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Fragile states: The new paradigm? Understanding state fragility in the 21st century

Time (GMT +01) 11:30 13:00

James Putzel - Director of the Crisis States Research Centre, LSE

Mark Robinson -
 Head of Profession for Governance and Conflict, DFID

Sara Pantuliano - Programme Leader, ODI

Alison Evans -
 Director, ODI

Alison Evans, Director of ODI, opened the first meeting of fragile states series aimed at understanding contemporary fragile states, the drivers of fragility, and how development and humanitarian organisations can more effectively calibrate their approaches to fragile situations.

Evans opened the session by noting that protracted crisis poses an acute challenge to the humanitarian and development community, and asked the question: What do we think about the prospects for international engagement and support in countries experiencing extreme forms of fragility and/or protracted crisis?

James Putzel: Director of the Crisis States Research Centre, LSE

Rethinking fragility

Putzel began by stressing the need to address fragility in respect of the role of the state, and to rethink our understanding of fragile states. He made the point that the term does not have a scientific pedigree or a theoretical background, and is in fact highly contested.  Still, a decade into the 21st century, the question of fragility has risen to the top of the international agenda, and is likely to remain there. Fragility is also connected to the fact that vast majority of the existing 192 states are very new (approx. 40 years old)

Putzel drew a distinction between de jure recognition (recognition as sovereign by a community of states) that most states possess, and de facto recognition (recognition by the majority of the population within the territory as the ‘public authority’). In fragile states, the latter is often weak, as is the capacity or will to fulfil basic state functions. These include the following:

  1. A key state function is security - to protect persons and property within the ‘relevant territory’ of the state.
  2. States must also be able to raise revenue to ensure their reproduction or continued existence.
  3. Institutional hegemony – that the rules of the state trump competing authority structures (regional powers, religious doctrine, or traditional authority structures).

Critically, the survival of the state in the current global context does not depend on the fulfilment of these functions. The international system gives these states recognition regardless of their competence to behave as states, and they survive because of international law, support, development aid. Moreover, local elites are able to tap into global economic structures, and states (which are captured by elites) become less dependent on internal revenue derived from taxes for survival. This has implications for the nature of state society relations, as these same elites are less concerned with governing by consent.

Comparing definitions

Putzel commented on the evolving nature of current definitions of fragility, and suggested that the OECD-DAC Principles for International Engagement in Fragile State provides the closest thing there is to a consensus definition. He also expressed scepticism towards definitions that equate fragility with levels of development (such as the CPIA World Bank usage). Rather, according to Putzel the central point is that many underdeveloped or less developed countries are resilient – despite high levels of fragility in terms of the capacity of the states to fulfil key functions. Putzel defined resilience as the ability to stay in power over time, the ability to avoid major violent conflict, and rules of the state to endure and be reproduced over time. Some examples included Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, or more than half of Sub-Saharan African countries that have not experienced civil war. These countries are resilient, yet poor and trapped in underdevelopment. Thus state resilience does not equal development, which is useful to policy-makers hoping to intervene to achieve peace, stability and development.

The political element and functions of the state

Putzel argued that ‘elite bargains or ‘political settlements’ are what ultimately determine the trajectory of fragility and resilience. This nature of the political settlement also determines the possibilities for a leap from ‘resilient stagnation’ to dynamic development.  But crucially states perform very differently in relation to their different functions. A state can be proficient in providing security to its citizens, yet do very poorly in other areas such as poverty reduction. This differential in performance between the functions a state has to perform has implications in respect of fragility.

Putzel concluded by highlighting 4 points that emerge from this approach to state fragility:

  1. It is important for development agencies to understand that they can only know a state by knowing its political settlement, and this requires understanding the bargains that are at the heart of political power. These bargains determine whether a state can reproduce itself over time, or whether it can make the leap into dynamic development.
  2. Interventions need to be prioritised. Progress with reform cannot be made on all fronts at once (eg. a push for democratisation may be inappropriate in a situation where the basic institutional parameters of the state, such as who is and is not a citizen, remain undecided). Here he gives the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an example.
  3. Dynamic development may threaten the ‘bargains of the past’ and the kind of stability that presides over stagnation (elite privileges or social claims by popular groups such as trade unions). This could result in instability, placing resilience at risk.
  4. Knowing that states perform different functions in different ways gives some sort of road map to supporting, instead of undermining, those functions that states perform well.  

