Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development

Kaplan, Seth D.
Westport, CT/London: Praeger Security International, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-275-99828-8, 215 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Jo Rowlands

Oxfam GB, UK

Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart
Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World
New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-19-534269-7, 254 pp.

The similarity in the titles of these two books shows how preoccupied the development industry has become with the challenges confronting the countries, however labelled, where one third of the world's poorest people live.1 Perhaps, too, it reflects some sense that the kind of change needed to support large numbers of people in escaping from poverty in challenging contexts such as Congo, Afghanistan, and other conflict-affected countries is so far proving elusive. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, if the search for a development 'magic bullet' - how to achieve an effective state that delivers the conditions for development - continues with increasing intensity as the notion of state-building becomes more common in the development discourse, most recently apparent in the new DFID White Paper 'Building our Common Future'.2

Of course, writers on politics and international relations have been grappling with issues of the state for many years, and even a brief scan of the literature reveals the complexity of the topic. No easy answers, then - and it is depressing to think of how many resources have been squandered, and will presumably continue to be squandered for some time yet to little effect, trying to bring development to places where the state is not functioning well on the basis of attempts to replicate what has worked in Western democracies. Whether this is because solutions are based on incomplete and/or inaccurate analysis of why a particular state is not able to play a positive role in development, or because of ideological bias, or even because of more practical things like working with unrealistic time-frames and inflexible planning and budget systems, there is no escaping the continuing failure of politics and of the dominant development models to effect change for poor people in the most challenging environments (Ghani and Lockhart, p. 66).

Refreshing, then, to read a contribution to the debate that comes from a fresh direction and perspective, even if the subtitle A New Paradigm for Development hints at a different kind of certainty which could be just as unjustified as all the rest! Actually, the subtitle fails to do justice to the very context-specific solutions that emerge from the text. Seth Kaplan is a business consultant. His starting point is not how to deliver effective aid, or how to achieve the ever-receding Millennium Development Goals, but how to create an environment where investors and entrepreneurs will do what they do best in ways that build an economy, create jobs, contribute to building an effective state, and, through all those things, reduce poverty. Some people will perhaps see this as just a different kind of limited perspective. But the refreshing thing about Kaplan's work is that it does not arise from a purely theoretical or narrowly one-dimensional position. He does not assume that economics and business, or governments, or the state, are independent operators in a vacuum, or the only actors that matter. Kaplan sees them as embedded within a set of shifting social, political, and cultural relations, all of which are interdependent. For Kaplan, increasing people's well-being through supporting viable and sustainable livelihoods goes hand in hand with people having effective voice and the development of a social compact - the building of an effective state. His central thesis is that effective states rest on/emerge from societies that have a certain degree of cohesion, and that without this minimum cohesion they cannot function well. In other words, the nature of society really matters, and states need to be grown from the bottom up. 'The key to fixing fragile states is … to legitimize the state by deeply enmeshing it within society' (Kaplan, p. 49). In Europe, modern states were achieved through centuries of bloody battles between nations, with a long period of reconfiguration before reaching the relatively settled states we have today. But this approach to state building is no longer viable, and we need to look for other ways of supporting people to build effective states from below.

The source of the cohesion may take many forms. The detailed cases in the book show that cohesion can be based on ethnicity, shared religion, specific shared history or national identity: it need not mean uniformity of population, but it does have to have meaning for many people in a particular geographic location. If you build on the cohesion that you have, at whatever level that is (a village, for example, a district, or a region), you can create institutions and stabilities at the local level based on the social, political and cultural realities that exist between people. You can work to strengthen the things that do work, even if that means working with less than 'perfect' governance. Traditional forms of governance can provide a useful starting point, particularly in rural areas, and can evolve to suit local conditions. For example, Somaliland, building on the cohesion of a comparatively homogeneous population, established a Council of Elders to resolve disputes and distribute food which 'quickly gained substantial legitimacy and, when the war ended, came to play a key role in promoting a process of representative decision making' (Kaplan, p. 121). Kaplan sees a functional state as emerging from such strengthening of cohesion, which allows functioning institutions to grow up or be renegotiated from the ground up in ways that can overcome political fragmentation. 'As state cohesion is a major predictor of state effectiveness, more emphasis should be placed on measures that unify disparate peoples in fragile states' (Kaplan, p. 56). There is insufficient space here to consider this proposition in detail, but Kaplan's ideas are well worth considering. He is a realist, and does not try to side-step the inconvenient difficulties such as corruption and self-interest, or the collusion of much current aid and business investment with elites that have little relationship with the wider population. The case studies, covering countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Congo and Bolivia, are absorbing.

Kaplan has concerns in common with Ghani and Lockhart, who come from a more institutionally focused, if experimental approach to state building (both have worked for the World Bank in the past, and Ghani was finance minister in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2004). In Fixing Failed States, they argue for an integrated approach involving international actors and national leaders, as well as citizens, in a collective effort to build states that are legitimate in the eyes of both their citizens and the international community. One common concern between the two similarly titled books is timescale: both are clear that state building cannot be rushed, and that the method by which leaders are chosen is a tiny part of a complex web of change needed. Both books are concerned with building trust between citizens and states. Their starting points are very different, but both show the need to fix the politics and not just the economics. Ghani and Lockhart offer somewhat technocratic solutions, dominated by a focus on the institutions of the state - despite some very human-flavoured, citizen-focused analysis, their book is very much about fixing failed states with external inputs and intervention, with the 'international compact' having equal significance with national compacts, and with a 'National Programme' at the strategic heart of the change process. All very interesting, and illustrated with experiences from Afghanistan, but rather lacking in detail.

Kaplan, in contrast, makes no assumption that national programming can deliver the required change; he focuses on how local social and political compacts can be negotiated afresh in fragile states, putting resident populations in the centre-stage position and (re)building 'from below' to negotiate and create a functioning state. Kaplan perhaps sits a long way apart from the current dominant practice - but despite that, or because of that, he is more thought-provoking and critical of current approaches to development that seek to replicate a limited range of models of how a state should function. Both books are easily readable by non-specialists, and both books have a useful contribution to make in stimulating fresh ideas and approaches to very intractable problems that badly need major attention.

Writing this at a time when the entire world feels rather like a fragile (if not failed) state, I found myself transposing Kaplan's thesis to a global scale: what would it take for the world to set aside individual state interests and for us to see ourselves as one people, sharing a collective identity that overshadows all the separate ones that we have as human beings, who think of ourselves as having a common interest and a common fate in this time of climate change? That is what will be needed to make the radical change that is required. I am sure that it could incidentally address the completely possible challenge of ending poverty.


According to the UK government's Department for International Development, around one third of the 1.4 billion people subsisting below the poverty line today live in fragile states, as well as half of the children who die before they reach their fifth birthday, and half of the children who are not in primary school (Eliminating World Poverty: Building our Common Future, DFID, London, 2009, p. 15).

Op. cit.