Causes and Characteristics



Fragile states are plagued by two structural problems—political identity fragmentation and weak national institutionsthat together preclude the formation of any robust governing system, severely undermining the legitimacy of the state and leading to political orders that are highly unstable and hard to reform (see table for four possible political orders).

The political fragmentation directly impinges on the ability of these countries to foster the positive institutional environment necessary to encourage productive economic, political, and social behavior because it undermines the usefulness of traditional informal institutional systems and squanders built-up social capital while disabling attempts to construct robust formal governing bodies. The net result is societies with low levels of interpersonal trust and extraordinarily high transaction costs.

It also warps incentives, encouraging short-term opportunism at the expense of long-term investments that could advance development. Society becomes obsessed by the conflict between identity groups, not with generating wealth or increasing national prestige. Meanwhile, formal governing bodies and regulations, disconnected from their surrounding environments, and not having become an integral part of the informal institutional frameworks that guide people’s behavior, command only superficial allegiance and compliance. Real life goes on outside them. State laws go unheeded because no one acknowledges them as legitimate. Corrupt governments, biased courts, and weak property rights are a natural product of such conditions.

The illegitimacy and poor governance that debilitate fragile countries can be traced to many factors—colonialism, for instance—that have combined to detach states from their environments, governments from their societies, and elites from their citizens. Whereas a successful state uses local identities, local capacities, and local institutions to promote its development, a dysfunctional country’s state structures undermine all of these indigenous assets. As a consequence, a dysfunctional state cannot leverage its people’s histories and customs to construct effective formal institutions with wide legitimacy; nor can it draw on the social capital embedded in cohesive groups to facilitate economic, political, and social intercourse; and nor is it able to employ the traditional governing capacities of its citizens to run the affairs of state.

For more information, see:

Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development Chapter 3

By Seth Kaplan


State and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control

By Jeffrey Herbst


The Other Path: The Invisible Revolution in the Third World

By Hernando de Soto


Horizontal Inequities

Edited by Frances Stewart


Making States Work: State Failure and the Crisis of Governance

Edited by Simon Chesterman, Michael Ignatieff, and Ramesh Thakur


Failures of the State Failure Debate: Evidence from the Somali Territories

By Tobias Hagmann and Markus Hoehne


Conceptualising the Causes and Consequences of Failed States: A Critical Review of the Literature

By Jonathan Di John