A fragile state is a low-income country characterized by weak state capacity and/or weak state legitimacy leaving citizens vulnerable to a range of shocks.
While many countries are making progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, a group of 35 to 50 countries (depending on the measure used) is falling behind. It is estimated that out of the world's seven billion people, 26% live in fragile states, and this is where one third of all people surviving on less than $1.25 per day live, half of the world's children die before the age of five, and one third of maternal deaths occur.
Not only are they falling behind, but the gap with other developing countries is widening since the 1970s. In 2006, per capita GDP grew only at 2% in fragile states, whereas it reached 6% in other low-income countries. Projections (for example, World Bank, 2008) that fragile states will constitute an even larger share of low-income countries in the future given that many better performing low-income countries graduate to middle-income status. This is a major challenge for development efforts and it has been argued by the Overseas Development Institute that fragile states require fundamentally different approaches from the development models exercised in more resilient countries, because of the different context of risk.
One common measure of state fragility is to use the World Bank's Country Policy and Institutional Assessment index, but more complex indexes, for example including the security dimension, are increasingly being used.
Defining fragile states
Country contexts vary widely in this group of countries ranging from Haiti to Nepal, from Uzbekistan to Burundi. Some are trapped in a vicious cycle of violent conflict and poverty or suffer from a natural resource 'curse'; others face a legacy of poor governance; many emerging from crisis cannot deliver even the most basic services to their citizens, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. In terms of dynamics, fragile states include
- post-conflict/crisis or political transition situations
- deteriorating governance environments
- situations of gradual improvement and
- situations of prolonged crisis or impasse
A fragile state is significantly susceptible to crisis in one or more of its sub-systems. It is a state that is particularly vulnerable to internal and external shocks and domestic and international conflicts. In a fragile state, institutional arrangements embody and perhaps preserve the conditions of crisis: in economic terms, this could be institutions (importantly, property rights) that reinforce stagnation or low growth rates, or embody extreme inequality (in wealth, in access to land, in access to the means to make a living); in social terms institutions may embody extreme inequality or lack of access altogether to health or education; in political terms, institutions may entrench exclusionary coalitions in power (in ethnic, religious, or perhaps regional terms), or extreme factionalism or significantly fragmented security organisations. In fragile states, statutory institutional arrangements are vulnerable to challenges by rival institutional systems be they derived from traditional authorities, devised by communities under conditions of stress that see little of the state (in terms of security, development or welfare), or be they derived from warlords, or other non-state power brokers.
The opposite of a "fragile state" is a "stable state" — one where dominant or statutory institutional arrangements appear able to withstand internal and external shocks and contestation remains within the boundaries of reigning institutional arrangements. With the right conditions, some countries — such as Mozambique and Burundi — have so far demonstrated a remarkable turn-around. To address the challenge of these countries falling behind, the international spotlight must be kept on countries where the Millennium Development Goals are hardest to achieve, using common principles for action; making the international aid architecture more rational; improving the organisational response of the wide range of actors involved (including "the 3Ds": diplomacy, defense and development); and measuring results.
Basic services provision
There is a relationship between state fragility and service delivery and they are both seen as interrelated and mutually reinforcing, yet some also suggest that the provision of basic services can reduce state fragility. In fragile states service delivery may be impacted by financial constraints, limited expertise and a lack of information Long and protracted violence leads to the neglect and subsequent decay of the infrastructure required for provision. Governance and the breakdown of social order can also heighten the social exclusion of specific groups along ethnic, religious, political and gender lines. Such violence can be political, including conflict and terrorism, but can also be social or criminal, leading to a broad combination of security-based obstacles to effective service provision.
Education, health, access to water and adequate sanitation are important not only for survival, but are also recognised human rights whose provision is demonstrated to be necessary for a transition away from conflict. States can develop trust and legitimacy over the long term through the provision of these basic services (known as the "peace dividend"). Education, for instance, can protect children and non-combatants during conflict, facilitate intergenerational change and lead to the socialisation of children and youth, be a catalyst for broader transformation, as well as provide a sense of normalcy and continuity. Furthermore the delivery of some of these services can be seen as more neutral, such as immunisation, and can lead to conflicting groups uniting on specific issues and further result in increased legitimacy.
However, how support is given to fragile states to provide these services is not so simple. Aid agencies who act independently of the state and provide parallel services risk undermining state legitimacy and capacity. On the other hand, supporting the state's own provision can be problematic as the state itself may be the cause of social divisions and a source of conflict.
Limited evidence of varying quality on basic services and social protection in conflicted affected situations has been found. Research into the gaps in provision, delivery and access of basic services has queried whether social protection interventions have contributed to state-building processes. It highlighted that this assumption has already significantly begun shaping policy and programmes and that state-building outcomes in policy may outweigh other outcomes like better water, healthcare and education.
State building and peace building
Whether or not to provide services in parallel is often framed as a debate between state building and peace building. State building is argued to lead to peace when it involves seeking to develop an inclusive state, where legitimacy is built as the result of the state responding to the demands of all of society and providing public goods and services. However, supporting the state in this direction is not a simple task, especially for the following reasons:
- State-building may not automatically lead to peace as it is an inherently political process and will not automatically be inclusive or democratic.
- Political settlements that seek to appease those that threaten peace can strengthen the rule of repressive rulers.
- Political settlements that create power sharing agreements can weaken the state and lead to further entrenching divides.
