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Fragile states: next steps for the international community

Written by Marta Foresti


Fragile states are at the top of the policy and political agenda for donors, and at the heart of the UK electoral debates on the future of international development. In its 2009 White Paper, the UK Department for International Development (DFID)  commits to substantially increase bilateral aid to fragile states; in their Green Paper, the Conservatives define conflict as a development issue and peace and stability as pre-requisite of development. Whoever wins the UK elections in May, engaging in fragile states is going to remain high on the development agenda for the foreseeable future.

So, the meeting series on Development, Security and Transitions in Fragile States, organised by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not have been more timely. The series brought together an impressive array of experienced and respected politicians, analysts, policymakers and researchers from a vast range of disciplines and background. The speakers discussed the nature of fragility, relationships between development and security, and the challenges of supporting transitional and state building processes.

Today, ODI will host the final meeting in this series, and launch a report on the key recommendations that have emerged:

  • Avoid simplistic labels – they hide more than they reveal.Theterm ‘fragile states’ has helped focus the attention of international actors, but fragility varies from one context to another, and sweeping labels oversimplify the realities of very different countries.
  • Donors and other actors should focus on understanding the transitions between conflict, lasting peace and state building so that what they do is better tailored and ultimately more effective. This requires more and better political economy analysis which will help in the design of strategies for engagement in fragile situations that are grounded in political realities.
  • ‘Business as usual’ does not work in fragile and conflict-affected situations. Innovative approaches are needed to promote development and humanitarian action, integrating wider security, governance and legitimacy concerns. And at the heart of all of this lie questions of power and politics. Donors need to learn the lessons of what works and what does not and act on them. The key lessons include those on the role and importance of understanding and working with political settlements; engaging with and building on local civilian capacity; and the fact that transitions take time and require a long-term commitment.
  • The international architecture needs to be improved to engage in fragile situations, with more integrated and coherent approaches among different actors. It should be equipped to deal not only with nation states and governments, but also with sub-national and regional players. 
  • The international community itself must be credible if it is to engage effectively in fragile states. Pledging to increasing aid is not enough, and some would say that increased aid is not even a good thing. It is more important to increase the level of capacity and human resources, reducing staff turnover and committing to longer term engagement to ensure that sufficient knowledge of the context is developed and maintained.
  • The UN peace-keeping operations need radical reform. Current cumbersome, bureaucratic and risk-averse peacekeeping missions have little chance of making a meaningful contribution to stabilisation, the protection of civilians or peace implementation processes, and this undermines the role and legitimacy of the UN.
  • Finally, and most importantly, the international community needs to be more realistic about what it can achieve and recognise that transition processes require long timeframes and depend largely on domestic processes and actors, rather than external donors. This requires more efforts to manage expectations, both internally and with local populations.

If these recommendations are not taken seriously, the fragile states agenda risks being simply rhetorical or – even worse – just the latest donor fad.

With thanks to Samir Elhawary and Sara Pantuliano for their contributions