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State Building and Fragile States

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30


Verena Fritz, Research Fellow, ODI

Diana Cammack, Research Fellow, ODI


Lorenzo Cotula, Researcher, Drylands Programme, IIED and Andrew Rosser, Research Fellow, IDS


Simon Maxwell, Director, ODI

Verena Fritz started her presentation by explaining that states matter because institutions matter, although in developed countries, national states are becoming less important as both supra- and sub- national level institutions emerge and take on state tasks. In the developing world however, such alternative institutions are 'thin' and therefore states matter much more. Aid institutions are the main set of alternative institutions in this context. Actual state capacity in the developing world ranges from collapsed (e.g. Somalia) to mixed (e.g. Ghana) to overpowering (e.g. North Korea).

Fritz explained the major successes and failures of, and differing fads within, state-led development from the 1950s to the present.

Describing the relationship between states and the governance agenda, she outlined the main characteristics of the state according to each of the three main theories: the Developmental State; Good Governance; and 'Good Enough' Governance.

She then went on to describe how the governance agenda has effected changes in evolving political economies - there are both economic and political dimensions to this process.

In describing states and the current aid system, she stated that aid is effective where states are effective, but that the current aid system is not well designed to aid state effectiveness and a large share of aid goes to building state capacity. This is illustrated well by the cases of China and Botswana in the period 1996-2004. The Paris diagnosis of why aid has not been effective blames the fragmented nature of aid, the lack of coordinated capacity building, and the lack of ownership (and encouragement of ownership) by donors.

But Fritz explained that this analysis does not address the underlying political, economic and social structures of states. Furthermore, the tendency of aid is to support the status quo, even where the commitment of governments to development is waning. One school of thought (Ostrom et al) believes that aid results in a reduced domestic development effort. It should also be remembered that aid is not the only, or even the strongest influence on state capacity in developing countries.

In exploring how to support state development more effectively, Fritz asserted that:

  • ownership is not an easy answer - it is important to know the political economy and to analyse politics seriously, acting on this knowledge carefully

  • links between foreign and development policies should be strengthened - foreign policy should have long-term development as a key goal and development policy should be informed by foreign policy and diplomatic know-how

  • capacity development and public administration reform should be reshaped

  • more should be invested in learning about what works (and what doesn't) in statecraft and 'good enough' governance

  • aid incentives should continue to be re-thought.

Diana Cammack
Diana Cammack started by stating that the 'fragile states' agenda was not a single agenda. Rather, it was a combination of various streams of thinking which had resulted in the conjoining of governance and peace and security.

She stated that there were several definitions of 'fragility'. These were to do with:

  • state functionality - i.e. the capacity or will of states

  • state outputs - i.e. insecurity, poverty, crime, refugees, and other threats to global security

  • states which national donors don't get on with - i.e. Zimbabwe and Myanmar.

Thus the term 'fragile state' has almost no meaning. Such a broad definition necessarily invokes a very broad agenda.

She then went on to describe four different strands of work currently on-going, both within and outside ODI, with regard to fragile states. These were:

  1. Service delivery. This work involves looking at how to deliver services in a fragile state situation. Its findings assert that fragility and service delivery are linked and that the national context is key. Services can deliver significant improvements in both fragility and stability. Programmes should take account of context and have both short and long term goals.

  2. Development and governance. The findings of this work assert that issues relating to marginalisation and underdevelopment are key to explaining the conflict and current state of tension in the E.Sudan region. It recommends that the process of PRS development should facilitate reconciliation and participation.

  3. Donor relations. This work asserts that where government systems are absent or weak, donors should still maintain a coherent approach to aid delivery. It advocates 'shadow systems' alignment to ensure the most compatible delivery of aid with future systems development and to avoid undermining peacebuilding processes.

  4. New fragile states programme development. This programme asserts that work on fragile states cannot be carried out successfully without an awareness of the causes of conflict. It advocates political economy studies and politically astute planning. It believes that state capacity needs to be rebuilt to bring peace and development. Donors should therefore have a joined-up, but flexible approach and should be continually monitoring the context in which their interventions are taking place.

Andrew Rosser
Andrew Rosser started by stating that the issues raised by the two previous speakers were very important, and that he agreed that more attention should be devoted to this area in general. Both speakers spoke of a need for a more politicised understanding of states and that donors should base their strategies on the political and economic context.

Another main concern when examining the process of state building however is the issue of power. Political and economic analysis is valuable but it should be more specific than as outlined by the two previous speakers, and more careful about the kinds of politics to which it refers.

There are two main approaches to the field of comparative politics:

  1. An approach which believes in the fundamental centrality of institutions - i.e. patrimonialism (as outlined by the two previous speakers above)

  2. An approach which emphasizes power, interests and coalitions.

In describing the second approach, Rosser asserted that state-building is not just about institutions and that institutions are imbued with power via coalition-building, they aren't inherently born with power. Coalition-building is thus vitally important in the process of state-building. In addition, the current donor approach is essentially based on the simple institutional approach described in number 1 above. This involves firstly the construction of state apparatus, followed by attempts to build institutional capacity. With this approach, there is little attention on power/coalition-building. This approach could be compared to an architect's plan/model of how a state should look, without a necessary builder's plan describing how to build/stitch it together.