- Focussing on state institutions may lead to overlooking domestic non-state actors, including traditional local leaders, and prevent the long term of a civil society.
Equally, peace building efforts that do not include the state can undermine its ability to function. Researchers at the Overseas Development Institute emphasise the need for NGOs and other development actors to deepen knowledge of the context and maintain a constant awareness of the relationship between state- and peace-building.
Case study: Somaliland
The situation in Somaliland is very different to that in the south of Somalia, despite receiving far less in international aid. Law and order has been restored and has been described as one of the most democratic areas of the Muslim world. The political system is a mixture of traditional and modern concepts, which were combined to create a 'beel' or clan system of governance that integrates the whole area. The structure includes an executive (Golaha Xukuumadda) with a president, vice-president and council of ministers, a legislature that includes a bicameral parliament with an upper house of elders (Golaha Guurtida), a house of representatives (Golaha Wakiillada), and an independent judiciary. Seats are allocated according to clans, and elders are used as a check on the power of the executive. This system has allowed a multi-party democracy, the demobilisation of the militias, stability and also development. This is Somaliland's local interpretation of democracy and provides an interesting case into the possibility of state building in a region suffering from conflict.
Case study: Sierra Leone
The correct balance of state-building and peace-building has been argued to be highly elusive, even when peace-building and security have been achieved through the development of the state's own capacity. The UK government supported reforms in Sierra Leone along the principle of "security first" over the last decade, which is believed to have improved security, increased access to and the quality of justice, decreased corruption and positively reformed public service. Since the end of the civil war in 2002, there has been no major violence, peaceful elections were held in 2007 and there has been enough stability to help build sustainable institutions. Yet Sierra Leone suffers severe underdevelopment and ranked third to last on the UN Human Development Index for 2010. This in turn has created frustration and disappointment amongst the younger generation and poses a significant risk of a return to violence.
Individuals in fragile states often rely on non-state actors such as chiefs, secret societies, gangs or militias or religious leaders to meet their justice and security needs. Lisa Denney, of the Overseas Development Institute, therefore stresses the need for development donors to engage with these non-state actors when attempting to reform justice and security services in fragile states. She suggests four rules of engagement:
- Accept that non-state actors are risky, but no more than many state partners
- Be fit for purpose — non-state support needs different skills and procedures
- Understand context
- Only engage when it adds value
Relationship between fragility and economic performance
A 2012 study by EPS-PEAKS investigated the relationship between state fragility, conflict and economic performance. It describes a large degree of variation among countries' experiences of conflict and foreign direct investment (FDI), with conflict accompanied by high levels of FDI in some countries and low levels of FDI in others. The study suggests that the majority of FDI in fragile states is driven by the motives of resource-seeking multinationals. While this investment can lead to economic growth, this potential is often not realised, and receiving investment solely for resource extraction can lead to further conflict: a phenomenon known as the resource curse.
If a state can’t tax reasonably or spend responsibly a key element of statehood is missing claim researchers at the Overseas Development Institute and World Bank. They explain that substantial progress can be made in Public Financial Management in fragile states, with most progress made on budget execution, though critical gaps remain in knowledge of the relationship between PFM, statehood and development progress.
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- Manuel, Marcus. "Getting better results from assistance to fragile states". ODI Briefing Papers. Overseas Development Institute. Retrieved 12 January 2012.
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- Sara Pavanello and James Darcy (2008) Improving the provision of basic services for the poor in fragile environments: International Literature Review Synthesis Paper Overseas Development Institute
- Lewis, Alexandra (14). "Violence in Yemen: Thinking About Violence in Fragile States Beyond the Confines of Conflict and Terrorism". Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 2 (1).
- Slater, R. Mallett, R. and Carpenter, October 2012, Social protection and basic services in fragile and conflict-affected situations, Researching livelihoods and services affected by conflict http://www.securelivelihoods.org/publications_details.aspx?ResourceID=145
- Alina Rocha Menocal (2009) 'State-building for peace': navigating an arena of contradictions, Overseas Development Institute
- Timothy Othieno (2008) A new donor approach to fragile societies: The case of Somaliland, Overseas Development Institute
- Vicki Metcalfe, Ellen Martin and Sara Pantuliano 2011. Risk in humanitarian action: towards a common approach? London: Overseas Development Institute
- Denney, L. (2012) Non-state security and justice in fragile states: Lessons from Sierra Leone. Overseas Development Institute Briefing Paper http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/7640.pdf
- Holden, J. and Pagel, J. (2012) Fragile states' economices: What does fragility mean for economic performance? EPS-PEAKS query response.
- Hedger,E. Krause, P. and Tavakoli, H. ODI briefing paper 77, October 2012, Public financial management reform in fragile states - Grounds for cautious optimism?, http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/7840.pdf
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development "Policy Commitment and Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States and Situations" (2007)
- Department for International Development (DFID) paper on Fragile States
- For more information on policy coordination and research on fragile states from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
- For more information on the World Bank's engagement in fragile and conflict-affected states
- The Asian Development Bank's Engagement in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Situations
- For more information on the European Union's engagement in situations of fragility
- For more information on fragile states from Crisis States Research Centre's website
- For links to some of the most recent donor, practitioner and academic literature on fragile states, see the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre's topic guide on fragile states
- For more information on the unique problems of these countries, see the book Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development
- For more information on aid and public finances in fragile states, ODI's Budget Strengthening Initiative's website