Getting into a State?

30 October 2013

Roger Williamson

The UNU-WIDER meeting held last week in New York on the topic of fragility and aid argued forcefully that you cannot ‘fix’ failed states as you would a broken window. Drawing on over 80 papers from the governance and fragility theme of the ReCom—Research and Communication on Foreign Aid project, it combined conceptual approaches and illuminating case study material to show the range and complexity of the challenges faced in fragile states and situations. The meeting, held at the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations, was designed to bring UNU-WIDER research findings to the UN New York community.

The 1.5 billion people living in fragile states are twice as likely to be undernourished, and children in these countries are three times as likely not to be in school. This shows the disastrous long-term and self-perpetuating impacts of living in fragile states. Attempting to assist in fragile environments carries risks, but it could well be that inaction is the greatest risk. 

What is fragility?

Very early during the day the way the terms ‘fragility’ or ‘fragile state’ are used was brought into focus. Rachel Gisselquist, UNU-WIDER Research Fellow leading the governance and fragility work within the ReCom project, explained that state fragility is a condition characterized by poor-quality governance and weak institutions, leading to an inability or unwillingness to conduct the basic minimum functions which citizens should expect of the state. The state can be chronically weak, in conflict, or post-conflict—or indeed a combination of these conditions, which are not hermetically-sealed categories. Assisting a state to emerge from fragility requires a framework for legitimate politics, establishing security, administering justice, establishing economic foundations and provision of basic services—points highlighted in the five peace-building and state-building goals described in the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.

These processes clearly require action and commitment both in the short- and long-term, as pointed out by the Rector of the UNU, and Under Secretary-General, David Malone. Development practitioners need to understand the incentive systems of politicians better, both in nationally and internationally, and have convincing analyses of the timescale needed to address structural and other challenges.

What role can aid have in addressing fragility?

Malone stressed in his opening address to the seminar that although aid flows are only a small percentage of wider financial flows, they represent a significant part of the budget of fragile states. Finn Tarp, Director of UNU-WIDER pointed to the evidence from his recent research of the positive long-term outcomes of sustained aid commitment—contrary to the views of critics. Increasingly, the poor are situated in middle-income countries with high levels of inequality, and in fragile states. Aid, even if it decreases, still has a role to play.

Points raised in the subsequent discussion stressed the need for a wider range of social indicators, not just national-level statistics. Aid is only one instrument in the toolbox. Even rich countries find effective design of regional policy and addressing horizontal inequality difficult, so it is hardly surprising that this is a challenge for fragile states. Communities find it hard to get grievances addressed. There are ways to develop strategies to achieve good change; for example the long-term involvement with anti-apartheid organizations prior to the transformation of South Africa. There is an increasing range of actors in the development field not involved with OECD-DAC; such as new state donors and private foundations.   

Building state capabilities

Michael Woolcock (World Bank) and Lant Pritchett (Harvard Kennedy School) introduced a comprehensive framework for addressing issues of fragility—Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). It is necessary to distinguish between logistic tasks (such as delivering mail, immunizing babies, or paving roads) which are relatively straightforward, and complex state roles such as regulating firms, ensuring security and constraining the state itself. It is important for states to be states (to perform these roles), not just have the external trappings or look like states. Using Quality of Government data, it was suggested that 68/100 states analysed were going backwards in their administrative capability, even though, for example, in many cases their GDPs have increased.

PDIA is valuable as a framework to help analyse what states do, not just what they look like; to critique the theory of accelerated modernization (or ‘history in a hurry’); and to dampen excessive expectations.

The approach draws on a wide literature (often of minority traditions) which have not ‘bought in’ to the accelerated modernization view of the quick development of a Weberian administration. It also benefits from the analyses advocating the twenty-first century development state (such as Booth, Rodrik, Pascale et al., and Barder). PDIA argues that success creates good institutions, not the other way round as in the generally received accounts.  

Lant Pritchett illustrated the approach using the erroneous assumption that South Sudan, because it has only recently come into being, could possibly emerge as a fully-fledged twent-first century state. Those working on the state-building exercise were trapped between two worlds;  for example, three years into a five-year multidonor trust fund, only 10% of the funds had been disbursed. The ‘best practice’ financial rules were too rigorous to be capable of implementation. The state was being asked to do too much, too soon, on too many fronts. The concept of 'isomorphic mimicry' provides an interpretation of how states manage to carry on looking like a state without actually delivering as a twenty-first century political entity.

Frauke de Weijer (Harvard Kennedy School) applied the analysis to Afghanistan showing what a ‘capability trap’ actually looks like, and questioning whether the state will carry on in a self-sustaining capacity once the foreign aid is withdrawn. The huge and sudden input of funding has been referred to as ‘state-building on steroids’. The dependence on international consultants is still extreme and many of the strategic plans have been written by foreign advisors in spite of the lip service to country ownership. Later, a different and even more critical perspective was provided by Graciana del Castillo (Columbia University) on Afghanistan. Her emphasis was on the need to prevent relapse back into conflict, and ultimately to move from a war economy to the economics of peace. She stressed how much of the cost of the Afghan intervention was related to the war effort and the security sector. When the aid money really did flow, it also had distorting effects on the economy, as the money which poured in provided incentives for people without the relevant experience to set up as contractors, with the predictable negative consequences in terms of the quality of building in schools and health facilities. In addition, looking ahead, there is a large projected unfinanced part of the budget according to IMF projections. Afghanistan has to be as the impetus for a major re-think of international engagement in fragile states.

In discussion, the distinction was stressed between capacity-building for individuals, and institutional capacities, which is a much more comprehensive and exacting set of standards. For fragile states, it was argued, only PDIA offered the chance of a way out. Standard models would lead to the ‘camouflage’ of isomorphic mimicry, with a huge gap between pretense and performance.

