Fragile States/Fragile Societies: Global Politics of Hierarchy and Intervention

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The political discourse on state fragility has become a prominent feature of contemporary international development assistance and interventions. What kinds of policies and politics does it make possible, and what does it conceal or obscure about current geopolitical and economic realities?

The political discourse on state fragility has become a prominent feature of contemporary international development assistance and interventions, as reflected in countless statements of the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and international donors. A Google search for “fragile states” or “state fragility” generates almost two million hits and the “Fragile States Index” of the Fund for Peace gets more than 360,000 hits. The OECD’s States of Fragility report circulates widely in the development community. But what does the language of fragility do: what kinds of policies and politics does it make possible, and what does it conceal or obscure about current geopolitical and economic realities?

The label of fragile state is applied to a host of crisis situations characterized by warfare, subnational violence, economic crises, human rights violations, refugee flows, and at the most extreme a near-total breakdown of state institutions. Places such as Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Haiti, Yemen, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo have appeared high on “league tables” of fragile states. Fragility is measured by such things as the incidence of coups, riots, or political assassinations; levels of corruption and trust in government; or the effective delivery of public services. All of these reflect a certain idea of what a strong state should look like and of how it should behave domestically and internationally.

The exercise is not, however, simply designed to color red zones on a global map or to make rankings; it is to shape the priorities for and allocations of funds and international support, and to facilitate active intervention to save these states from alleged anarchy. The fragile-state discourse, as a form of expert knowledge about the world, has oriented development assistance away from the provision of basic needs and from poverty reduction towards more politically controversial interventions in forms of governance. It has also facilitated the fusion of traditional development concerns with global security concerns. The language of state fragility provides a justification for military intervention in places such as Afghanistan or the Sahel, and it also structures everyday foreign development and security assistance in such areas as public management, reform of security institutions, democracy promotion, and human rights and rule of law. Not all of these effects are deleterious to human development, and the logic of fragility has potentially reduced insecurity and deprivation in some cases, but the language of fragile states is only the most recent in a long line of Western ideas about how to govern the globe—from the imperial mission civilisatrice to the description of the Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe” propped up by other great powers, to the League of Nations mandates system. Such terms provide a shared framework to facilitate collective action.

So how does the language of fragility work to achieve these objectives in today’s world? What kinds of evidence is marshalled to label and target certain states as fragile, based on claims to authoritatively know how politics, economy, and society work (or not) in these countries? Unlike previous political classifications, today’s discourse of fragile states is data-driven and ostensibly neutral and objective, an exercise in measurement to develop an early-warning methodology that would identify key drivers of fragility and crisis thresholds, and to devise particular kinds of interventions. Although the initial impetus was driven by US foreign policy concerns, by the mid-1990s the concept had become a guiding principle for foreign economic assistance and security policies in most Northern donor states and institutions, as well as for the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the UN agencies, and the World Bank. The OECD, for example, defined a fragile state as “one unable to meet its population’s expectations or manage changes in expectations and capacity through the political process,” and measured this via a multidimensional concept of fragility, encompassing economic, environmental, political, societal, and security dimensions. The World Bank’s initial focus on purely economic issues—macroeconomic policy, sustainable and equitable growth, reducing inequality and public-sector management—has broadened to include explicitly political factors such as voice and accountability, political stability, violence or terrorism, rule of law, and control of corruption.

There is, however, a curious logic at work here: are these causes, symptoms or consequences of being in a fragile state? The very indicators used to assess fragility also serve to describe and define it—as if the symptoms of a disease were also descriptions of its causes. Is a high level of corruption a cause of political unrest and instability or low growth, or does the political system operate in such a way to generate embedded corruption? If we cannot distinguish the direction of the causal arrow, then the proposed remedies risk being ineffective.

Second, the language of fragile states follows a double-edged logic. On one hand, it acknowledges that many obstacles to economic development go beyond considerations of violent interstate conflict or of civil war to include forms of internal insecurity and large-scale subnational violence that threaten the well-being or security of the population, including state repression. This follows the logic of human security and puts the well-being of the population at the center. At the same time, however, the way in which fragility is operationalized mainly revolves around one of two axes: low-income countries that have weak institutions for dealing with political conflicts and contestation, or large-scale violence. As a result, virtually every prominent fragile state either is in sub-Saharan Africa or has recently experienced war. Practically speaking, the means that states in regions such as Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, for example) that experience extremely high levels of violence and state capture by criminalized elites are not given sufficient attention by international policy and development assistance.

Behind the numbers and rankings lies an interesting metaphor. What exactly is fragility? Like notions such as resilience or proliferation, it is a concept imported from another domain, not an intrinsic property of a social system or a state. It applies to everyday objects, such as glass, that are easily subject to breakage from an external shock. In common parlance an object can either be intrinsically fragile (like a delicate vase) or brittle because of shocks that have created cracks. In both cases, one does not really question how such fragility came about, but simply takes measures to prevent breakage.

The idea of fragility as brittleness, however, largely places the responsibility for becoming fragile on local conditions and on governments and national elites. Measuring it through national-level indicators and comparisons ignores broader structural and historical forces shaping the world economy, geopolitical relations, or environmental change that place certain states and regions—such as most of sub-Saharan Africa—in a subordinate position in the global hierarchy. Many of these countries are condemned to struggle against severe economic vulnerability due to dependence on natural-resource exports, for example, or are vulnerable to the ravages of the climate emergency.

By obscuring broader socioeconomic, historical, and political forces, the language of fragility acts as a filter that means certain forms of political turmoil or contestation do not count as fragility, or at least not on a severe scale. Fragility only really exists in comparison with other non-fragile countries and regions, and the thresholds set for what counts as severe fragility reinforce this. Liminal states such as Mexico or those in Central America are considered as facing minor or stable situations in which the risk of fragility tipping over into crisis is relatively low. Western states such as Hungary or Poland, with stable economies but high levels of political polarization and democratic backsliding are seldom regarded as fragile, and many citizens of deprived regions in the United Kingdom or the United States certainly live in endemic precarity and a form of fragility. As any other metaphor that we live by, the concept of fragility reinforces and serves certain interests and preconceptions about the world today.

Keith Krause is professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and director of its Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding. He was a guest at the IWM in 2021.