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Fixing Fragile States: a new paradigm for development?

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal


How to engage more effectively in fragile states is now a key concern in the international development community, and several new books outline different diagnoses and recommendations. Seth Kaplan presented his book: Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development, at a recent ODI public event, with ODI’s David Booth as the discussant.

Kaplan brings a fresh, if not entirely new, perspective to the discussion on fragile states that has, to a large extent, been missing in international development debates. He offers a critique of the existing aid paradigm in fragile states, and proposes an alternative strategy to bring security and development to such settings.

In essence, there are two root causes of fragility:

  • A lack of social cohesion; and
  • A lack of a shared, productive set of productive institutions, both formal and informal.

According to Kaplan, the combination of these two factors impinges on the capacity of a society to work together towards shared goals, and on the state’s ability to create an effective governance system.

This is a powerful definition of fragility, with politics and state-society relations at its core, and moves away from a technocratic understanding by emphasising the importance of socio-cultural factors and informal institutions.

Yet, the way Kaplan perceives social cohesion (closely linked to social capital and trust) can be problematic. His book adopts a view of social cohesion that hinges, above all, on ethnic homogeneity. His argument seems to be that if a society or state is divided along ethnic lines, it is more difficult to generate a sense of social cohesion and to promote development. He also seems to view identity as primordial or given. He argues, for example, that in the former Yugoslavia, and in Iraq, dormant ‘allegiances a millennium in the making’ were reawakened in the face of instability and the uncertainty of rapid change, ‘descend[ing] into ferocious civil conflict’ (p. 34).

His argument raises two important issues:

  • First and foremost is the fact that identity is not necessarily an historical ‘given’. It can also be constructed and is, therefore, subject to considerable politicisation and manipulation. So it is essential to ask what role the state and élites (political, social, economic) play in shaping identities and using them for political purposes. There is no question that ethnicity matters, and international actors cannot afford to ignore the kinds of bonds and solidarity networks that stem from these group identities. But identity does not exist in isolation. It is always related to other processes (including the state and specific state policies) that give it meaning and/or salience. And while ethnicity may well be harnessed to promote more effective state-building and foster accountability, history is littered with examples of the use of ethnicity in negative ways.
  • The second question is whether it is possible to build social cohesion along lines that transcend ethnicity and/or that support multiple identities. This approach may well be necessary in fragile states to avoid the hardening of tensions along ethnic lines and to promote reconciliation across different groups. This seems to be an essential ingredient for the cooperation in society – one of the key points emphasised by Kaplan. However, it may counteract his suggestion that institutions should be designed around identity groups – the basis upon which apartheid South Africa was founded. As an official state policy it was remarkably successful in promoting social cohesion and unity within the white population at the expense of other groups.

Kaplan’s critique of the kinds of donor approaches that have been adopted in relation to fragile states is solid and welcome, if not entirely new.

Kaplan’s book does not recognise that the developments in donor thinking over the past few years reflect their awareness of the shortcomings of their own interventions fragile states – a recognition that is in line with his arguments. There is, for example, a growing recognition that state-building is an inherently political process driven from within, and that donors cannot approach state-building from the outside. For example, in his recent speech, Douglas Alexander argued that donors must ‘engage more directly and unashamedly with political institutions to deliver inclusive political settlements’. State-society relations have also being placed at the centre of state-building processes, at least at the conceptual level. In addition, as stated in the OECD/DAC Principles on Good International Engagement in Fragile States and Situations, there has been an explicit recognition that engagement in fragile states needs to start with the domestic context and build on what is already there.

However, donor awareness and conceptual understanding has evolved much faster than actual practice. International development agencies find it a challenge to shape their operations on the ground around what they have learned at the conceptual level.

Donor practice continues to rely on technocratic fixes focused on formal institutions. It is hard for donors to develop the kind of sophisticated knowledge that is required at national, but especially at sub-national/local level, to understand how informal institutions work and how they can be harnessed to promote responsive state-building and development more broadly. This is the central question addressed by the Africa Power and Politics Programme led by ODI.

As Kaplan notes, strengthening the legitimacy of the state over the long term remains another daunting challenge. However, some of his recommendations may not necessarily help in this endeavour. He talks, for example, of ‘[c]ontracting … multinationals to manage security around mineral sites, provide public services to local population, build/manage infrastructure, and construct/manage export-processing zones.’ This is a sound strategy to meet basic needs in the short term, but it may also undermine the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the population in the longer term.

Finally, it is essential to keep in mind that state-building is a complex process filled with internal tensions and contradictions. As a result, difficult choices between different and compelling priorities need to be made. However, Kaplan’s suggestions for a new aid paradigm in fragile states seem to assume that all good things can be pursued simultaneously. He calls, for example, for ‘empower[ing] cohesive communities while strengthening the state’s central organs’ and ‘bridg[ing] ethnic and religious divides while introducing democracy’. These are sensible and important aims. The devil, of course, remains in the details of how these suggestions can be translated into actual practice. Complex dilemmas and trade-offs between each of these will need to be addressed.