Dimensions of State Fragility: A Review of the Social Science Literature

Working Paper #33

November 19, 2007

Failing, fragile or failed states have become part of the international relations and development lexicon since the early-1990s. These states are often associated with poor or unstable governance, persistent extreme poverty and potential international security threats. Yet insufficient research has been done to understand and clarify the dimensions of state fragility and their implications. This paper reviews the extensive literature that has surrounded this topic.

The authors first draw attention to a host of definitional issues associated with the terminology of "fragile states" and "failed states." They emphasize the limitations inherent in the use of each term, and the differential implications for international peace and security. The paper then analyzes fragile states in terms of their economically destabilizing effects and real or perceived threats to security. The authors conclude that economic breakdown and political instability are far more serious consequences arising from state fragility than the security dangers posed to neighbouring countries and the broader international community.

The forces leading to the emergence of fragile states are seen as numerous and diverse. They encompass economic causes, intrastate conflict and international factors, among others. For this reason, the authors argue, simplistic responses to fragility almost never work. They conclude that changes in the regional geopolitical situation surrounding fragile states, and more equitable global trade and immigration policies, are likely to be more effective in reversing state fragility over the long run than approaches that emphasize aid, military intervention or "creative destruction."

About the Authors

Usman Hannan is a sessional lecturer at the Department of Economics, University of Waterloo, and an analyst at Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator. He holds a BA(Honours with High Distinction) from the University of Toronto in Economics, Mathematics and Middle Eastern Civilizations, as well as an MA in Economics from the University of Waterloo.