Aid and fragility: what has worked?

Rachel Gisselquist outlined two UNU-WIDER collaborative research projects on ‘Aid and Institution-Building in Fragile States: Lessons from Comparative Cases’, and ‘Good Aid in Hard Places: Learning from What Has Worked in Fragile Contexts’. The two projects draw on fifteen and nine case studies respectively. Gisselquist highlighted several preliminary findings from the overall studies and three case studies were presented in depth. 

As part of the project on ‘Aid and Institution-Building’, Ken Menkhaus (Davidson College) provided a sophisticated analysis of six different polities (Somalia, Somaliland, Puntland, and regions of Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya) where Somalis live in East Africa and the resistance to the development of a traditional nation-state. Four theories for this were outlined:

  • the ‘cultural’ explanation—that Somali society is clan-based, not a modern state

  • a political economy approach—that there are economic interests which benefit from there not being a standard nation-state

  • risk aversion—that many fear a nation-state of the wrong type or with the wrong people in charge

  • ‘failed aid’—that the external financial support had been misplaced.

Seventy-five per cent of all Somalis today have no experience of living within a functioning state. Menkhaus drew out a range of examples of relative success stories—frequently at sub-national level where state-like functions such as service delivery had been organized for the benefit of those living within a region, often a city.

As part of the ‘Good Aid in Hard Places’ project, Fotini Christia presented a review of the National Solidarity Programme in Afghanistan based on a randomized control trial in 500 villages across Afghanistan. As an analysis of community-driven development, it provides a wealth of insight into the impact of relatively small financial inputs into a wide range of villages (to create a local gender-balanced community development council). Detailed results were provided on access to services, economic welfare, local government, political attitudes to state-building and social norms. Provision of drinking water and electricity had proved effective, irrigation and transport less so. There had been positive results for girls’ school enrolment and increased access to health services, but no clear evidence of better health outcomes. The diverse gender impacts had also been analysed; inputs were significant enough to impact on gender roles in significant ways, but not to touch big decisions such as traditional roles in deciding whom girls should marry. The material provides a wealth of data for interpretation. Questions were asked about replicability and also comparability with similar studies in Liberia, Indonesia and Sierra Leone.

As part of the same collaborative project, a case study on judicial facilitators in Nicaragua was given by Martin Gramatikov (Hague Institute for the Internationalization of Law, HiiL). Although not currently a fragile state in most listings, Nicaragua’s history of political instability and poverty suggest the relevance of the judicial facilitators programme in other contexts. The programme, which aims to improve access to justice, won the HiiL-sponsored Innovating Justice award in 2011. The approach has been remarkably successful in rural areas (less so in urban areas with the expansion of the scheme) in a poor, politically polarized country, where the rural population in particular had limited access to the judiciary, and the legal system had been ineffective and corrupt. The scheme has been highly successful and cost efficient, training over 2,000 facilitators for approximately €250,000-300,000. With support from the OAS and other donors, the programme is being expanded to other countries in the region.

Fragility and gender

Caren Grown (American University) stressed that it is essential to distinguish conceptually between gender analysis of the important difference in roles between men and women in society, differentials in power and access to resources, and the importance of programmes specifically on women’s empowerment. Reference was made to Caprioli’s work on gendered conflict, in which she shows that the higher the percentage of women in parliament, the less likely a country is to engage in conflict.

Grown also cited research showing that only 3% of mediators, 8% of negotiators in major peace negotiations, and 10% of UN police in recent years have been female. She referred to the repeated occurrence of ‘yielding rights’—the sacrificing of women’s rights, giving way to the demands for peace and justice.

There have been many examples of women’s gains during conflict situations being rolled backwards recently for example in Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Perceptions can be decisive. In post-conflict situations women are often regarded as subordinate to the reintegration of male combatants and the definition of women as camp followers which has meant that they are not eligible as beneficiaries of programmes. This often does not reflect the reality of the conflict—in Sierra Leone, for example, approximately 40% of the combatants were women, but this was not adequately recognized in the programme design.

In the ReCom work on gender, an effort is being made to improve the knowledge base. There are many relevant studies, but the evidence base still needs to be strengthened.

What did we learn?

In summarizing some of the conclusions of the day, Tony Addison, UNU-WIDER Deputy Director, drew out key messages:

  • Context matters, and fragility affects a wide range of different cases.

  • Even in the most unpromising situations encouragement can be gleaned. In Somali-inhabited areas of East Africa: new forms of local-level political organization. In Afghanistan: education, the new currency system.

  • Much of the discussion focused on how to achieve success.


  • Support of the local community for strategies which really address the issues which they identify.

  • Development agencies need to create an environment where working on implementation is valued and to make it attractive to the most creative and committed staff.

  • Women must be fully integrated as change agents, not treated as victims.

  • Better statistical data is required.


  • Avoid inflicting premature and excessive load bearing on fragile state institutions.

  • Donors should not try to implement competing or contradictory policies through recipient ministries.

  • Excessively rigid economic frameworks must be avoided.

  • The military should not be running development programmes. The securitization of aid represents a particular problem.

  • Donors and the international community should not declare an intervention a success and then depart, leaving behind brittle states which can easily relapse into violence.


A packed day with a strong combination of background research and preparation, and a combination of schematic papers—particularly those from the PDIA project—were tested alongside in-depth country experience. The New York participation from national representation and UN agencies provided a good ‘reality test’ for the academic presentations. No one was left in any doubt about the complexity, urgency, and variety of issues covered under the heading of fragile states.

Roger Williamson is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK.

WIDERAngle newsletter
October 2013
ISSN 1238-9544