World Briefing

The challenge of fragile states

Even as many countries grapple with issues ranging from rising populism to drought, some states stand out for their unwillingness or inability to offer proper governance – which could have a destabilizing effect beyond their borders.

A Somali woman walks through a camp of internally displaced people, driven from their homes by drought, in Qardho, Somalia, March 9. Somalia's government has declared the drought a national disaster; it's one of myriad challenges currently facing the country.
Ben Curtis/AP
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Some states stand out for their unwillingness or inability to offer proper governance – like Somalia, where much of the nation has remained outside the recognized government's control, or Yemen, where a devastating civil war and famine are ravaging the countryside. But even if the woes of such "fragile states" are domestically driven, they can have a destabilizing effect beyond their borders.

Q: What is a fragile state?

It’s of little use to adopt a “one size fits all” definition. A recent report from several think tanks defined such states as having the “absence or breakdown of a social contract between people and their government.” More specifically, says Stewart Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations, what may be lacking is basic physical security, both against threats from outside a country and against violence within. There may also be deficiencies in political administration, economic management, and social provisions.

And yet Sarah Chayes, senior fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes the very concept of state fragility as “misleading.” In many cases, she says, such countries are being run by powerful kleptocracies whose “tendrils weave across the public, private, and criminal networks.” To call such states fragile “belies the intentionality of these networks in achieving their objectives, which are not governing,” adds Ms. Chayes, who is also author of “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.” 

Jacob Turcotte/The Christian Science Monitor

Q: How can other nations best assist fragile states? 

It’s vital to incorporate the idea of “specificity” – that is, to address each country’s individual needs, says James Robinson of the University of Chicago, coauthor of “Why Nations Fail.” Moreover, the traditional approach of shoring up governmental institutions may not work – if, as Chayes says, those agencies are not working on behalf of the people.

Take Zimbabwe, says Professor Robinson, a country he describes as very stable – yet its political institutions are “incredibly extractive,” working to exploit the population on behalf of a small elite. These institutions are “very resilient and hard to change,” he says.

Fundamentally, any intervention should seek to “build society’s capacity to cope,” says Rachel Scott, team leader on conflict, fragility, and resilience at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This could involve circumventing the government and working with nongovernmental organizations, or isolating “islands of excellence” within an administration, says Dr. Patrick, who wrote “Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security.”

Q: What is United States policy likely to be under President Trump? 

In the 2015 National Security Strategy, President Barack Obama included “weak or failing states” in the list of “top strategic risks to our interests.” Yet in looking back at US intervention in such places, Chayes suggests that far too much attention was put on military engagement, and far too little on such key issues as poverty, corruption, and social cohesion. “It’s easier to shoot bad guys,” Chayes says, “than to address abuses of governance that drive people into the arms of bad guys.” 

That, says Patrick, is unlikely to change under Mr. Trump, with the author predicting a “very militarized” approach that focuses on counter-terrorism and shies away from nation-building.

Many analysts point out that globalization has shifted the parameters of these challenges, taking issues such as financial misdeeds, drugs, and crime to a regional, even global, level – and they need to be addressed as such, the analysts say.  

Q: Have any nations successfully emerged from fragility?

One “very unlikely success story” that stands out for Robinson is Botswana, which had very little in the way of state institutions until the 1960s, when its colonial master, Britain, accepted its trajectory toward independence. Those institutions were then constructed on the foundation of traditional tribal structures that already existed, lending legitimacy. And Tunisia, says Robinson, is a place that didn’t look much different from Libya 50 years ago. But a state-building project under President Habib Bourguiba, investing in education and creating a national identity, produced significant changes.

It’s critical to remember that transition takes time, even decades, says Ms. Scott of the OECD.

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