Chapter 1 - Understanding fragile states

Chapter 1 - Understanding fragile states

 

Definitions and typologies of fragile states

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This page introduces the range of terms used to describe and typologise ‘fragile states’, introducing critical perspectives on their evolution and usage.


Definitions of fragile states and contexts

Whilst there is no internationally-agreed definition of the term ‘fragile states’, or ‘fragility’, most development agencies define it principally as a fundamental failure of the state to perform functions necessary to meet citizens’ basic needs and expectations. Fragile states are commonly described as incapable of assuring basic security, maintaining rule of law and justice, or providing basic services and economic opportunities for their citizens. Accordingly, the OECD DAC recently characterised fragile states as: 'unable to meet [their] population’s expectations or manage changes in expectations and capacity through the political process' (OECD, 2008).

DFID similarly defines fragile states as: ‘those where the government cannot or will not deliver core functions to the majority of its people, including the poor’ (DFID, 2005).

Increasingly, weak state legitimacy is understood to be a key defining characteristic of fragility. States that fail to meet basic needs and to keep societal expectations and state capacity in equilibrium can also fail to establish reciprocal state-society relations or create a binding social contract. The Centre for Research on Inequality and Social Exclusion, for example, defines fragile states as ‘failing, or at risk of failing, with respect to authority, comprehensive service entitlements or legitimacy’ (CRISE 2009).

There has been much criticism of the emphasis some development agencies have placed on state ‘will’ to perform certain functions, on the grounds that ‘will’ is a normative concept. Some alternative, non-normative definitions of fragility focus instead on the volatility of state institutions, for example describing fragility as ‘institutional instability undermining the predictability, transparency and accountability of public decision-making processes and the provision of security and social services to the population’ (Andersen and Engberg-Pedersen, 2008). The Crisis States Research Centre similarly defines a fragile state as one that is significantly susceptible to crisis in one or more of its sub-systems and particularly vulnerable to internal and external shocks and domestic and international conflicts (2007).

It is increasingly common for development agencies to conceptualize fragility in relation to its opposite – resilience. Resilient states are able to maintain order and stability, keep societal expectations and capacity in equilibrium, and survive and ameliorate the negative effects of external and internal shocks.

Evolution of the term: From ‘fragile states’ to situations of fragility

The fragile states terminology has been much maligned as stigmatising and analytically imprecise. Many see the term ‘fragile’ as a pejorative and inherently political label reflecting Weberian ideals of how a 'successful' state should function. At the empirical level, it arguably does not adequately differentiate between the unique economic and socio-political dimensions of states. Others contend that in practice, state fragility is not an ‘either/or‘ condition, but varies along a continuum of performance, as well as across areas of state function and capacity.

In recognition of the empirical and normative shortcomings of the term ‘fragile states’, development agencies are now increasingly favouring the much broader terminology of ‘fragility’ or ‘situations of fragility’. These terms are also seen to better capture the fact that fragility is not exclusively determined by the nature and boundaries of states – there is a need to look beyond the state to the state of society in both assessing and addressing fragility.

Stewart, F. and Brown, G., 2010, 'Fragile States: CRISE Overview 3', Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE), Oxford
This paper aims to define the concept of ‘fragile states’ and make it operational for development policy. Fragility is defined as describing a country that is failing or at high risk of failing in three dimensions: (i) authority failures: the state lacks the authority to protect its citizens from violence of various kinds; (ii) service failures: the state fails to ensure that all citizens have access to basic services; (iii) legitimacy failures: the state lacks legitimacy, enjoys only limited support among the people, and is typically not democratic. By identifying the countries at risk as well as those that are actually failing, the authors hope this approach can provide warning of potential problems.
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Stepputat, F and Engberg-Pedersen, L., 2008, ‘Fragile States: Definitions, Measurements and Processes’, in Fragile Situations: Background Papers, Danish Institute for International Studies, DIIS, Copenhagen
How far is it possible to define and measure fragile states, and to distinguish between different types and processes of state fragility? This paper argues that the debate on fragility suffers from three interlinked, mistaken assumptions. These are that: i) different fragile situations share sufficient characteristics to allow for similar types of support; ii) social change can be engineered through careful planning; and iii) that a Weberian conceptualisation of the state is a relevant goal in all fragile situations. In order to work effectively with fragile states, however, there can be no shortcut to detailed analysis of the historical evolution and specific characteristics of individual situations.
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Strong/weak state terminology

Whilst the concept of fragile states is relatively new to the international agenda, there has been long-standing concern with understanding state failure in academic research. A range of terminology has emerged which characterises the relative strength or weakness of states on a continuum; from ‘weak’ and ‘fragile’ states at one end, to ‘failed’ and ‘collapsed’ states at the other. The meaning of all these terms is contested, many of them are seen to embed inherent contradictions, and in practice the terminology is inconsistently applied. Nevertheless, they can be broadly defined as follows:

