Fragile States & Armed Conflicts: Ways Out of Instability

December 14, 2016
What foundations do we need to build to tackle instability in countries suffering from fragile states and armed conflicts? Let’s have a look at public policies and international development best practices to recover from wars and internal conflicts.

War and conflict are often described as ‘development in reverse’ (Paul Collier, 2007). The opposite of progress.

However, these are not just the “tougher” version of your usual economic and social development challenge. You can’t simply throw more money and people at it than you usually would. Tackling poverty in conflict-affected countries that are socially and politically unstable require fundamentally different approaches to the usual humanitarian assistance approach.

Dealing with social and political instability

failing states and political instability
Devising pathways out of instability

Conflict is closely linked to bad governance, corruption and the lack of economic development. Violence fundamentally undermines the institutions and relationships on which long-term peace and economic growth rely on.

According to the UK government's approach to addressing conflict and fragility, stability can only be achieved when a society has the strong, capable and legitimate institutions needed to be resilient and flexible in the face of shocks, and able to manage tensions peacefully.

As outlined in the UK's ‘Building Stability Overseas Strategy’, we need to be realistic about what we can achieve in fragile and conflict-affected states (known as FCAS) and be realistic about the pace of change, taking risks and accepting some failures in order to secure real change and results. 

Assistance to fragile states must be flexible enough to take advantage of windows of opportunity and respond to changing conditions on the ground. At the same time, given low capacity and the extent of the challenges facing fragile states, it is often sufficient to implement a ‘good enough governance’ strategy focused on a selected set of changes to create critical improvements in political and administrative systems. At all times, political will is the one vital element needed for these challenges are to be addressed at all.

The OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) recommendations for engaging with fragile states and those suffering from armed conflicts outline the main challenges encountered and the methods used to ensure effective assistance delivery conflict states. These are the criteria that successful interventions must fulfill.

1. Giving failing states control of their own fate (and strategy)

The chances for success are greatest when the support focuses on a strategy developed with and by the fragile state itself - with national reformers in government and civil society developing measures for stabilisation and prevention of violence. Donors must support inclusive transitions led by the fragile states themselves, and based on a vision and plan of their own. 

Practice makes perfect

Generally, institutions get fit with exercise – they learn and get stronger by doing. And by solving the problems that stop them from achieving the goals for which they are accountable. These states suffering from political instability or armed conflicts must lead the agenda regarding their development programmes and policies.

Otherwise they won't be able to own the changes (be it to take pride in their political transformation or learn from their mistakes themselves) and it could further reduce the little legitimacy the government had, which in turn will fuel more violence. Donor interventions must be aligned to partner country systems, institutions, policies and broader targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

United Nation's Force Intervention Brigade training
United Nation's Force Intervention Brigade training, part of the Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo

2. Put in place "Whole-of-Government Approaches" (WGA) to minimise conflicts and create incentives

Development in fragile or conflict-affected environments requires unprecedented coordination between multiple arms of government. The political, security, economic, humanitarian and social spheres are interdependent; failure in one impacts others. 

Donors must forge integrated approaches to operations aiming to stabilise and through the existing strategy demonstrate their ability to work across defense, diplomacy and development. They must keep in mind the need for policy coherence and agreement on strategic aims that minimise political instability, tensions and trade-offs between objectives.

3. Focus on state-building as the central objective but also consider local implementation within failing states

Dealing with political instability and internal conflicts
‍Dealing with political instability and internal conflicts

The international community will need to prioritise supporting peace agreements and political settlements and the fragile state’s own ability to deliver basic services through legitimate and effective institutions in order to reduce poverty

However, donors must make sure that they focus on building effective institutions and governance at both the central and local levels to lead to better outcomes than a centrally-focused approach. Corruption and political conflicts can be quick to start where there is a lack of oversight.

4. Investing in partnerships beyond governments to create stability

A sure fire way to tackle social instability is also to promote the voice and participation of all (traditionally) excluded groups, such as women, youth and ethnic minorities. Including them in the building of the new state and strategies to deliver public services will help create a more inclusive nation less prone to instability and violence.

