Fragile States and Imagined Communities

By Stephen Commins, Associate Director of Global Public Affairs and Urban Planning Lecturer

Daily Life in Herat, Afghanistan

International aid agencies have spent over a decade since the original World Bank Low Income Countries Under Stress (LICUS) report and various initiatives within DFID and OECD (Fragile States Group and INCAF)  trying to define ‘state fragility’ and identify effective levers for reducing state fragility.  Along with the high level work, donors have invested considerable resources into programs that seek to address the problematic state-building in Fragile and Conflict-Affected States (FCS).

The literature on addressing fragilty through ‘state-building’ includes political economy analysis and efforts to understand the specific context of state formation, but there is a lack of attention to the nation-state as a geographic expression of a common/shared identity.

The work of Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities) highlighted and illustrated the concept of the nation-state as something relative new in the organization of human societies compared to empires, religious institutions, ‘ethnic’ identity (i.e. tribes), and the other traditional social structures.

In regards to FCS: are state-building and nation-building the same, related, distinct? If they are related, how do they relate together? Does state-building cohere with the idea of a nation-state?

Through various efforts at ‘state-building’, donors have sought to promote ‘effective’ ways to reduce fragility through instruments which they define as contributing to the strengthening of accountable and effective state institutions. Within the ‘state-building’ efforts are programs that seek to enhance the capacities of state actors in such areas as security, basic social services, and the rule of law. 

In reflecting on the nature of the nation-state as a construct, it may be useful to ask whether this could mix up the formal institutions of the state with the particular historic processes around the formation of a national identity. The fragile states literature has consistently identified some of the major obstacles that actual state formation faces, but has it adequately accounted for the identity questions?

Well before the recent interest in fragile states, or even the period of decolonization in Africa and much of Asia, there are long-term, historic lessons that go back to the post-WWI ‘order’ that highlight that ‘states’ are not necessarily ‘nations’, and the lack of a common identity can undermine the effectiveness of states.  The well-titled book, Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin, highlighted the fragility of the externally created states in the ‘Middle East’.  This was echoed in a book Between the Fires by David Clay Large, which explores how the ‘nation states’ of Eastern Europe succumbed to authoritarianism in the 1920s and 1930s, in part due to the problems of establishing a common ‘nation’ with the remnants of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires.

The lesson from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as from the post-colonial period is that people in a nation state do not necessarily see themselves first as citizens or ‘nationals’, or only as one of several levels of identity.   They may identify first as a members of particular sub- or trans-national social formation (religion, kin group, ‘nation’) that is distinct from their particular geographic nation-state. This may not matter in some instances, as people carry multiple identities, but it can matter when there are competing ‘nations’.

This is not a particularly ‘African’ issue, as there are a number of instances in South and Southeast Asia, for example, where the ‘national’ identity has been weak and where the issue is not the relative strength of the state, but the sense of ‘imagined community’ within the country: West Papua; Aceh; Solomon Islands; Southern Thailand; Mindanao; the Hmong in Lao PDR. Similar examples can be seen in Spain, Belgium, Canada and the United Kingdom, and some distant 19th Century conflict between ‘north’ and ‘south’ still shapes politics in the United States.

One solution has been devolution or asymmetric decentralization, which is part of the settlement in Canada and Spain, not just ‘developing countries’. The problematic of the nation state and its formation is manifested sometimes as ‘sub-national fragility’, a situation where one particular region or district does not consider itself to share the same identity as the rest of the nation-state. In this case, ‘state-building’ is more than institutions or even accountability and effectiveness.

The attention to the ‘nation’ in nation-state issues has been relatively infrequent compared to state-building, and it is past time to find ways to give this more attention in regards to fragile states and international aid policies.

Background Reading:

Alan Whaites, ‘States in Development: Understanding State Building”, DFID Working Paper, 2008.

Bjorn Dressel and Sinclair Dinnen, “Political Settlements: Old Wine in New Bottles?” Development Policy Center, Policy Brief 9, February 2014.

1 reply
  1. Malla
    Malla says:

    Yes Dr.Natesan . Cairo is almost akin to Mumbai ( India?) . I went in the year 1986 Then itlesf i found the city that way. I went from Muscat where I was employed then. Instead of using the holidays to come home’ I used to travel like this. But, You missed Turkey. Istanbul, earlier know as Constantinople, has its own unique history to share.


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