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Modus Operandi

En librairie

Transformation de conflit, de Karine Gatelier, Claske Dijkema et Herrick Mouafo

Aux Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer (ECLM)


, Grenoble, juillet 2010

State Fragility

There is no single definition of state fragility, as what is considered to make a state fragile will always to some extent reflect what importance is given by a particular approach to different aspects of the state.

The OECD has been central in definition and importance in policy of the idea of state ‘fragility’; though this definition has evolved over time.

Looking at the 2009 report for the OECD ‘The Legitimacy of the State in Fragile Situations’ we can see how this definition has changed over the previous two years.

  • 2007: States are fragile when “state structures lack political will and/or capacity to provide the basic functions needed for poverty reduction, development and to safeguard the security and human rights of their populations.”

  • 2008: “The state’s inability to meet it’s population’s expectations or to manage changes in expectations and capacity through the political process.” The report in question seeks to combine the first, more state centred definition with the second that places more emphasis on state-society relations.

  • 2009: “A state in a situation of fragility is a state with limited ability to govern or rule its society, and more broadly to develop mutually constructive and mutually reinforcing relations with society.”

The emphasis in this last and most recent definition is that the defining feature of state fragility is the lack of state capacity or power, and that state-society relations are key to stability: fragility can be the result of lack of financial, technical and human capacity, and the lack of legitimacy.

A lack of legitimacy cannot be considered central as long as the state has the capacity to deal with this crisis. If it does not, it can be considered fragile.


The use of the term ‘fragile’ state by institutions such as the OECD has led to it being embedded into current policy thinking around international security, as a fragile state is perceived not only to be a threat to itself but also to surrounding states. The result of this is that a state that is defined as ‘fragile’ is therefore problematic, and the prescribed solution is that of state-building towards the Weberian State model.

This approach has two major failings:

  • Firstly seeing state ‘fragility’ as a problem with a prescribed solution blinds us to the strengths and indigenous responses that are present on the ground.

  • The second is that the assumption the Western state model is the result towards which all states must strive does not allow us to take into account the local models of governance and social order that may hold the key to stability in a particular context.

An alternative approach developed by Brown, Boege and Clements suggests that rather than thinking of ‘fragile states’ “it might be theoretically and practically more fruitful to think in terms of hybrid political orders. This re-conceptualization opens new options for conflict prevention and development, as well as for new approaches to state-building.”


  • Bellina, S., Darbon, D., Eriksen, S., & O. Sending (2009) The Legitimacy of the State in Fragile Situations Report for the OECD-DAC International Network on Conflict and Fragility.

  • Boege,V., Brown, A., & K. Clements (2009) ‘Hybrid Political Orders, Not Fragile States’ in Peace Review 21:1 13-21.


  • This concept definition was developed as a result of the work carried out in the international conference Post-crisis state transformation: Rethinking the foundations of the state in Linköping, Sweden held 1-5 May 2009. This conference was run by Modus Operandi in collaboration with the Université Pierre Mendès France (Grenoble, France) and the European Science Foundation.