Fragile states: a fluid concept for peacebuilding and statebuilding

The “fragile states” concept is widely used in peacebuilding and statebuilding. Yet the term itself, as well as its use, is the topic of considerable debate. There is no internationally agreed definition of what is meant by fragile states. The term encompasses a number of partially overlapping yet distinct notions and labels. The models that are used to identify, measure, and monitor fragility often compare countries and situations that are so heterogeneous that the value of such comparisons is not clear.

Many critics therefore feel that the term is overly simplistic, arbitrary and based on generalities. It can overlook socioeconomic and historic specificities, and diverse situations within a country and across areas of state rule. It is also often considered pejorative and stigmatising. There is even the concern that the term is simply being used, or “instrumentalised”, to serve the political agenda of “strong states”.

However, what the fragile states debate has achieved is to focus attention on some of the world’s most neglected countries. It has also raised awareness of the complex web of factors that may contribute to state fragility and the importance of understanding the complicated contexts in which external actors try to intervene. For instance, the concept stresses the linkages between poverty, economic and political governance, security and conflict, and the need for mutually-supportive policies and approaches. By doing so, it has highlighted areas of opportunity for international engagement and acknowledged the many challenges and dilemmas faced.

Furthermore, while it is unclear how and to what extent this debate has shaped existing international policies, or whether it has been effective in activating coherent early response or prevention strategies in deteriorating fragile situations, what it does do is stress the role of the state. In doing so it has focused attention on the role and impact of external policies in support of more effective and resilient states.