Fragile states are growing in importance on the development and humanitarian  agenda. One of the most concrete outcomes of last years aid summit in Busan was the New Deal for fragile states. Most major donors are looking to increase their presence and effort in fragile states, and implementing agencies are having to work out what this means for their work. The stakes are high: current data suggests that no fragile state has or will achieve any of the MDGs. This post explores whether we are thinking about fragility in ways that actually helps us work well in such contexts.

First, some basics. There are a lot of debates about fragility and what it means. Some academics argue that fragility is part and parcel of a new Western hegemony, with echoes of 19th century imperialist justifications. It is certainly hard to deny that state fragility has risen up the agenda since 9/11, the ‘global war on terror’ and increasing international concerns about security.

There are now wide range of indices to measure and track state fragility. The Fund for Peace has a failed states index which looks like this:

Separately, the Centre for Systemic Peace publishes an index of state fragility which looks like this:

Of course, there are methodological differences, and any number of research projects could be undertaken to explore these in detail. But what is interesting is that both frameworks indicate that fragility is not the norm but the exception. As one analyst puts it: “state weakness has been a problem for as long as the state itself has been evolving into a universal form of political organization….Indeed, a compelling case can be made that it is the modern Weberian state that is the exception.”

This observation was made by Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College, who for the past 20 years has led work on how international agencies work in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. He argues in a recent article that fragile states are best seen as ‘wicked problems’. Take a look at the characteristics of wicked problems below, and think about situations like Afghanistan, Somalia or DRC:

  1. Wicked problems are difficult to clearly define The nature and extent of the problem depends on who has been asked and different stakeholders have different versions of what the problem is.
  2. Wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal. Successfully addressing wicked policy problems usually involves a range of coordinated and interrelated responses, given their multi-causal nature; it also often involves trade-offs between conflicting goals.
  3. Attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences. Because wicked policy problems are multi-causal with many interconnections to other issues, measures introduced to address the problem frequently lead to unforeseen consequences elsewhere.
  4. Wicked problems are often not stable Often a wicked problem and the constraints or evidence involved in understanding the problem are evolving at the same time that policy makers are trying to address the policy problem. Policy makers have to focus on a moving target.
  5. Wicked problems usually have no clear solution Since there is no definitive, stable problem there is often no definitive solution to wicked problems. Problem-solving often ends when deadlines are met, or as dictated by other resource constraints rather than when the ‘correct’ solution is identified.  To pursue approaches based on ‘solving’ or ‘fixing’ may cause policy makers to act on unwarranted and unsafe assumptions and create unrealistic expectations.
  6. Wicked problems are socially complex. The social complexity of wicked problems, rather than their technical complexity, overwhelms most current problem-solving and project management approaches. Solutions to wicked problems usually involve coordinated action by a range of stakeholders working at every level from the international to the local.
  7. Wicked problems involve changing behaviour. The solutions to many wicked problems involve changing the behaviour and/or gaining the commitment of individual citizens.
  8. Some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure. Some longstanding wicked problems seem intractable. Development has many examples where the persistence of a problem has not been because of a lack of sustained effort.

Menkhaus is clear that the ‘wickedness’ of such fragile contexts needs to be understood and integrated into our strategies and practices:

How we conceive of the condition of state fragility is critical to our ability to fashion effective strategies in response. To date, our efforts to define, categorize, measure, interpret, and predict state fragility have been at best partial successes. As with many important political concepts, state fragility is maddeningly difficult to pin down, all the more so because on the surface it appears to be so self-evident (and solvable) a syndrome. In reality, the notion of state fragility constitutes a complex cocktail of causes and effects, a syndrome that has proven largely impervious to quick, template-driven external solutions.

The key message from Menkhaus is that the way in which aid agencies work needs to undergo a major rethink if we want to see improved results from our efforts. This is consistent with recent mainstream thinking – as the Busan New Deal document states: “the current ways of working in fragile states need serious improvement.”

Myself and others with an interest in complex systems have been doing some initial work on what this new approach might look like. Last year I attended a roundtable at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), organised by Bill Frej, a USAID Minister and former Mission Chief in Afghanistan. The focus of the event was how complex systems thinking could be used to improve foreign policy efforts, especially in fragile states.

Bill and I followed this up with a co-authored SFI Working Paper, published in June 2011, which synthesised our overall findings. In it we set out a number of principles, distilled from the combined insights of the complexity scientists and foreign policy experts at the roundtable:

Principle 1) To work to understand the systemic nature of the problems faced in foreign policy and how these problems evolve over time.

Principle 2) To involve those people who matter the most in the decisions that matter the most.

Principle 3) To avoid ‘silver bullet’ strategies and instead attempt multiple parallel experiments.

Principle 4) To establish real-time strategic analysis & learning as a key form of operational feedback.

Principle 5) To be open to the fundamental adaptation of efforts, along with changes in local contexts and conditions.

Principle 6) To reframe the overall foreign policy efforts as dynamic networks of multiple systems and actors.

Subsequently, Bill and I have been involved as part of a team assessing a major donor’s ongoing efforts in fragile states. It has proved a fascinating process, which we are just in the stages of wrapping up. What was especially interesting, from the perspective of the current post, was the extent to which the principles above seemed to ring true for the organisation in question.

Once the final report is published next month, I will post a piece illustrating these principles in more detail. For now, I would be interested to know if others working on issues of fragility and conflict also find this to be an interesting area for exploration.

Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. This is exactly the blog I have been looking for! I currently work with a group of consultants in Canada playing with many of the concepts you discuss in this blog. In the past we have done large group innovation events and people-based change management work, and more recently have been working with a large Canadian health NGO on a big culture-change initiative involving 140 communities. We are constantly developing and testing new methodology for allowing people to work better in complex environments because we believe that is the only way for real change to happen.

    I am also in the midst of a doing a masters in international development and most recently took a course on fragile states. During the course I kept coming to the conclusion that fragile states are the ultimate “wicked problem” and that the development world needs to start developing complexity-based solutions for tackling them. I am happy to hear that you and your colleagues have been doing just that.

    Incidentally, if you happen to know of any academics doing research in this area, I would be happy to hear about it.

    I have lots more reading to do here. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

  2. […] on the Edge: on state fragility as wicked problem and Facebook, social media and the complexity of influence – Ben Ramalingam seems to be back […]

  3. […] have often been befuddled by fragile states, with some even calling them a wicked problem. These difficulties, however, say more about donors than they do about fragile […]

  4. […] have often been befuddled by fragile states, with some even calling them a wicked problem. These difficulties, however, say more about donors than they do about fragile […]

  5. […] a previous post on this blog, Ben explored the potential of complex systems research for thinking about statebuilding and […]

  6. […] an interesting article on his aid on the edge of chaos blog, Ben Ramalingam refers to state fragility as a “wicked problem”, and explores how ideas from complexity theory can help identify new ways of approaching this […]

  7. […] have often been befuddled by fragile states, with some even calling them a wicked problem. These difficulties, however, say more about donors than they do about fragile […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Conflict and peace building, Evaluation, Evolution, Leadership, Meetings, Organisations, Public Policy, Strategy