Elisa Finocchiaro

Fragile states or hybrid societies

Engaging in fragile settings

Alies Rijper | November 01, 2013

Against the background of growing international attention for ownership of development processes at local level, the discussion about non-state governance in fragile settings is extremely timely. Despite general acknowledgement of the importance of non-state governance institutions, the question what their existence means for international interventions remains unanswered.

Trends in fragile state thinking

The topic of state fragility has received more and more attention within international development in recent years. The issue is the topic of much debate, about the term itself as well as ways in which international actors can or should deal with fragility. Fragile states are in the spotlight for many reasons, including the rise of the concept of human security, the debate on the causal relationship between underdevelopment and insecurity, the assumed threat that state fragility poses to international stability (closely related to the heightened attention to these states after the events of 9/11), and in discussions on state-effectiveness and development, and the landscape of poverty. According to Kharas and Rogerson, most poor people today live in fragile states and absolute poverty will be densely concentrated in these countries by 2025. Whatever these states are called, they share one characteristic: they are not able (or willing, or both) to provide their citizens with basic services and security. 

As Kofi Annan put it in a speech to the American Business Council in November 2012, “There can be no long-term security without development; there can be no long-term development without security”. This seems to have become generally accepted. Yet the idea that development and security are mutually reinforcing is questionable, and is mainly led by a poor understanding of political dynamics in fragile and conflict-affected situations. This ‘poor understanding’ leads to a failure in designing responses to “the forms of violence and insecurity that undermine development and wellbeing for people living in these areas.”

In addition the term ‘fragile (or weak, failing, collapsed, failed…) state’ is contested: critics say it is a discourse that is too negative to move towards positive change. Focusing on the fragility of states means focusing on what is not there and, what is more, does not help us to understand contemporary African statehood better. Moreover, much talk about fragile states is steeped in Western perceptions of statehood, in which a nation-state based monopoly of force is central. Realities in many fragile countries often prove different.

To turn this negativity around, we could say that fragile states are not malfunctioning; they function, but in a different way (see for example the statement of Morgan Brigg below). Alternative models to Western concepts of the state have been developed in a counter-discourse. Examples include the 'public monopoly of legitimate force', the 'hybrid political order', the existence of ‘twilight institutions’, the 'mediated state' and 'negotiated statehood' 1.  The influential notion of the ‘hybrid political order’ as coined by Boege et al. has in turn received criticism, mainly for the vagueness – and therefore dubious usefulness – of the term. Critics warn against replacing the ‘fragile state’ discourse with ‘something even less coherent’. Whatever we call the systems at work in these fragile settings, the bottom line is clear: in these contexts, business as usual won’t do. This discussion, initiated by The Broker and IS Academy, therefore aims to explore new ways of engagement in fragile states, focusing on institutional multiplicity.


Non-state institutions in fragile settings

Governance without government”, as Menkhaus dubbed it in a telling phrase: the ways in which communities, mostly at local level, “consistently seek to devise arrangements to provide for themselves the core functions that the missing state is supposed to assume, especially basic security”. We know that these arrangements are made, but not how. Because governing structures in fragile settings are so complex, it is important to make thorough analyses per country. Particularly when trying to engage with these context-specific governance forms, several questions emerge: how is local governance ordered and how do state and non-state institutions interact, if at all?

In fragile states, the state is often unable to fulfil all its functions and has to compete with what are commonly dubbed ‘non-state institutions’. These institutions fill the void that emerges in the absence of a functioning state and basically encompass all actors other than the state, including customary or traditional institutions, community-based groups, humanitarian organizations, criminal groups, diaspora groups and private sector companies. They can be formal or informal, their nature, functions and interests can differ, as can their legitimacy in the eyes of the population. The legitimacy of a non-state institution may for example depend on other actors. This all hints towards a significant challenge: formulating a common definition of ‘non-state actor’. Given the many different roles, functions and formulas of these undefined actors, this may very well be a daunting task. Another major challenge is the fact that there is relatively little known about how non-state institutions function, beyond the knowledge that they exist.

In other words, a poor understanding of political dynamics may lead to interventions that are ineffective and have no connection with local priorities, interests and traditions. Seth Kaplan recently argued in two blog posts at The Broker that this is exactly the frustration that led the g7+ group of fragile and conflict-affected states to come up with its New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States initiative. Agreement was reached on the initiative at the High Level Meeting on Aid Effectiveness in Busan in 2011 (see also the online debate hosted by The Broker), where leaders of fragile countries shared their concerns and developed something completely new. The New Deal identifies five Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals and underlines the importance of country-led fragility assessments and increased use of country systems. The fragility assessments are intended to lead to possible local solutions to fragility and instability, and progress towards reaching the goals is to be measured by indicators developed by the g7+ countries themselves. Both national stakeholders and a range of non-state actors are to be included in the assessments.

This initiative by fragile countries themselves potentially takes the step from rhetoric to action: recognition that, to be effective, aid has to be tailored to the needs of complex, fragile settings is not new, but actual efforts to do so have so far been lacking. Discussions on donor interventions to (re)build the state in fragile countries widely acknowledge the importance of bottom-up approaches. Until now, however, top-down interventions have dominated the aid architecture. One consequence of this is that local traditions and values are not taken into account. A recent publication by the Institute for Development Studies also underlines the importance of the ‘bottom-up’ approach that is central to the New Deal, noting that this approach means engaging with non-state and community institutions.

This is why Kaplan argues for the development of hybrid governance mechanisms “that can take advantage of the benefits of both. In the ideal situation, local norms and ways of doing things will be wedded to the authority and resources of the state to enhance the quality of public services (such as the rule of law, security, and schools).” This call for hybrid governance mechanisms strongly links to the central theme of our debate: institutional multiplicity.

Acknowledging the existence of multi-faceted structures of governance is only the start of this project, coordinated by The Broker and the IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States (see box). It aims to gain an insight into the international community’s ability to understand this multiplicity well enough to engage with it. And what form should this engagement take? Two authors have tried to target this question in a articles on local complexities and ways for international actors to engage. Both articles target the discussion on which institutions, in the absence of the state, provide a country’s population with basic services and security, and if and how the international community should engage with them.

Box 1. The Broker and the IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States

This article was presented at the roundtable session at the World Conference of Humanitarian Studies in Istanbul (24-27 October 2013), organized by The Broker and the IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States. It involved key stakeholders and leading thinkers on the issue of how to engage with non-state governance and institutional multiplicity in ‘fragile’ settings. It involved key stakeholders and leading thinkers on the issue of how to engage with non-state governance and institutional multiplicity in ‘fragile’ settings. In preparation for the roundtable, three articles were published, by The BrokerFrauke de Weijer (ECDPM) and Gemma van der Haar (IS Academy Human Security in Fragile States). 

Photo credit main picture: Elisa Finocchiaro


  • 1.

    Hagmann, T. and Péclard, D. (2010), Negotiating Statehood: Dynamics of Power and Domination in Africa. Development and Change, 41: 539–562