Lorenzo Cotula
Lorenzo Cotula started by stating his thoughts were similar to those presented by Andrew Rosser. He stated that both the social and political contexts of state-building were crucial to the process. Also, that states are weak for different reasons and in different ways, for example in promoting change and/or distributing resources. An example of this is Burkina Faso where the privatisation of land did not take account of what was happening on the ground, where very delicate balances were in play.

It is therefore important to provide support not only to institutions, but also to civil society, which can then hold the government to account. It is also necessary to have reform agendas which build on what is already happening on the ground, local customs/practices, etc. These are very complex processes which have been established over time.

Cotula then examined decentralisation, stating that this had long formed part of the state-building agenda. In the case of Mali (see the 'Making Decentralisation Work' IIED report, which is ranked second to last in the Human Development Index (HDI), the decentralisation process has been hailed as particularly promising. Decentralisation may not always be the answer but it does provide a useful entry point for bringing in changes. There are several challenges with this approach however:

  • The lack of human, economic and natural resources. Devolving power and responsibility will not be effective if resources are not devolved too.

  • The challenge of how to promote local democracy. There is an assumption that if power is devolved, democracy will follow but this is not always the case, and checks and balances are still required at the local level.

  • Maintaining the link between the local and the national. Support from the centre is still required at the local level so that decentralisation can be made to work in practice.

Thus, both central and local government institutions are important in state-building, but it is also important to build on local practices to help achieve an effective central government.

Points and questions raised by the audience included:

  • What is the real meaning of 'effectiveness'? Two views on how to improve the 'effectiveness' of states have been presented above - that knowing the politics is imperative; and the tendency amongst donors to ignore state effectiveness in order to reach targets like the MDGs, and deliver for certain constituencies.

  • Do donors have a role at all? They haven't been very successful in the past so if not them, who are/should be the drivers?

  • Donors are expected to know the causes of both conflict and under-development - is this likely?

  • The concept of 'failed states' or of 're-building states' in Africa is futile as there have never been 'states' in the modern sense in Africa for historical reasons.

  • Donors are often reluctant to engage in the politics of states and it is very difficult, or impossible for them to do political economic analysis at this level.

  • Local governments often only think about governance issues in order to obtain funds.

The panel offered the following comments in response:

  • Verena Fritz stated that the purpose of states was questionable but what was the alternative?

  • Regarding who should take action, she described two factors: first, donors are not well adapted and understand very little about states so this process was bound to be messy; second, donors should not take action on their own, Northern governments also need to think what they want to achieve.

  • Regarding whether it is possible to know enough to intervene, and to know at least whether one is doing no harm, she stated that yes, this was possible, but context-dependent. Drivers of change operate at the macro-level and should be examined in a background study. There are also specific political risks operating at the both the micro- and meso- levels which traditionally haven't been examined.

  • Regarding interests and coalition-building, Fritz stated that these are not excluded from her analysis. The creation of institutions was also dependent on interests. Donors often use conditionality and technical assistance which act to build facades rather than real institutions. These are even more difficult to build into a functioning state. This is one problem with the good governance agenda.

  • Diana Cammack stated that she was sceptical of donors and what they could and couldn't do in fragile states contexts. She stated that trying to improve the delivery of aid was a good place to start however.

  • On drivers of change, she stated that these were currently being re-worked at DFID in order to bring them down to the country-, sector- and institution- levels.

  • She explained that another factor to consider is the re-emergence of tribal politics in some countries. Politicians at the local level often use tribal arguments to gain power. In Uganda for example, Museveni has recently recognised 80 new districts as a re-election strategy, whilst at the same time centralising many other institutions.

  • Cammack stated that she was also sceptical of the role of civil society in certain contexts. There is often an idealistic vision of it and what it can achieve, but empowering civil society might not always be the best way.

  • Andrew Rosser, in response to the role donors can play, stated that the 'tap' will not be turned off, so the key question instead should be what strategies can be developed in order to make donors work more effectively.

  • With regard to understanding the causes of conflict, he agreed that political analysis was key.

  • Lorenzo Cotula stated, with regard to the role of donors, that politics is not just about Parliaments and elections. Another key issue in many developing states, for example, is land tenure, which has crucial implications for rural dwellers. The more powerful actors in these societies can manipulate the process if left. How best to take into account these power relations is a key question for donors.

  • On the legitimacy of civil society, Cotula stated that though it doesn't always function as it should, there has been some progress recently which should be supported with training. This will make a difference eventually.


This was the fifth meeting in the joint IDS, IIED and ODI 'Development Horizons' series. Verena Fritz and Diana Cammack made presentations, Lorenzo Cotula from IIED and Andrew Rosser from IDS acted as discussants and Simon Maxwell, Director of ODI, chaired.