Fragile situations: Introduction


The purpose of this report is threefold: (i) Provide a review of the current state of play with respect to CD priorities highlighted in the Paris Declaration and the AAA. (ii) Provide an input to a “Synthesis Report” on CD key messages for Busan. (iii) Set an agenda for further technical work post-Busan.  Over the longer term, it is primarily intended to provide background for LenCD resource corners and learning materials and hopefully offers a special CD perspectives to the leadership on the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding.

The OECD/DAC definition of capacity and capacity development is adopted as a default: Capacity is the ability of people, organizations and society as a whole to manage their affairs successfully. Capacity development is the process whereby people, organizations and society as a whole unleash, strengthen, create, adapt and maintain capacity over time. 

These definitions remain quite general and call for further precision in order to be operationally useful (see box).

Discussing Capacity Development

Different organisations and institutional networks view capacity development in a variety of ways, for example:

  • UNDP (2009) specifies three points where capacity is grown and nurtured: in an enabling environment, in organizations and in individuals. It concentrates on four strategic priorities: institutional arrangements and incentives, leadership, knowledge and accountability and five functional capacities:  engaging stakeholders; assessing a situation; formulating policies and strategies; budgeting, managing and implementing; and evaluating.
  • NEPAD’s Capacity Development Strategic Framework has six cornerstones: leadership transformation; citizen transformation; knowledge and innovation; using African potential, skills, and resources; capacity of capacity builders; integrated planning and implementation.
  • The ECDPM capacity study distinguishes among individual competences (leadership, education and training and skills), group capabilities (policy development, strategizing and managing organizations) and system capacity in the form of values such as legitimacy, resilience, transparency, human rights, free flow of information, rule of law, voting rights, and rights to organize.   The core capabilities are: to commit and engage; to carry out technical, service delivery and logistical tasks; to relate and attract resources and support; to adapt and self-renew; and to balance coherence and diversity.
  • The Accra Agenda for Action’s strategic priorities are: civil society and private sector engagement, country systems, enabling environments and incentives, capacity development in fragile situations, integrating capacity development in national and sector strategies, relevance, quality, and choice of capacity development support.

It is difficult to discuss “capacity development” without first determining what kind of capacity is needed and what it should look like in operation.  Without this clarity, discussions on capacity development tend to become general exchanges on what makes for good development practice.  Regardless of which of these or other approaches is used, it is critical for practitioners to understand what they are seeking in terms of capacity and to use this as the basis for identifying activities which will help to encourage its development, rather than assuming that certain mechanisms will automatically enhance capacity.

This report was prepared by consultant Heather Baser, with inputs from James Hradsky, Nils Boesen, Anthony Land, Silvia Guizzardi, Mia Sorgenfrei, Derrick Brinkerhoff, Alessandra Casazza,B. T. Constantinos, Joe Feeney, Laura Mascagna, Bathylle Missika, Peter Morgan, J. Ndegwa,Murotani Ryutaro, Rohullah Osmani, Paul Riembault, Xavier Rouha, Any Tamas,  Bill Tod and Franke Toornstra, and benefitted from a wider electronic vetting process through the LenCD global network.

All comments from those involved that have helped contribute to a sound paper are acknowledged with thanks. This report does not reflect an official position of either LenCD or the OECD/DAC. The many contributors may not endorse every viewpoint in the note and only the author bears responsibility for any remaining errors or omissions.

What are “fragile” situations?

The terminology “fragile situations” recognizes that areas, as well as entire states, can be fragile or post-conflict. The terminology has been applied to areas as diverse as East Timor which is proud to have won a long battle for independence and Northern Uganda where the Lord’s Resistance Army has long had a destabilizing influence. These areas are characterized by weak state capacity to carry out the basic functions of governing the population and the territory concerned and by limited government ability to develop mutually constructive and reinforcing relations with the society of the area. There is little trust between the state and its citizens and the concept of mutual obligations is poorly embedded. Social capital is limited, often because of ethnic diversity. Political will to provide basic services is usually limited.   

The concept of fragility in the context of areas and states has been in use only since about 2005 and originated in concerns about how to encourage development in post-conflict countries such as Zimbabwe with limited political will to do so. The concept recognizes the need for different responses in fragile situations than in more stable ones. 

Stability and fragility form a spectrum which extends from the predictable structures and processes of the Scandinavian countries to the chaos and fluidity caused by the absence of a functioning central state in Somalia. Some elements of fragility can be found in all but the most developed and institutionalized states(OECD/DAC 2008b (Jones) p 12). The chief concern about fragility is the risk of conflict or humanitarian disaster. The following three aspects of state-society relations influence the resilience or fragility of situations(OECD/DAC 2010a p 5)and their potential for falling into conflict:

  • The political settlement which reflects the implicit or explicit agreement, usually among elites, on the rules of the game, power distribution and the political processes through which state and society are connected.
  • The capability and responsiveness of the state to effectively fulfill its principal functions and provide key services.
  • Broad social expectations and perceptions about what the state should do, what the terms of the state-society relationships should be and the ability of society to articulate demands that are ‘heard’. 

