Fragile state

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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) are 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 US$1.25 per day live, half of the world's children die before the age of five, and one third of maternal deaths occur.[1]

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.[2]

One common measure of state fragility is to use the World Bank's Country Policy and Institutional Assessment index,[3] but more complex indexes, for example including the security dimension, are increasingly being used.

Defining fragile states[edit]

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.

While there are no universal criteria to determine state fragility, the World Bank, through its LICUS programme (Low Income Countries Under Stress) and its Country Policy and Institutional Assessment (CPIA) Index, has been able to establish a preeminent frame of reference for donor countries and other institutional partners. Based on four clusters (including economic management, structural policies, policies for social inclusion/equity and Public Sector Management and institutions) as well as 16 indicators, the CPIA index rates state performance, with those countries scoring under 3.2 out of a total of 6 qualifying as "fragile". Such low performing countries may then be, in turn, suitable for the allocation of financial assistence from a variety of international actors such as the International Development Association and other, similar bodies.[4][5]

Origins and discussion[edit]

Fragile states, similar to failed, weak or collapsed states, is an analytical category that gained prominence from the mid 1990s onwards and gained further traction after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Background is the belief held by many policy-makers and academics alike that the potential for contemporary conflict is harboured within, not between, states. Low capacity and low-income states of the Global South are thought to pose direct threats not only to their own populations, but by extension also to their neighbours and Western countries. Following this logic, fragile states are in need of development in order to be able to provide security and basic services to its citizens, decreasing vulnerability and increasing resilience to internal and external shocks.

Followed by many donor countries and international organisations and institutions, this approach has led to a spirited debate within academia and beyond. While on the one hand, some scholars deem the categorisation of states as fragile as useful, highlighting the potential to predict state collapse and assess the many possibilities to prevent it, a more critical-minded literature disputes this. Two main criticisms emerge, challenging on one side the potential of abuse of the category of state fragility, legitimising external intervention at the expense of local agency. On the other, the analytical utility of the categorisation effort itself is disputed; the state-centric grouping together of a wide range of diverse countries leads to highly standardised development responses that cannot take into account often highly divergent political, economic and social conditions.[6]

Intergovernmental organisations[edit]

Fragile states and post-conflict countries have participated in many intergovernmental groups and associations since the Second World War, including the Group of 77 and regional groups such as ASEAN and the African Union. However until recently countries affected by conflict had no dedicated international platform. In 2010 the g7+ was founded by a group of post-conflict countries to better represent their interests on the international stage. The g7+ is an intergovernmental organisation bringing together countries that have recent experience of conflict. The group aims to draw attention to the special challenges faced by fragile states, provides a platform for conflict-affected countries to come together to discuss their shared development challenges, and advocates for better international policies to address the needs of conflict-affected countries. The g7+ has embarked on its very own index for measuring state fragility, identifying five clusters (political legitimacy, justice, security, economic foundation, revenue and services), which are located on a fragility- ”spectrum” containing five stages. Main differences to other indices are constituted by privileged role of individual, state-specific characteristics and self- rather than external assessment.[7] There are currently 20 member countries: Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, São Tomé e Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Solomon Islands, South Sudan, Timor-Leste, Togo and Yemen. Sierra Leone's Minister of Finance and Development, Dr Kaifala Marah, is the current Chair, taking over the role in May 2014. The role of Chair was previously held by Minister Emilia Pires of Timor-Leste who oversaw the development of the forum in its earliest years. The g7+ Secretariat was established in 2010 and is based in Dili, Timor-Leste.

Basic services provision[edit]

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.[8] In fragile states service delivery may be impacted by financial constraints, limited expertise and a lack of information[8] Long and protracted violence leads to the neglect and subsequent decay of the infrastructure required for provision.[8] Governance and the breakdown of social order can also heighten the social exclusion of specific groups along ethnic, religious, political and gender lines.[8] 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.[9]

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.[8] States can develop trust and legitimacy over the long term through the provision of these basic services (known as the "peace dividend").[8] 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.[8] 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.[8]

However, how support is given to fragile states to provide these services is not so simple.[8] Aid agencies who act independently of the state and provide parallel services risk undermining state legitimacy and capacity.[8] 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.[8]

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.[10]

State building and peacebuilding[edit]

Whether or not to provide services in parallel is often framed as a debate between state building and peacebuilding.[11] 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.[11] However, supporting the state in this direction is not a simple task, especially for the following reasons:[11]

  • 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, peacebuilding efforts that do not include the state can undermine its ability to function.[11] 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.[11]

Case study: Sierra Leone[edit]

The correct balance of state-building and peacebuilding has been argued to be highly elusive, even when peacebuilding and security have been achieved through the development of the state's own capacity.[12] 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.[11] 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.[11] 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.[11]

Non-state actors[edit]

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.[13] She suggests four rules of engagement:

  1. Accept that non-state actors are risky, but no more than many state partners
  2. Be fit for purpose – non-state support needs different skills and procedures
  3. Understand context
  4. Only engage when it adds value

Private sector development[edit]