Central governments must devised interventions with key groups such as local government, the private sector, faith groups, civil society and the media and strengthening informal capacities, especially those of women, to prevent and resolve political and internal conflicts.

5. Flexible implementation

Donors must demonstrate that stabilisation has an impact that's worth the financial and human costs of the overall operation. To do so, donors must adapt programme components to the feedback given from all levels.

This way they ensure they are optimised to achieve their objectives, learn from lessons, make mid-course corrections, and continue to have a stabilising, non-disruptive influence on the country. Project design must be iterative and dynamic, not static.  

6. While rapid delivery of results may have short-term benefits…

Implementing a peace-building strategy in nations plagued by armed conflicts often necessitates a number of trade-offs, for instance

  • Between short-term interventions and longer-term development
  • Between substituting for failing states/governments and building up state capacity (e.g. capability to deliver basic public services, develop and maintain infrastructure)
  • And the trade-offs necessary when deciding whether to exclude powerful groups that can wreck political settlements.
Violence in fragile states and instability
Checkpoint in the West Bank/Palestine

7. …bypassing national structures can slow down the development of these institutions

Foreign interventions (non-military of course) can inadvertently do harm and even destroy the national capacity that already exists. To avoid this, they need to be grounded in strong conflict and governance analysis, and designed with appropriate safeguards. 

For instance, inclusive political systems can be supported by making use of existing democratic elements within the local culture and system. And by identifying reliable local sources of information on functioning systems structures and lines of authority. 

It is therefore important to capitalise on the existing structures and work to strengthen these whilst being quick to spot opportunities for change. Also in fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS), we must be open to unusual or non-traditional approaches, but use them carefully. 

The state may take on roles and responsibilities when dealing with internal armed conflicts which are not regarded as good practice in other situations, but we must ensure to avoid setting precedents and potential obstacles to future development. For example, the state may benefit in the short-term from government roles being assigned to international advisers, but such arrangements must be very explicitly time-limited and put in place strategies from the start to transition such roles to local staff.

8. Align with local priorities

Allocation of donor resources to prevent internal conflicts must have the flexibility needed to fund responses to early warning signals and other opportunities that arise in situations of instability and armed violence. To avoid fragmentation, duplication and gaps in actions by the government or donors, all actors involved must absolutely coordinate and harmonise the delivery of humanitarian aid. 

International actors should seek to align assistance behind national priorities defined by the country, through local structures, while governments establish safeguards to manage the risks involved. Supporting local country systems via timely and well-planned aid can not only speed up the delivery of results, but also:

  • Be critical in rebuilding the state
  • Enable the government to operate at least at a minimum level
  • Enhance its credibility in the eyes of its citizens.

9. Long term planning in a dynamic situation

Successful development programmes in fragile states will need long term plans that work as a sequence of projects. There needs to be a coherent progress from initial response focusing on establishment of basic foundations of governance to long term development. In this way, donors must sequence the order of projects between short term needs and laying the ground work for sustainable development in the long run.

10. Looking beyond traditional partners to prevent further conflicts

In recent years, governments have started forming more complex structures for development co-operation, such as South-South and triangular co-operation, complementing the traditional "North-South" forms of co-operation (i.e. between richer and poorer countries of the so-called "Global South"). 

In this context, development and humanitarian organisations must increase their efforts to move beyond traditional partnerships and instead devise a regional strategy to building stability. 

This will include working together on:

  • Joint assessments
  • Sharing risk analyses
  • Supporting the peace-building capabilities of regional organisations
  • And undertaking joint missions to consider measures to help avert crises.

Fragile and conflict-affected states face unique challenges compared to other developing nations. Development experts must therefore analyse and understand the particularity of these challenges within each particular country context; covering the “hot stabilisation” phase through to transition, and building foundations for lasting development. 

To this end, donors must avoid blue-print approaches and instead, device innovative ways to deliver results through sustained engagement and sequencing aid instruments according to specific contexts.


  • Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States (FSPs), OECD
  • Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF4), OECD
  • New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States (the ‘New Deal’), OECD
  • Fragile State Index, Funds for Peace
  • Why Matter,
  • Poverty Reduction,

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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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