Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Fragile states: an effective approach to stabilisation

Written by Sarah Collinson


The past two decades has seen ambitious international efforts to ‘fix’ fragile states around the world, with a growing international focus on the internal affairs of such states and the well-being of their citizens.  But there are on-going debates about the precise relationship between achieving security and ensuring long-term development, and around the role of external actors in stabilising fragile states and supporting wider ‘war to peace’ transitions. 

UN peacekeeping – and the UN’s broader engagement in many crises – has expanded over the past decade, and has shifted towards a stabilisation approach. The UN is now expected to implement new structures that bring together political, security, development and humanitarian components, going far beyond traditional peacekeeping. At the same time, donor agencies and key international civilian institutions such as the World Bank, OECD and the UN specialised agencies are increasingly willing to engage in conflict-affected states, playing a role in supporting stabilisation and wider post-conflict recovery.

Most international actors agree that better coordination and coherence in international engagement is the key to transitions in fragile states, particularly in the spheres of development, defence and diplomacy.

But, despite new policy innovations, far more needs to be done to work out how to put this coordination and coherence into practice. Major problems are already apparent around setting appropriate strategies, given the multiplicity of actors and institutions involved and their competing objectives, mandates and interests.

A number of fundamental questions remain unresolved, such as whether counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism should be considered tools of stabilisation, or whether stabilisation is itself a tool of counter-insurgency. Western policies remain torn between narrow definitions of security interests, which might focus action against real or perceived threats such as terrorist networks, and a broader definition focused on wider stabilisation efforts, including peacekeeping, state-building, social welfare and longer-term development.

ODI is hosting an event series on the causes of fragility and the key challenges to peace and state building processes. At the second meeting: 'Security, development and stabilisation', we examined the challenges and complexities of stabilising fragile states, how emerging policy responses translate into practice and what needs to be done to improve peaceful transitions through international engagement. A full report on the meeting can be found here, but the key points can be summarised as follows:

  • Narrowly-focused peace enforcement is no longer the answer. A comprehensive approach is required, encompassing security sector reform (SSR), disarmament, demobilsation and reintegration (DDR), transitional justice, support to state administration, civil society involvement, and political reconciliation.
  • To succeed, new people-centred approaches must meet people’s expectations of immediate improvement in their lives. If they fail, stabilisation efforts will fail.
  • More effective comprehensive engagement also requires the involvement of regional actors, the implementation of much clearer joint international strategies, and levels of resourcing way beyond what is currently on offer.
  • ‘Success’ will also prove elusive without more sophisticated monitoring of success or failure, more sophisticated analysis of the underlying problems to be tackled and of the risks of doing harm, and more sophisticated sequencing and prioritisation of different stabilisation efforts.

While there may be consensus on the longer-term goals to be pursued through stabilisation and associated humanitarian, development and security interventions, the ways and means by which these objectives should be achieved are contested by the many different sub-national, national and international actors. The answer is not only to improve policy coordination, but also to manage the various conflicts that emerge – implicit and explicit – between different policy priorities and approaches.

At the next meeting: 'Securing the peace: peacekeeping and civilian protection', we will discuss the role of peacekeeping missions and what needs to be done to improve the protection of civilians and contribute to stability in countries emerging from conflict.