Resilience is about the virtuous synergies among these dimensions.  Fragility, on the other hand, occurs when the connections deteriorate and weaken(OECD/DAC 2010a p 5). Legitimacy is at the heart of the interactions among the dimensions and derives from multiple sources that may co-exist or compete.  Understanding its sources is central to interventions in statebuilding, as discussed later in this paper. These terms and others are more fully explained in the box below.

Key terms

Legitimacy – a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper and appropriate within some socially constructed systems of norms, beliefs and definitions (Suchman 1996, p 574). A state’s legitimacy is the acceptance in society that the organizations and institutions that make up the state have the right to rule. (OECD/DAC 2010b Do No Harm p 47).

Nationbuilding – deliberate strategies – usually by domestic elites – to forge a common national identity around the idea of a nation, whether defined in an ethnic, cultural, historical or political sense. (OECD/DAC 2008b p 13)

Peacebuilding – Actions undertaken by international or national actors to institutionalize peace, understood as the absence of armed conflict and at least a modicum of political process. Post-conflict peacebuilding is the subset of such actions undertaken after the termination of armed hostilities. (OECD 2008b p 13)

Resilience – ability to absorb shocks and to adapt to change using existing political wherewithal to respond to challenges such as managing and adapting to social expectations about the relationship between state and society (based on OECD 2010a pgs 12-13)

Statebuilding – an endogenous process to enhance capacity, institutions and legitimacy of the state driven by state-society relations (OECD 2010a International Support to Statebuilding p 11).  It involves an effective political process for negotiating the mutual demands between state and social groups. Legitimacy will be the principal outcome over time of an effective process. (OECD/DAC 2008a p 14).

This paper builds on the work of ECDPM in the preface above that differentiates among competencies at the individual level, group capabilities and system capacity. (See Finding 6 below for more details.) This approach puts considerable emphasis on building the legitimacy of organizations, institutions (in the sense of rules of society, formal and informal) and the broader society. It also stresses the relationships among these different entities.

Capacity development and statebuilding

To move beyond fragility, a country needs to develop its basic functions for governing the population and for developing and maintaining mutually constructive and reinforcing relations with society. This process of statebuilding (which should not be confused with the process of investing in national symbols and social relationships that is nation building) is based on three main propositions (OECD/DAC 2010a p 5):

  • The evolution of a state’s relationship with society is at the heart of it.
  • It is a deeply political process and understanding the context - particularly what is perceived as legitimate in a specific context – is crucial.
  • It is an endogenous process which, by definition, limits the role of donors.

The key dimensions of statebuilding (OECD/DAC 2009d)- the political processes which drive it, state-society relations, and the capabilities of the state to provide key functions - together present a profound capacity challenge and a CD lens is critical to understanding the statebuilding processes involved.  Capacity development at the organizational level is often focused on management and operations, whereas CD at the state level is often concerned with capabilities like providing security, resolving conflicts and giving voice and representation to the public.  Also important is increasing the legitimacy of power holders, often through improving services and access to resources for the population.  Because of the scale involved, CD is riskier at the state level than at the organizational level and presents more opportunity for doing harm. 

The context for capacity development in fragile situations

Capacity development tends to be even more difficult in fragile situations than in more stable situations. Sometimes it is because of conditions that exist more generally in developing countries but are more pronounced and distorted in states affected by conflict.  Power and politics in fragile states have, for example, fewer checks and balances than in other countries and elites can take advantage of political disorder for their own purposes. In fragile situations, the shadow or informal state can take on a more pervasive and powerful role, to the point of challenging the authority of the state.

The nature of the challenges in fragile states can also be different from those in more stable situations.   In some post-conflict states such as Timor-Leste the damage to physical infrastructure was devastating. Ministries, schools and hospitals were burned and many documents destroyed, such as birth records. Sixty-five per cent of the population lost their homes. The destruction in Liberia has similarly been massive.  In addition to this physical damage, war damages the social fabric, often leaving citizens with a distrust of others, lingering fears and an overriding concern about survival.

The instability of peace agreements in many fragile situations results in regular crises that distract leadership from the day-to-day functions of running a government in favor of fighting fires and positioning for power. When these activities dominate, as is often the case, it is difficult to get leaders to pay attention to the longer-term perspective of capacity development.  Sustaining attention for it is even more challenging.  

Structure of this Note

Section 2 of this Note summarizes the considerable body of theory and evidence now emerging from multiple work streams on topics relating to capacity development in fragile situations, especially that done by the International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF), a subsidiary body of the OECD Development Assistance Committee which has as one of its areas of work  the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding[1], and the joint work on capacity development and fragile states being done by the UNDP’s Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Recovery and the World Bank Institute.  Other documentation has also been consulted.  Section 3 looks more closely at the operational implications of this information for donors and partner countries. Section 4 looks ahead to and beyond the next High Level Forum in Busan, South Korea.

[1]The International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding brings together fragile and conflict-affected countries and regions, development partners and international organizations for policy discussions aimed at improving national and international efforts in fragile and conflict-affected situations.