How can the concept of fragile states be operationalised for development policy? This paper offers a working definition of fragile states as states that are failing, or at high risk of failing, in their: 1) authority to protect citizens, 2) comprehensive provision of basic services, or 3) governance legitimacy. To design appropriately differentiated policies, policymakers must first identify the dimension(s) of fragility in a country and then the main causes of the failures in each dimension.
Currently, there are many definitions of fragility and some arbitrariness in classification. The definition suggested in this paper encompasses all other donor definitions and helps in identifying the sources of fragility. In relation to other approaches to development, this understanding of fragility is closest to (although not synonymous with) a human rights approach.
Defining ‘failure’ in state authority, service delivery and legitimacy is difficult, particularly with respect to service entitlements. Service deficiencies are classified as state failure if: service coverage is one standard deviation below the average performance for countries of similar income levels; or if delivery involves sharp horizontal inequalities and social exclusion.
Empirical application of the definition reveals that many states are fragile in one or two of the dimensions, but – despite causal connections between them – few in all three. It identifies a set of countries much larger than the OECD’s list of fragile states, highlighting that some countries omitted by conventional classifications may need ‘special’ policies if a worsening situation is to be avoided.
- There are particularly strong connections between authority failures associated with violent conflict and both service and legitimacy failures.
- There is not an invariable connection between failure in legitimacy and failure in authority. Evidence does not support the conclusion, for example, that the promotion of democracy (to increase state legitimacy) would also enhance authority by reducing the likelihood of conflict.
- As the connections are not invariable, there is hope that policy can prevent fragility from becoming a trap that makes failure on all fronts inevitable.
- While there are significant relationships between the three dimensions of failure, the correlations are quite low. This indicates that it is important to analyse and devise policies towards each.
How should the three dimensions be prioritised? In the short-term, it is essential to restore state authority (and possibly to provide emergency access to basic services). To sustain authority, however, service entitlements must soon be prioritised. As legitimacy requires authority, legitimacy is likely to be achievable only gradually. Donors can address fragility by working with governments who are favourable to inclusive policies and by promoting enabling conditions such as inclusive governance and long-term economic planning:
- If the government is resolutely exclusionary, the international community is limited in what it can do. Where the government is not unfavourable to inclusive policies, however, donors can support governments in raising revenue, supplement local resources with their own, and provide technical assistance.
- Establishing an inclusive government is arguably the most important element in corrective policies for fragile states. It is important to remember that inclusive political processes are not an automatic consequence of democracy but need to be added as an explicit requirement.
- Rectification of economic inequalities may require a gradual and long-term strategy to ensure that positive action in favour of excluded groups does not lead to excessive resentment among the privileged groups.
- Truth and reconciliation commissions, where properly executed, can have a stabilising influence on fragile states and can map the dynamics of social exclusion that drove the conflict.
- Conditions hindering corrective policies include: entrenched elite interests; a strong, autonomous military; corruption (which can skew the implementation of ethnically neutral aid programmes, for example); low capacity to fulfil agreed solutions; and conflicts with prevailing views among donors of appropriate economic policies – for example, policies such as employment creation schemes may be needed, but conflict with the approach of the international financial institutions.