  • Weak states: Weak states are poor states suffering from significant "gaps" in security, performance and legitimacy (Brookings Institution). They lack control over certain areas of their territory, and therefore (critically from an international security perspective) the capacity to combat internal threats of terrorism, or insurgency. But given that so-called ‘weak states’ may still be capable of repression, or may exhibit authoritarian tendencies, some see this term as inherently contradictory and misleading. Furthermore, even in high capacity, well-functioning states, there can be peripheral regions where the state is weak and challenged by local actors.
  • Failing states: This term is often used to describe states that are substantially failing their citizens and/or are failing to achieve economic growth. But it is contentious because it is confusingly applied both to states that are failing and those at risk of failing, and it is criticised for masking the more nuanced reality that states can be failing in some respects but not others.
  • Failed states: A failed state is marked by the collapse of central government authority to impose order, resulting in loss of physical control of territory, and/or the monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Crucially, it can no longer reproduce the conditions for its own existence (Crisis States, 2007).
  • Collapsed states: Collapsed and failed states are often used interchangeably to convey a situation where the state has entirely ceased to function (Crisis States, 2007).

Crisis States Research Centre, 2007, ‘Crisis, Fragile and Failed States: Definitions used by the Crisis States Research Centre’, CSRC, London School of Economics (LSE), London
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Rotberg, R., 2004, ‘The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States’, in When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, Princeton University Press
What is a failed state? How can a failed state be distinguished from a collapsed state? This chapter argues that a state’s success or failure can be assessed by looking at how effectively it delivers crucial political goods.
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Critiques of strong/weak terminology

Strong/weak state terminology is often criticised for being too broad-brush, for implying that all states move along set trajectories, for representing an ‘end state’ when in reality states can recover from failure and collapse, and for offering no way of theorising about competing (informal) systems of governance.

Recently, there has been growing realisation that characterising ‘failed’ or ‘collapsed’ states as anarchic situations completely absent of order and systems of governance is misleading: A growing body of research has demonstrated how alternative (informal) forms of order, security and governance emerge and sustain themselves in the absence of a formal state.

Zartman, W., 1995, 'Introduction: Posing the Problem of State Collapse' in Collapsed States: the Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority, Boulder, London, UK
What separates state collapse from conflicts and changes that occur without the state being destroyed? This chapter analyses examples of state collapse in African countries and identifies five signposts of proximity to state collapse. Contemporary collapse does not involve societal ‘civilisational’ collapse – societies continue to function and to offer sources of legitimate authority. State collapse is not a short-term phenomenon but rather a long-term degenerative process. However, it is not inevitable, and many states recover their balance and return to more or less normal functions.
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Hagmann T., Hoehne M., 2009, 'Failures of the State Failure Debate: Evidence from the Somali Territories', Journal of International Development, Volume 21, pp. 42-57 
Is the literature on state failure failing? This article argues that the state failure debate is based on fundamental conceptual flaws that render its insights and recommendations unconvincing in the light of empirical evidence. Scholars too readily equate the lack of a central government with failed or anarchical states. Yet, contrary to state-centred approaches, life can and does go on with non-state actors performing many of the functions usually associated with the state.
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Donor typologies of fragile states

Several development agencies use typologies of fragility, which categorise states according to the degree or nature of failure within them, in order to identify the possibilities and appropriate strategies for donor engagement. These typologies are criticised on the grounds they limit the diversity of fragile situations to a few categories, categorising states is substantively normative, and interventions based on a categorisation of countries may be harmful. Nevertheless, they are still seen as a useful way to understand (at the most basic level) state dynamics and trajectories, and how these may continually evolve.

OECD-DAC International Network on Conflict and Fragility

The OECD-DAC International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF) uses a fourfold classification of fragile states: (i) post-conflict/crisis or political transition situations; (ii) deteriorating governance environments, (iii) gradual improvement, and; (iv) prolonged crisis or impasse.

OECD, 2007, ‘Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States’, Learning and Advisory Process on Difficult Partnerships, Development Assistance Committee (DAC), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris
How can international actors maximise the positive impact of engagement in fragile situations and minimise unintentional harm? These updated principles suggest ways in which international actors can foster constructive engagement between national and international stakeholders. It is essential for international actors to understand the specific context in each country, and develop a shared view of the strategic response required. It is particularly important to recognise the different constraints of capacity, political will and legitimacy, and the differences between post-conflict/crisis or political transition situations deteriorating governance environments, gradual improvement, and prolonged crisis or impasse.
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DFID

DFID’s typology of fragile states includes 4 types of environments: (i) 'Monterrey' cases of strong capacity and reasonable political will; (ii) 'weak but willing' where government capacity is an obstacle to implementing policy; (iii) 'strong but unresponsive' where state capacity is directed to achieving development goals; (iv)  'weak-weak' where both state capacity and political will are lacking.

