What constitutes a fragile state and how can the concept be operationalised for development policy? This working paper from the Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security, and Ethnicity proposes a three-pronged definition of fragility: states may be fragile because they lack authority, fail to provide services or lack legitimacy. Reversing these interrelated dimensions of fragility requires a tailored, comprehensive and long-term approach based on careful contextual analysis.
Existing definitions of what constitutes a ‘fragile state’ vary from donor to donor. A new, encompassing definition is needed that incorporates the breadth of opinion and allows for adequate differentiation among states, most notably between those that are failing and those at risk of failing. Three key dimensions of fragility should be included:
- Authority failures: where the state cannot or does not protect its citizens from violence and/or criminality
- Service failures: where the state cannot or does not provide access to basic services such as health care, education, and infrastructure
- Legitimacy failures: where the state lacks public support or is only supported by a small minority or interest group within the country
These failures can appear independently or in combination and can be measured to create indices of fragile states. Adopting this three-pronged approach to defining state fragility links this area of research with other branches of development activity, including poverty reduction and the promotion of human rights. Indeed, there is significant evidence to suggest broad correlation and causation between policy failures on these issues and state fragility.
A crucial problem in addressing state fragility is that, by definition, the state suffers from weaknesses in governance and therefore cannot correct its deficiencies alone. There is also the possibility that state fragility is the direct result of government activity. Moreover, in cases where a state is failing in more than one dimension, the question of prioritisation for donors comes to the fore. In this case, an assessment based on the clearly differentiated dimensions of state fragility can help in designing appropriate interventions.
Such an assessment will also reveal contextual factors that can help or hinder efforts to reduce state fragility. Understanding these factors will guide donors in their design of policy interventions, which may need to involve trade-offs:
- Helpful factors are inclusive democratic governance, long-term economic planning and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.
- Hindering factors are entrenched political interests, military and police autonomy, corruption and low capacity to fulfil agreed solutions.
- A careful diagnosis of the state is critical to any intervention; ‘one size fits all’ strategies can be useless or damaging if misapplied.
- Long-term commitment is essential to building effective states. Donors must support long-term strategies and provide incentives for inclusive and constructive policies to be continued beyond the scope of donor involvement.