Sara Pantuliano: Programme Leader, ODI

Alison Evans invited Sara Pantuliano to reflect on whether there is a continuum from fragility to resilience? Does this way of thinking impact on the humanitarian agenda in conflict and post-conflict crises?

Pantuliano’s response covered the following six points.

  1. The terminology we use needs to be adjusted. The term ‘fragile states’ inhibits constructive engagement with actors, and has a pejorative connotation. This terminology hurts prospects for reform.
  2. There should be increased focus on principles that characterise our actions. OECD and EU principles are very heavily focused on development, and need more reference to humanitarian concerns.
  3. There is tension between state building and institution-building.
    1. There is a great deal of focus on building up the civil service, army, and police force, but we cannot forget to support civil society.
    2. Moving away from informal actors that provide basic services, and some stability during conflict may create a ‘service gap’ and increase the potential for instability. This in turn can undermine the very state institutions that the international community is trying to build up.
    3. Often political settlements are negotiated among elites, with civil society excluded from the bargaining table. Supporting and strengthening engagement between the state and civil society ultimately provides the state with increased legitimacy.
  4. It is useful to recognise the different aid modalities that are used in these contexts. We continue to see a binary mode of engagement, an assumption that humanitarian aid is used in a conflict environment, and development aid is used once the situation transitions to a post-conflict environment. Instead, there is la great deal of overlap between the two, and both instruments are likely to be needed at the same time.
  5. You need the right people to effectively make the above points possible. There is a need to build capacity in international actors – more expertise, training, and deeper situational understanding. Too often people with inadequate training and a poor attitude are deployed into the field.
  6. It is important to ensure action is guided by in-depth analysis, particularly political analysis. A refined understanding of the political context is necessary. OECD principles emphasise the importance of this analysis, but the capacity to generate this analysis is lacking.

Pantuliano concluded by emphasising that in all of this international actors must maintain a level of humility, questioning how much they can actually do. Often too much is assumed. International organisations can stimulate the process, but not engineer it. 

Mark Robinson: Head of Profession for Government and Conflict, DFID

Alison Evans asked Mark Robinson whether we need to radically rethink the scope and limits of international engagement in fragile situations.

Politics and the rule of law

Robinson began by agreeing with Putzel on the need for inclusive political settlements at the heart of state-building and peace-building policy frameworks. He stressed the need to come up with a better definition to describe these 40-50 states, adding that the term ‘fragility’ is analytically lazy, though it does serve to demarcate how DFID functions quite differently in these contexts as opposed to in ‘resilient’ countries.

Robinson questioned Putzel’s concept of ‘resilient stagnation’, pointing out that many of these countries have quite high rates of growth despite the global recession. Robinson added ‘rule of law’ is an important factor to consider. It provides a framework that allows for basic rights for all, and it underpins security provision. He stated DFID supports the centrality of security and revenue-raising, though security does not necessarily mean a stronger military or police alone, though it does mean they are more accountable.

Robinson discussed two points of differences with Putzel

  1. He did not feel we can ignore developmental functions of a state. The privileging of security, the rule of law, and revenue-raising are themselves developmental actions.

  1. The democratic character of states matters. There is increasing use of the terms ‘responsive’ and ‘inclusive’ to describe state character. State capacities can be strengthened, but the risk of autocracy still remains. We need to guard against the possibility of a lapse into strong yet fundamentally unaccountable (and therefore conflict-prone) states. 

Points of agreement with Putzel.

  1. Robinson agrees that there is a need to pay more attention to elite bargaining and the nature of political settlements.
  2. The UK and international community needs to do more to support the creation of durable and accountable state structures founded on inclusive agreements.

Robinson agreed with Pantuliano on the following points.

  1. The need for the right kind of expertise and advisors.
  2. The need for good political analysis to underpin operational work.
  3. Regarding the ‘service gap’; the need to get the balance right between the ongoing responsibility of NGOs to deliver short-term humanitarian aid, and harnessing their expertise to rebuild state structures to allow for more self-sufficiency.

DFID White Paper

Robinson outlined the four main themes of the new DFID White Paper.

