Fragile States: Critical Questions

What states do, or do not do, matters for development and the wellbeing of their citizens. States have the responsibility to protect their citizens and to progressively promote their material and non-material welfare. Many states cannot or will not live up to this responsibility.

States like these have been labelled ‘fragile’ states, suggesting that the essence of statehood, such as the provision of leadership, public services and infrastructure, safety and security and justice are close to breaking point.

Kate Holt / IRIN: Zimbabwe IDPsWhen it breaks, states fail. For instance, at the time of writing ‘Children have been killed by beating, sniper fire and shelling from Government’ in Syria; while in Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s government (whose Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s have been classified as genocide by Genocide Watch) has been preying on its own citizens while concluding a ‘defence’ co-operation agreement with Iran.

There are unfortunately many more fragile and failed states than Syria and Zimbabwe. The OECD identifies 45 fragile states. These include Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Iraq – countries that like Syria and Zimbabwe are characterized by conflict, civil strife, poverty, and hunger. These are four countries receiving the most foreign aid in the world – almost US$ 18 billion in 2010.

The OECD list also includes small island states such as the Solomon Islands and Kiribati – who receive little aid, have not fortunately seen much mass conflict, but nevertheless struggle to protect their citizens from external threats.

The government of Kiribati is reportedly considering purchasing 20 square kilometers of land on the nearby island of Fiji (another fragile state where a military government is in charge) to relocate its 113,000 citizens in light of climate-induced sea-level rise.

In another fragile small island state, Haiti, only 5 per cent of the rubble from the January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people has been cleared after one year; more than a million people are still homeless, and thousands have died from cholera.

A positive trend in the development discourse over the past decade has been the recognition that state fragility and state failure is at the heart of many global development dilemmas – including conflict, poverty, terrorism, crime, food insecurity, adaptation to climate change and vulnerability in the face of natural hazards.

The scholarly debate on fragile states has similarly progressed – at the beginning of the 2000s the term was hardly known outside security circles – today many hundreds of documents are available. Many donors are now prioritizing fragile states – for instance the Dutch government reduced its development partnership countries from over 30 to 15, the latter consisting almost exclusively of fragile states – and increasing efforts to harmonize aid to these states.

Furthermore, in November 2011 a group of 19 fragile states (the g7+) and partner countries announced a ‘new deal’ to further state-building and peace-building. In light of the challenges that fragile states pose for global development the United Nations University (UNU-WIDER) launched in 2006 a project on Fragility and Development that I co-directed.

Naude / Fragile States

This project has resulted in a number of scholarly outputs – the most recent a book I co-edited with Amelia Santos-Paulino and Mark McGillivray entitled ‘Fragile States: Causes Costs and Responses’ (published by Oxford University Press, Aug. 2011).  The book was formally launched at a function at the University of Oxford on 19 March 2012.

In my presentation (watch it here), I summarized the essence of the book: (i) the identification – and prediction – of fragile states are important (for instance the OECD did not include Egypt or Syria in its 2011 list of fragile states); (ii) state fragility is a cause but also a consequence of conflict, and it is characterized by a loss of authority, legitimacy and/or capacity of a state; (iii) fragile states cast significant external costs on their neighbours and the rest of the world, often to the extent that outside intervention is required – not only in ending conflict but also in making peace agreements stick; (iv) in addition to direct international intervention, aid is required in fragile states and can make a difference – but the right aid modalities are important, and more is needed to be learned and done in terms of private sector development in fragile states.

Yet despite the forward step granting fragile states their due attention, one may ask whether or not two steps have been taken backward over the same period – especially since the 2008 global financial crisis? Consider for instance that the share of people living in extreme poverty in fragile states doubled from 20 to 40 per cent between 2005 and 2010.

The number of fragile states has not noticeably shrunk – there were UN peacekeepers in the DRC in the 1960s, they are still there. The World Bank asks in its 2011 World Development Report ‘How is it that almost a decade after renewed international engagement with Afghanistan the prospects of peace seem distant?’ Despite economic growth between 2001 and 2008, and a commodity boom that saw historically high growth rates in Africa and other developing countries, many states remain fragile – even some middle income states.

The global financial crisis, the recession in the USA and some European countries, and the ‘Arab Spring’ has turned the attention away from Sub-Saharan Africa, the location of most fragile states. There, crises in Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Kenya, Senegal, Central African Republic, Madagascar and most recently Mali, have flared up. The practical failure to make progress against fragile states, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, may be seen as a step backward.Aubrey Graham / IRIN: IDP camp in DRC

Another setback is the position adopted recently by some BRIC countries – particularly Russia and China – complicating adherence to the UN’s responsibility to protect (R2P) principle. For example these countries vetoed a UN Security Resolution against Syria on 4 February 2012.

China remains one of the staunchest supporters of the Mugabe regime, supplying it with weapons (including a recent shipment of 21,000 handcuffs) and cash; and Russia remains one of the world’s major arms exporters. If the international community is to make progress in overcoming state fragility in the near future, getting the all the BRICS on board, and dealing with their own fragilities, much of which stems from economic challenges, may be essential.

In an earlier blog I wrote that ‘while the international community may be slow to assist the people of Syria due to the obstructive behaviour of China and Russia, international intervention was important in 2011 to protect civilians in fragile states including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Somalia,  Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire’.

At the Oxford book launch of ‘Fragile States’, Paul Collier discussed the lessons from the international interventions in 2011 in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya. One lesson is that a combination of financial pressure and moderate military resistance can topple a regime, even one with a strong army, quite quickly. Economics can unlock a political mess.

In the case of Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo, refusing to accept defeat in his country’s 2010 presidential elections, a financial embargo meant for his army that they may not get paid. As Paul Collier pointed out, Gbagbo’s opponent Alassane Ouattara is after all an economist, and as a former deputy head of the IMF was very aware of how constricting financial sanctions could be. He was right – the Gbagbo army consequently refused to put up strong resistance; in April 2011 Gbagbo was captured. He now faces four charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

A broadly similar pattern repeated itself in Libya. In both cases the fact that the UN Security Council was not blocked by China or Russia or any other nation (the Security Council was quick to recognize Ouattara as winner of the presidential elections in December 2010) may have been important.

Will the pattern repeat itself in the case of Syria or in other countries where dictatorial regimes fail in their responsibility to protect? Can financial and military pressures be effectively applied without support or consent from China and Russia? And can economic conditions be created in China and Russia, both elite-dominated societies, so that the R2P principle is perhaps not seen as a threat to them?

Along with the need to create jobs and develop the private sector in fragile states, these are among the critical questions facing the international community.

Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance

  1. Pingback: Hybrid Political Orders and Fragile States: Lessons from Lebanon | | UNU-MERIT's BLOGUNU-MERIT's BLOG

  2. Pingback: Do We All Now Live in Fragile States?

  3. Pingback: Do We All Now Live in Fragile States? | | UNU-MERIT's BLOGUNU-MERIT's BLOG

  4. Pingback: Pink Slippers and Platinum: Governance Failure and the Decline of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in South AfricaTalkin'business

  5. Pingback: Pink Slippers and Platinum: Governance Failure and the Decline of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in South Africa | | UNU-MERIT's BLOGUNU-MERIT's BLOG

  6. Amsale

    I would love to use your picture of the three little kids in this blog. Can we have permission to use it in a report and we will give credit for it. Please send me an email and let me know if we can have a high resolution of the picture ( Many Thanks.

    • Howard Hudson

      Hello, thanks for getting in touch. We took this from the UN photo database. You’ll need to go there for a hi-res version and also check the terms of use: