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Why we need to work more effectively in fragile states

Department for International Development

January 2005

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Fragile states contain 14% of the world’s population but account for nearly 30% of people living on less than $1 a day. One person in three is undernourished. This is twice as high as in other poor countries. Fragile states cannot or will not deliver what citizens need to live decent, secure lives. They cannot or will not tackle poverty. As such, they significantly reduce the likelihood of the world meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.

Fragile states are the hardest countries in the world to help develop.Working with them is difficult and costly and carries significant risks. Aid programmes in fragile states pose difficult policy dilemmas. All too often, donors have made the calculation that it is less harmful to do nothing or to rely on humanitarian responses.1 As repeated crises in Darfur show, this matters because, while humanitarian aid can save lives in the short term, it cannot address chronic state weakness.

Since the mid-1990s, a stronger donor emphasis on rewarding countries with relatively effective governments and stable macroeconomic policies has led to further neglect of fragile states. Even taking account of their poor performance, fragile states have received 43% less aid than would have been appropriate given the extent of poverty within them.2

Aid that has been given has often been delivered badly. It has been more volatile, more fragmented and poorly coordinated. The MDGs cannot be achieved without more progress in fragile states. Evidence shows what does – and does not – work. There is significant potential to improve aid effectiveness in fragile states.

Despite all these problems, there are some successes, such as relative prosperity and stability in Mozambique since the conflict that ended in 1992. Even in countries still regarded as fragile, there are islands of hope. In Nepal, for example, services are being delivered to poor people in spite of acute instability.

There are wider reasons why we need to work better in fragile states. They are more likely to become unstable, to destabilise their neighbours, to create refugee flows, to spread disease and to be bases for terrorists. Afghanistan and Sudan are recent examples.

Recent work by the World Bank on Low-Income Countries Under Stress (LICUS), and by the OECD Learning and Advisory Process on Difficult Partnerships illustrates that donors are realising the importance of raising development effectiveness in fragile states.3 This paper aims to contribute to the debate, whilst acknowledging that policy and practice are still at an early stage.

Over the next year DFID will, with its partners, develop more appropriate ways of working, improve the way the international system organises itself to respond, and deliver aid more effectively on the ground.We will also aim to improve joint working with other Government Departments, drawing on the experience of the Conflict Prevention Pools.


  1. Randel, J. et al, (2004) ‘Financing Countries in Protracted Humanitarian Crisis: An Overview of New Instruments and Existing Aid Flows’, Humanitarian Policy Group Report 18, July 2004.

  2. Dollar, D. and Levin, V. (forthcoming) ‘The Forgotten States: Aid Volumes and Volatility in Difficult Partnership Countries (1992-2002)’ Summary Paper Prepared for DAC Learning and Advisory Process on Difficult Partnerships.

  3. World Bank, (Sept 2002) World Bank Group Work on Low-Income Countries Under Stress: A Task Force Report; World Bank (2003) Low-Income Countries Under Stress: Implementation Overview. SecM2003-0560, 9 :World Bank; Asian Development Bank (February 2002) ‘Approach to Weakly Performing Member Countries. A Discussion Paper’, Asian Development Bank; OECD DAC (April 2002) Development Co-operation in Difficult Partnerships: OECD;Weinstein J.M., Porter J.E., and Eizenstat, S.E. (2004) On the Brink: Weak States and U.S. National Security: A Report of the Commission for Weak States and U.S. National Security: Center for Global Development.

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