  1. Promotion of sustainable economic growth in spite of the economic downturn.
  2. More emphasis on climate change, mitigation and adaptation.
  3. Conflict and fragility. There will be more DFID spend on fragile and post-conflict states.
  4. Emphasis on effective multilateral institutions.

When thinking about budget support, there needs to be more emphasis on:

  1. Basic technological capacity to accountably manage infusion of external finance. This will require more reliance on technical expertise in the operational region.
  2. Managing large infusion of funds in a highly accountable manner, by putting systems in place to ensure this oversight. 

The DFID White Paper will also contain increased emphasis on security and access to justice. Robinson closed by encouraging greater thinking about growth dynamics in post-conflict and fragile states, and the challenge of large-scale employment generation through local private-sector provision. This has implications for long-term stability and conflict prevention. He emphasises that DFID will be doing more to work through and strengthen the UN peace-building architecture, along with increasing cooperation with the World Bank and UN counterparts through sharing emerging policy experience as programmes on the ground are scaled up. 


The discussion was opened to the floor with a number of issues raised.

Q: To Robinson – Where is the emphasis on fragility coming from? Is it because the in-country situation is changing and becoming more difficult, or because donors and policymakers are getting better at recognising fragility?

A: Robinson – The emphasis on fragility comes because these states are the worst performers on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), poverty is most concentrated in these states, and from a recognition of the wider externalities generated by war and conflict in these state (in both neighbouring states but also regionally). Additionally, development work is no longer seen as sole prerogative of aid organisations.

Q: To Pantuliano – Are you drawing an unfair distinction between elites and civil society, given that in some countries the elites are the civil society?

A: Pantuliano – It is true that civil society in the capital is often dominated by the elites. The problem is that processes of state-building often focus on the centre, when the periphery is very important. Efforts to focus on local level are likely to be effective, but this kind of engagement is very rare because efforts tend to focus only on the capital. This is exacerbated by the risk-averse nature of many international organisations, which often remain entrenched in their compounds.

Q: How does the international community prevent Pakistan from sliding from a fragile state to a failed state? How does the international community deal with a state such as Pakistan that cannot be seen to be openly taking advice?

A: Robinson – The new DFID country plan for Afghanistan is grounded in deep academic analysis. Pakistan is not heading towards state failure. The country exhibits many characteristics of fragility, but there is also great resilience. The challenge is to effectively use the pre-existing human capital resources; something that Pakistan has in significant quantity.

Q: What are the role of political parties and the development of political systems in tackling fragility?

A: Robinson – We must be more sensitive to the factors that motivate political factors. Often civil society has been given too much prominence. Ignore political parties at your peril.

A: Pantuliano – The drivers of fragility are numerous, but it is important to bear in mind that they are highly contextual. Generalising is not helpful due to the level of complexity.

A: Putzel – The role of political parties is decisive (eg. Tanzania, Zambia) and is essential to institutionalise a settlement. Long-term political party building is important. Mobutu’s efforts in the DRC efforts to merely ‘declare’ a party were ineffectual. More serious research on political parties is needed.

Q: Often political fragility is linked to political and economic resource curses. How can resource curses be cured, and is this curing process necessary for the movement from fragility to resilience?

A: Robinson – The management of windfall funds is important.

A: Pantuliano – There is too much focus on models which speak only to an external audience, and not to the in-country actors. 

A: Putzel – There are as many examples of developmental use of resources as there are examples of resource curse. There are many counter-examples of now-stable resource countries (eg. Sweden, Botswana).


Fragile states are now a prominent feature of international development, security and diplomacy landscapes, with an estimated billion people living within their boundaries This concentration of the world’s poorest in fragile states brings with it major challenges of governance, economy and security. The drivers of fragility are complex, linked to both international and local factors including economic and social inequalities and exclusion, lack of effective channels for the peaceful expression of people’s demands and expectations, severe economic decline, and competition over natural resources. At root, conflict and fragility often stem from failures of governance, increasing the risk of violent modes of dispute resolution. But what does this mean in practical terms and what challenges and risks does it present?

This meeting, the first of a series on fragile states, set the scene for the series by providing an overview of current debates on state fragility, emerging policy responses and operational priorities.