Researchers found little evidence in literature on the impact of private sector development on state society relations and whether PSD and state relations meet public expectations. They thought one reason could be the lack of empirical data gathered from interviews and public surveys on the ground. The interlinkage of PSD on state society relations therefore definitely remain an area for further exploration and should receive greater attention in academic circles and among practitioners in respective publications.[14] Key findings include:[14]

  • Legal reform requirements in fragile states' legal frameworks to boost Private sector Development are underestimated and deserve greater attention in development assistance. However, law-making is a long-term process and shouldn't violate tenets of representation and legitimacy.
  • Although connections between economic growth and infrastructure are well established in literature, infrastructure project impact assessments that look beyond the first few years after a project are rare.
  • Apart from the success in Cambodia the importance of instituting a solid labour rights regime in fragile states needs to be further explored. It's a balancing act to create labour rights and protect workers while maintaining flexibility to bring efficient levels of employment to foster PSD and for business.
  • Microfinance isn't a one-stop solution to poverty reduction and depends on the fragile state in question.
  • CSR interventions can potentially do more harm than good and should not substitute government services or any other forms of development assistance.
  • Lack of access to capital to launch business and a dearth of local financial institutions like reliable central banks remain a major constraints to PSD especially in sub-Saharan African fragile states.
  • The literature reveals a mixed picture of the effects of FDI on conflict and stability as success relies on context and environment.

Relationship between fragility and economic performance[edit]

A 2012 study by EPS-PEAKS investigated the relationship between state fragility, conflict and economic performance.[15] 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 cannot 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.[16]

Relationship between fragility and climate change[edit]

A 2015 study, commissioned by the G7 member states, identifies seven climate-fragility risks that pose threats to the stability of states and societies in the decades ahead.[17] The report finds that in fragile regions, where inequality persists and the government is unable to respond to stresses, the impacts of climate change on water, food and land will multiply existing pressures. It suggests that dynamics of state fragility, social and political fragility, may be exacerbated by climate change impacts and that the consequence of this is reduced adaptation capacity. A downward spiral of fragility or 'vicious climate-fragility cycle' begins.[17] The report also describes how one can measure the capacity of states and societies to meet the challenges of environmental change along a 'spectrum of fragility', from 'most fragile' to 'most resilient'. In fragile situations, where the government lacks ability to carry out basic functions, the state is more vulnerable to and less able to cope with climate change pressures such as natural resource scarcity, land use change, extreme weather events or volatile food prices, and hence more at risk from further instability.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ World Bank. "Poverty Analysis". Retrieved 2009-01-21. 
  2. ^ Manuel, Marcus. "Getting better results from assistance to fragile states". ODI Briefing Papers. Overseas Development Institute. Retrieved 12 January 2012. 
  3. ^ World Bank. "Country Policy and Institutional Assessment Index". Retrieved 2015-01-26. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Nay, Olivier. "International Organisations and the Production of Hegemonic Knowledge: How the World Bank and The helped Invent the Fragile State Concept." Third World Quarterly 35.2 (2014): 210–31
  6. ^ Nay Olivier. "Fragile and Failed States: Critical Perspectives on Conceptual Hybrids", International Political Science Review 33.1 (2013): 326–341, Grimm, Sonja, Nicolas Lemay-Hébert, and Olivier Nay. "‘Fragile States’: Introducing a Political Concept." Third World Quarterly 35.2 (2014): 197–209
  7. ^ Siqueira, Isabel Rocha De. "Measuring and Managing ‘state Fragility’: The Production of Statistics by the World Bank, Timor-Leste and the G7." Third World Quarterly 35.2 (2014): 268-83
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k 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
  9. ^ Lewis, Alexandra (14 May 2013). "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). 
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Alina Rocha Menocal (2009) 'State-building for peace': navigating an arena of contradictions, Overseas Development Institute
  12. ^ Vicki Metcalfe, Ellen Martin and Sara Pantuliano 2011. Risk in humanitarian action: towards a common approach? London: Overseas Development Institute
  13. ^ Denney, L. (2012) Non-state security and justice in fragile states: Lessons from Sierra Leone. Overseas Development Institute Briefing Paper
  14. ^ a b Simone Datzberger and Mike Denison, Private Sector Development in Fragile States, September 2013, ECONOMIC AND PRIVATE SECTOR PROFESSIONAL EVIDENCE AND APPLIED KNOWLEDGE SERVICES
  15. ^ Holden, J. and Pagel, J. (2012) Fragile states' economices: What does fragility mean for economic performance? EPS-PEAKS query response.
  16. ^ Hedger,E. Krause, P. and Tavakoli, H. Public financial management reform in fragile states: Grounds for cautious optimism? ODI briefing paper 77, October 2012.
  17. ^ a b Rüttinger, Lukas; Gerald Stang, Dan Smith, Dennis Tänzler, Janani Vivekananda; et al. (2015). A New Climate For Peace. Berlin/London/ Washington/Paris: adelphi, International Alert, The Wilson Center, EUISS. p. 109. 

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