Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

What do fragile states really need?

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


Seth D. Kaplan - Author of Fixing Fragile States, A New Paradigm for Development


David Booth - Research Fellow, ODI
Marta Foresti - Programme  Leader, Politics and Governance, ODI

Seth D. Kaplan, (Author, ‘Fixing Fragile States’):

1.    Kaplan argued that, though well-intentioned, he sees current development efforts as ineffective, focused on ‘technocratic solutions’ rather than on the social and cultural processes of development. The aim of his book is to provide a new framework for state-building in fragile contexts.

2.    Kaplan highlighted two key features which impact on development in fragile states:

·         Formal and informal institutions: effective states require both functioning central state institutions and informal institutions which work to support progress. Development models for fragile states often focus on the former, building formal centralised state institutions, but neglect the interaction with informal institutions. Thus a major problem of fragile states is inappropriate institutions.

·         Social cohesion: effective states require social cohesion to encourage people to invest in the future. For fragile states, which may be highly fragmented, local identities and ‘pockets of social cohesion’ may need to be leveraged.

3.    He argued that the role of the international community was envisaged as that of facilitating effective local processes, rather than externally ‘fixing’ fragile states.

4.    Kaplan therefore set out a more balanced approach for donors. For example, he argued that donors should strengthen central state institutions and foster social cohesion at local and regional levels; Donors can support elections but should also promote mechanisms for uniting diverse societies; Equal attention should be paid to formal and informal institutions; and state support should be envisaged as bottom-up, with a focus on decentralised power.  As part of this the international community, rather than focusing on state-wide reforms, could focus on one key institution (e.g. security, judiciary and rule of law).

5.    In summary, for Kaplan, we can not ignore the social and cultural aspects of development.

David Booth, (ODI):

6.    David Booth welcomed Kaplan’s book, and set out four ways in which it usefully contributed to current development debates.

7.    Firstly, it provides a real theory of fragile states. The fragile states category has gained increasing ground in international debates, but has proved to be a loose and at times ambiguous category. While there may be different views on the validity of his arguments, Kaplan provides definite propositions about the causes of fragility and what can be done differently regarding these states. The nature of the ‘political settlement’ is increasingly recognised as key for fragile states but this is normally an empty box. Kaplan tells us what the box needs to contain (based on social cohesion and the interaction between formal and informal institutions).

8.    Secondly, it challenges prevailing paradigms for development. For example, he challenges dominant paradigms regarding the relationship between democracy and development, with Kaplan defining democracy and accountability in ways that give due attention to identity and social cohesion. He also challenges prevailing views regarding how to build an effective investment climate, by introducing a focus on informal as well as formal institutions to reduce transaction costs.

9.    Thirdly, he reintroduces discussion of ‘ethnicity’ and identity in relation to development. In recent decades, development debates have shied away from discussion of ethnicity, partly because of its links with conflict, and increasing awareness of the role played by social construction in notions of ethnicity and identity. Kaplan’s analysis provides a useful corrective, allowing ethnicity and identity to be taken seriously in thinking about development processes.

10.  Fourthly, his book encourages us to do things differently. His advocacy of a ‘balanced’ approach perhaps obscures this a bit. Donor agencies in reality need to make choices, as ‘not all good things go together’. This book is important, among other things, by bringing some of the inevitable trade-offs into sharper focus.

Key points raised in the discussion included:

11.  A number of comments focused on issues of ethnicity and identity. This included problems with the politicisation of ethnicity, and questions on the tensions between localised ‘pockets of social cohesion’ and national unity. For example, is there a danger that local identities undermine national identity? Kaplan stressed that when he promotes social cohesion, he is not necessarily referring to ethnicity or religious identities. Social cohesion can exist across ethnic groups. What is key is to identify and leverage ‘pockets’ of social cohesion so that they support development. He clarified that he envisages a balance between measures to unify countries (such as a common currency, power-sharing or a rotating presidency, central governments with limited functions) alongside localised social capital and cohesion. Both Kaplan and Booth agreed that ignoring ethnicity was unrealistic; instead we need a better of understanding as to how it can be leveraged to positively support development outcomes.

12.  The time-span involved in ‘fixing’ fragile states was also raised. Processes of state-building can take generations or even centuries. This means donors can often only respond to the symptoms of fragility rather than ‘fixing’ fragile states. How can we reconcile this? Kaplan argued that a major gap remains the lack of overall strategy for fragile states, and the need to change the ‘storyline’ or strategy for the international community.

13.  The challenges of decentralising power were raised. What happens if one region emerges ‘better off’ than another? How to deal with spoilers? Should donors focus on agreements with sub-national entities rather than general budget support? Kaplan highlighted that where some regions developed faster than others, this could lead to a positive dynamic of competition. He supported power-sharing arrangements at the national level and decentralising power, and flagged that this should include economic, political and cultural forms of power.

14.  The lack of lesson learning on behalf of the international community was recognised, in terms of what has worked and what has not worked for fragile states. Kaplan saw experiences in Somalia as an example of the international community failing to learn past lessons on state-building. At the same time, donors have continued to focus on state based interventions, rather than approaches which look at the sub-national or supranational level (despite successes in some contexts).

15.  The role of new actors in development was put forward. The international community is not ‘one unit’ and new actors such as China may potentially shape development models and approaches used. What impact might this have?

16.  It was recognised that building local capacities and supporting local processes was crucial for fragile states, but the role of international and regional specialists in contributing to this was also raised as potentially significant.

Marta Foresti, (ODI):

17.  Marta Foresti, chairing, set out three key points she would take from the discussion:

·         Firstly, the introduction of the concept of ‘inappropriate’ institutions, and the need to link formal and informal institutions.

·         Secondly, the need to bring discussion of ethnicity and identity back into development debates, without overlooking their complexities and potential for politicisation.

·         Thirdly, she was excited by the new framework and new thinking set out by Kaplan, though the discussion highlighted that there is still lots more to think through in terms of implementation and putting this thinking into practice.


Fragile states are now a prominent feature of international development, security and diplomacy landscapes, with an estimated billion people living within their boundaries. What are the underlying causes of fragility, and how can those working with fragile states best support their transformation into more resilient, responsive, and effective states?

At a lunchtime meeting organised by ODI, Seth D. Kaplan presented the findings of his new book ‘Fixing Fragile States: ­ A New Paradigm for Development’. In it, he argues that to support fragile states to develop into effective states, international actors must embrace a new way of thinking about development. Using case studies from Azerbaijan, Bolivia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Somaliland, Syria, and West Africa, he emphasises the importance of tailoring development policies for fragile states to fit local social, economic, and cultural conditions.

Click here to purchase Fixing Fragile States: ­ A New Paradigm for Development from Amazon