Moreno-Torres, M. & Anderson, M., 2004, ‘Fragile States: Defining Difficult Environments for Poverty Reduction’, Department for International Development (DFID), United Kingdom
Fragile states take many forms. What is the most useful way of defining them? This paper adopts a definition of 'difficult environments' grounded in the role of the state in development effectiveness. When assessing the willingness of a state to engage in partnerships for poverty reduction, there are two closely related notions: First, an explicit political commitment to policies aimed at promoting human welfare should be reflected in actions and outcomes. Second, there should be an inclusive approach that does not exclude particular social groups from the benefits of development. Based on these two key concepts, four broad types of environments are distinguishable.
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World Bank

The World Bank similarly advocates differentiated approaches across a spectrum of classification, which is: deterioration, prolongued crisis or impasse, post-conflict or political transition, and early recovery or reform.

World Bank, 2005, ‘Fragile States – Good Practice in Country Assistance Strategies’, World Bank, Washington 
The World Bank identifies fragile states by weak performance on the Country Policy and Institutional Assessment (CPIA). Wtihin this, it distinguishes a fourfold typology of business models, based on the extent of consensus between donors and government on development strategy, and the pace and direction of change.
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Nature of the state terminology

A separate group of terminology describes states according to the prevailing characteristics or underlying causes of their perceived weakness or strength. Many of these terms describe informal systems of governance, power or order which exist alongside or within the structures of the formal state.

Neopatrimonial states

Patrimonialism – a term often used in reference to African states – was first conceived by Max Weber as a system of patron-client rule in which elites exploit public resources and distribute them to political followers in return for loyalty. Neopatrimonialism describes a situation in which patrimonial and formal bureaucratic rules co-exist.

Van de Walle, N., 1997, 'Neopatrimonial Rule in Africa', in Democratic Experiments in Africa: Regime Transitions in Comparative Perspective, eds. Bratton, M. and Van de Walle, N., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
Although neopatrimonial practices can be found in all polities, they have been a core feature of post-colonial politics in Africa. Neopatrimonial rule is an overarching  concept that embraces a variety of subsidiary regime types. Its characteristic feature is the incorporation of patrimonial logic into bureaucratic institutions. The right to rule is ascribed to an individual rather than an office, and personalised exchanges, systemic clientelism and the use of state resources for political legitimation are the norm. Nonetheless, there is significant variation in the political institutions that have evolved in different African states as well as the degree of political competition and participation which is permitted.
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Parallel states

The term ‘parallel state’ is being used with ever-greater frequency to describe the existence of a clandestine nexus between formal political leadership, self-serving factions within the state apparatus, organised crime and/or experts in violence.

Briscoe I., 2008, 'The Proliferation of the “Parallel State”', Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE), Madrid
How do ‘parallel states’ emerge and what is their impact on state functioning? How should the international community respond? This paper draws on cases such as Pakistan and Guatemala to explain the parallel state as a form of political-criminal nexus which generates insecurity and stalls efforts to reduce poverty. International actors engaged in state building must recognise its specific features to avoid strengthening informal networks at the expense of formal institutions.
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Quasi states

Fragile states are sometimes described as ‘quasi states’, which have de jure but not de facto sovereignty. These states achieve de jure sovereignty by virtue of their acceptance into the international system of states, but nevertheless are not recognised by their citizens as a legitimate public authority.

Jackson, R., 1990, 'States and Quasi-States', in Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
How have notions of sovereignty changed in the post-colonial era? How do these changes affect the way development is done? This chapter explores these questions, distinguishing between “negative” and “positive” sovereignty. Quasi-states enjoy a right to exist and high prospects for survival, despite their weakness and illegitimacy. This is a new constitutional mechanism which has replaced colonial, military and diplomatic security arrangements, and is the basis of international aid.
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Warlord states

Warlord states are ones where virtually all power is channeled through a very real and highly organised (but not formally recognised) patronage system based on rulers' control over resources and violence. The term was coined in relation to African states (Reno, 1998 below) but has been taken up and debated in a range of contexts.

Reno, W., 1998, 'The Distinctive Political Logic of Weak States', in Warlord Politics and African States, Boulder, London, UK
Why is warlord politics so prevalent in Africa? Why do African rulers persistently give only lip-service to good governance, and weaken the organs of government? This chapter examines the political logic of weak states. Donor attempts to build strong African states fail because rulers' power rests on outside factors not on the citizenry. Attempts to impose good governance as conditions of loans or aid rest on flawed assumptions about rulers' interests, and are subverted by local politics.
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Giustozzi. A., 2005. 'The Debate on Warlordism: The Importance of Military Legitimacy' Crisis States Research Centre Discussion Paper, London School of Economics (LSE), London 
The terms ‘warlord’ and ‘warlordism’ have become increasingly popular amongst academics, even if some scholars object to their use. However, not every leader of a militia is a warlord. This paper aims to reconcile different perspectives and proposes a definition of warlordism for the social sciences. It differentiates between warlords and military-political entrepreneurs. Warlords have military legitimacy and are more likely to evolve into statemakers. Studying them can enhance the study of government.
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