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What do fragile states really need?


Fragile states matter, as an ODI public event in London last week confirmed. Internal conflict and instability contaminates and infects neighbouring countries and entire regions, contributing to global security problems. In development terms, a failure to address and meet the challenges presented by fragile states means that, at the current rate of progress, the global Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be met, regardless of how much progress is made in other developing countries. According to the UK Department for International Development (DFID) people living in countries affected by violent conflict, or where governments are chronically weak, are three or four times more likely to suffer from extreme poverty, or die before the age of five, than those living in other developing countries.

Not all fragile states are the same, and state fragility is a fluid and dynamic condition. While some countries face chronic and persistent instability and conflict, others move in and out of instability, which is often concentrated in certain geographic areas or around particular flashpoint/trigger events (e.g. elections in Kenya in December 2007). While there are different types, causes and drivers of fragility that shape the possible solutions, fragile states do have some common characteristics. These include: weak institutions and governance systems; lack of legitimate and credible government; lack of state capacity and lack of effective and inclusive political processes. In other words, fragile states are those that are unable and/or unwilling to respond to the demands of citizens and meet their basic needs.

When it comes to the role of development actors, including donors, the complex nature of state fragility means that no single approach or paradigm will work. In fact, many commentators have reflected on the need for new thinking when it comes to development approaches in fragile states – we cannot simply do ‘more’ or ‘better’ development. A new and different approach is called for.

At the heart of a new approach must be a greater focus on state-building:  a process to strengthen or create state institutions where these have been eroded or are missing. This must go hand in hand with peace building and other approaches concerned more directly with conflict and security issues, to build durable peace and prevent the recurrence of violence.

State-building in fragile states is a deeply political endeavour. To be successful it cannot rely on technocratic approaches or focus on state institutions alone, as the ultimate aim is to ensure that the state is accountable and responsive to its citizens. The legitimacy of the state is key, and this depends on the state’s ability and willingness to meet the rights and needs of its citizens, from basic service delivery through to representative political processes. Having rights and, in theory, the ability to claim them is not, however, enough, if the state lacks the capacity, incentives or political will to fulfil its obligations in practice. Concrete commitments and incentives for accountability, check and balances and oversight mechanisms are all needed to make rights ‘real’ and ensure that citizens can hold the state accountable in a meaningful way.  

Recent ODI research  has highlighted the fact that donors and other external actors do not focus enough support on concrete accountability systems and mechanism. These domestic accountability systems include judicial oversight institutions and ombudsmen, which constitute the basis for rule of law; multi-stakeholder public finance and budget monitoring bodies that strengthen fiscal accountability; and parliamentary oversight and elections which are key aspects of political accountability.

State building, particularly in fragile states, can be a messy process and the existence of informal norms and rules that shape and influence formal institutions only adds to the complexity. Understanding the interface between the formal and informal rules of the game is, therefore, crucial to build meaningful and functioning institutions. As Seth Kaplan argued in his book Fixing Fragile States (purchase online at Amazon), and re-stated at our meeting last week, fragile states are blighted by inappropriate formal institutions that have not factored informal norms and networks into their formation. As a result, they are not linked to their own citizens or their socio-political, ethno-linguistic, geographical and economic conditions. This creates the basis for exclusion and discrimination in access to political and financial opportunities in the country – key drivers and causes of instability.

The way forward is to acknowledge the complex nature of the problems in fragile states and implement a multi-dimensional approach. Solutions should take advantage of, and strengthen, the linkages between development, security and diplomatic efforts, and exploit the expanding parameters and the blurring distinctions between the peace- and state-building agendas. For example, public sector reforms will require a focus on political processes, while strengthening the rule of law requires that equal attention is paid to security sector reform as well as judicial reform.

Tailored and targeted solutions that are relevant, realistic and context specific will have the best chances of success. This should be a dynamic approach that allows the identification of suitable entry points and champions for state building processes and institutional reform, while highlighting potential blockages and challenges. In addition, context specific solutions must be driven and owned domestically and locally, with greater effort made to incorporate local identities and capacities. As Kaplan asserts, ‘fostering self-sustaining, locally driven governing systems’ is essential for reorienting fragile states back onto a developmental path.

With thanks to Marta Foresti and Pilar Domingo of ODI for their comments. Other comments on this ongoing debate are welcome.