth is a leading expert on fragile states, political transitions, conflict prevention, political risk assessment, political-economic analysis, state-building, governance, and human rights.

"Seth Kaplan's "Fragile Neighborhoods" holds the key for living in a healthier, happier America — one where citizens are connected inside the hometowns we share, and where the problems we face are addressed place-by-place. For almost two decades of building trust between people who don't look or think alike, we have seen first hand the profound changes that naturally happen in a community of connected people. If your goal is a less lonely, less angry and less divided America, look no further than "Fragile Neighborhoods," and the ground under your two feet. We need to stop waiting around for Washington to fix it, we're convinced that ultimately it will be Dr. Kaplan's prescription that saves us — neither top-down nor bottom-up, but sideways."


—Liz Joyner

    Founder, The Village Square

Seth D. Kaplan is a leading expert on fragile states. He is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, Senior Adviser for the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT), and consultant to multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, U.S. State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and OECD as well as developing country governments and NGOs.

Seth is the author of several books, including Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time (2023).

Speech topics

Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time

The neighborhoods we live in impact our lives in so many ways: they determine who we know, what resources and opportunities we have access to, the quality of schools our kids go to, our sense of security and belonging, and even how long we live. Yet too many of us live in neighborhoods plagued by rising crime, school violence, family disintegration, addiction, alienation, and despair. Even the wealthiest neighborhoods are not immune; while poverty exacerbates these challenges, they exist in zip codes rich and poor, rural and urban, and everything in between. In Fragile Neighborhoods, fragile states expert Seth D. Kaplan offers a bold new vision for addressing social decline in America, one zip code at a time. By revitalizing our local institutions – and the social ties that knit them together – we can all turn our neighborhoods into places where people and families can thrive. Based on his book, audience members will meet the innovative individuals and organizations pioneering new approaches to everything from youth mentoring, to urban planning, to keeping families intact: people like Dreama, a former lawyer whose organization works with local leaders and educators in rural Appalachia to equip young people with the social support they need to succeed in school, and Chris, whose Detroit-based non-profit turns vacant school buildings into community resource hubs while also organizing local volunteers to repair homes and beautify streets in neighborhoods across the city. Along the way, Kaplan offers a set of practical lessons to inspire similar work, reminding us that when change is hyperlocal, everyone has the opportunity to contribute.

American city and town resilience

Many cities and towns face great challenges today. How do we explain why some come together to address these challenges, while others struggle to unite when cooperation is most needed? How can we foster positive change in places that are so fragmented? Strong social ties, institutions, and norms —not material wealth— are what provide the structure for cooperation and flourishing. They are especially important in times of crisis, when the resilience of a group of people is tested most. In such cases, the WHO may matter much more than the WHAT. After all, any revitalization effort is only as strong as the people who implement it, especially over the long term. This may require investing in significant relationship-building such that everyone feels ownership in the endeavor. Building hope, trust, and cohesion can catalyze collective efforts and build momentum, and fragile states Seth D. Kaplan is here to unpack the problem and offer solutions.

Neighborhood inequality

The neighborhood is arguably the most significant unit by which we organize our society. It determines how safe we are, the quality of the schools our kids go to, what resources we have access to, the kinds of job opportunities we have, our psychological well-being, and even how long we live. And yet, we have great disparities between neighborhoods, sometimes only a few miles apart from one another. And the disparities are heart-stopping. Same country, same city, yet to the people who reside in them, these neighborhoods might as well be thousands of miles apart. Millions of Americans are clustered in neighborhoods beset by crime, discrimination, and housing/food insecurity. They are alone and adrift, both geographically and socially removed from places where the wealthier and better-educated live, and excluded from most of the gains and opportunities that our nation’s economic growth brings.  The social dynamics affecting these places cast a deep shadow on the lives of many, especially children living in poverty, who are more likely to experience physical or psychological trauma. These neighborhood effects explain why children who are born poor are increasingly likely to stay that way. Nothing mars our country’s promise of “opportunity for all” more than these highly distressed places. Fragile states expert Seth D. Kaplan will address how can we bolster these places and help foster change.

Social poverty, loneliness, and vulnerability

Imagine you were estranged from family, had few friends, barely knew your neighbors, faced with enormous hospital bills, lost your job, or had a sudden child care emergency. To whom could you turn? Too many of us feel alone in times of crisis. Which leads one to wonder: For all that we pursue materially at the expense of relationships, how rich are we, really? Our mental health is determined not by how much money we have in our bank account, but by the number of friendships we have and by the strength of our social support system—and as the prolonged period of COVID-19 shutdowns taught us, online relationships are not comparable stand-ins for in-person interactions. For young people especially, friendlessness and a lack of social support can have devastating consequences ranging from severe depression to suicide and even to acts of violence. Until we understand the true source of these problems, we are likely to keep searching in all the wrong places.

Fragile states and American foreign policy

The stability of more and more states is under threat. Nevertheless, the U.S. and most other Western governments act as if failing states are an aberration, with the implicit conclusion being that such countries can be put back together again, Humpty-Dumpty-style, with outside assistance. To a considerable extent, that is what the U.S. government’s foreign policy/national security sectors have tried to do since the end of the Cold War, believing that transforming other states into imitations of our own will conduce to greater international security and thus ultimately serve U.S. interests as the major status quo global power. But peace talks, national unity governments, peacekeeping troops, military-security training, technical advice, and elections are insufficient responses for building legitimate states where none exist—and all have proved futile in places like Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Libya, Central Africa, and several other countries in the Sahel. Indeed, governance and peace-building arrangements that depend on a reasonably strong central state are no longer viable in many places. The time has come to admit the unpleasant, fragile states expert Seth D. Kaplan posits. No other arrangement is sustainable—especially in places like Libya where there is little appetite for foreign troops, and where the so-called international community has little desire to intervene in any meaningful way. The return of what he calls the “old normal” won’t be pretty or pleasant. But it’s inevitable, and in our own security interests, we need to tackle it head on.


Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time

The neighborhoods we live in impact our lives in so many ways: they determine who we know, what resources and opportunities we have access to, the quality of schools our kids go to, our sense of security and belonging, and even how long we live.

Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development

Kaplan argues that to avoid revisiting the carnage and catastrophes seen in places like Iraq, Bosnia, and the Congo, the West needs to rethink its ideas on fragile states and start helping their peoples build governments and states that actually fit the local landscape.

Human Rights in Thick and Thin Societies: Universality without Uniformity

This book suggests a new framework: a flexible universalism that returns to basics - focusing on the great evils of the human condition. This approach will help the human rights movement succeed in a multipolar era.

Betrayed: Politics, Power, and Prosperity

Betrayed combines the latest research on poverty and state building with the author's personal observations drawn from years of living and traveling in developing countries and working in places such as China and Nigeria.

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