Making policies work


The ‘fragile states’ debate: an opportunity to refocus EU’s foreign policy and institutions


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A couple of decades into a prolific debate in both academic and policy circles, including within the EU over the last few years, the concept and terminology of fragile states remains vague and controversial. However, the debate has undoubtedly had its merits. It has raised awareness to the implications of state fragility and to the complexities of state building. It has played an important role too in focusing the attention of the international community on some of the most neglected countries and populations around the world.

The fragile states debate has also brought attention to the shortcomings of international actors’ policies and instruments, their engagement and coordination, and their impact in fragile contexts  – and not just to those states labelled as fragile. It has highlighted the limitations and inadequacies of external actors’ role in trying to change or influence what are inherently internal and long-term societal processes, especially in the absence of a nationally-owned agenda for peacebuilding and statebuilding.

Despite their limited role, peace building and state building agendas in fragile states are very much shaped by the presence and engagement of international actors. The way in which donors engage in fragile contexts matters and which policies and actors they support affects internal power dynamics.

The evolving policy discourse on fragile states stresses the critical importance of ownership, alignment and context-based solutions and it acknowledges that diverse forms of state organisation exist. However, there appears to be little substantial change in the way international actors operate in fragile states.

In recognition of the development-governance-security nexus that was highlighted by the fragile states debate, and of the need for coherent responses and coordinated action, greater emphasis is being given to “linking” donor policies and instruments and to governance as a means of achieving that aim. There is also greater attention to less traditional areas of donor engagement (eg, security, mediation and political processes, the environment) and to improving coordination between international actors. The EU, for instance, has been making efforts to adapt its wide range of foreign policy instruments and modus operandi to the many challenges of working in fragile states.

While institutional reorganisation and capacity-building, improved knowledge and understanding of the political economy of the context, greater awareness of and sensitivity to deeply contextual issues such as legitimacy, and greater attention to governance and security-related issues are all positive steps, they do not constitute a miracle cure for the fragmentation of the actors, mandates and objectives involved in peacebuilding and statebuilding efforts. The multitude of actors involved, all with different and sometimes conflicting political agendas, priorities, guiding principles and rules, funding mechanisms, experiences, timeframes and pressures to deliver renders agreement on a shared strategy and international coordination extremely difficult. To counter this fragmentation, there needs to be a shared understanding of the political context and a political strategy on how to achieve common objectives and priorities.

Ultimately the main driver for change in the way international actors operate in fragile states is politics. International support needs to build on an understanding of the local political context – including the internal political dynamics that operate both among local actors and between them and external actors – and go beyond state-centred approaches that fail to take on board how fragile states actually operate. There is also a need for clearer political guidance and greater transparency around the role of international actors and the political motivations, objectives and impact of their interventions in fragile states.

This is also what the EU institutional structure post-Lisbon and the setting-up of a European External Action Service (EEAS) is in principle meant to bring about or at least facilitate at the EU level. What is desirable is that EU actors involved in the institutional reform and of its policy and financial instruments do not become distracted by internal or institutional quarrels over power or competence. EU foreign policy objectives need to be clearly defined and EU foreign policy instruments adapted with the challenges of working in fragile states well in sight. The EU had a good opportunity to do this in 2009-2010 when the fragility and security and development actions plans (a follow-up to the EU Council Conclusions in late 2007) were being discussed. But the setting up of the EEAS has left the EU looking inwards and debates like the fragility and security and development action plan were put on hold as changes were being made to the EU institutional set-up and roles redefined. Bringing back the discussion on the action plan could now provide a healthy refocusing on the sense of purpose of some of the reforms the EU is undertaking and an opportunity to ‘test’ and orient the new institutional set-up in light of what are some of the main challenges of working in fragile states. This is yet to be done.


Fernanda Faria is a consultant and programme associate to ECDPM.
She is the author of a policy brief on Fragile states: a fluid concept for peacebuilding and statebuilding and a report on Rethinking policy responses on fragile states, both recently published by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre (Noref).

This blog post features the author’s personal view and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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Security and ResilienceEuropean responses to violent conflict and crisisPost-2015 Global Development AgendaEuropean Union (EU)Fragile states

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Fernanda Faria