BIISS Papers 25, NO. 25, January 2017

Mohammad Zahidul Islam Khan



The concept of state fragility remains elusive despite being in widespread use since early 1990’s and expressed by a growing trend of indexing sovereign states according to their performances. Different fragility indices with varied orientations have emerged shaping our perceptions about states populating the international system. Dominated by domestic drivers of fragility, these indices have played an important role to universalize the under theorized concept of state fragility. The conceptual ambiguity and the underlying narrative surrounding these indices demand a critical look at the real world issue of state fragility and ask : What do these indices actually tell us about the future trajectories of ‘fragile states’? How long will it take for these states to come out of ‘fragility’ or are they doomed in a ‘fragility trap’? And if so, is there a more valid analytical framework to investigate and understand state fragility? The paper frames the issue from an ‘outside-in’ perspective taking a ‘longue duree’ view of fragile states problematique, incorporating their episodic history and conjunctures of economic cycles. Thus, the paper first traces the emergence of fragile states as a product of the ebb and flow of international dynamics. It highlights how the episodic history of colonial legacy, egalitarian international system, Cold War and the era of global war on terrorism, together with the capitalist economic system of the industrial era played a decisive role in creating and sustaining states that are now considered as fragile. Second, the paper exposes the fallacy of state fragility indices by revealing the ‘fragility trap’. It critically examines four oft-cited state fragility indices (i.e. Bertelsmann Transformation Index, Country Indicator for Foreign Policy Fragility Index, Fragile State Index, and World Governance Indicator’s Political Stability and Absence of Violence Index) to identify inadequacies in their conceptualization and operationalizing of state fragility. Using the fragility scores of 197 countries from these indices, the paper estimates the duration these states would take to emerge out of fragility. The result reveals that, within the conceptual boundaries of the four indices, 23–34 per cent states will require over 100 years to reach the ‘top’/ ‘sustainable’ status while a staggering 43- 53 per cent states will take more than 50 years to reach the same threshold and emerge out of fragility if they continue to maintain their historic trajectories of progress. The findings tend to confirm the existence of ‘fragility trap’. Finally, the paper introduces the Centre-Periphery model as an alternative framework to investigate and explain the fragile state problematique. It views the world consisting of Centre and Peripheral states, where fragility is concentrated mostly in the latter; each nation in turn has its own centre and periphery. The nature of interaction (i.e. harmonious vs conflictual) between and within the Centre and Peripheral state remains the crucial determinant of state fragility. The paper hypothesizes the propensity of state fragility with four possible variants of interactions within and between the Centre and Peripheral states. The paper contends that, conceptualizing state only as a functional entity devoid of historicity, power relations and strategic significance can obscure our understanding on state fragility. It concludes that a convergence of interests and goals between the developed Centre and the developing Peripheral states is essential to effectively address state fragility and ensure a good life for the ‘bottom billions’ living in fragile situations. Failing to do that would make the phenomenon of fragile state a rather inevitable feature of the international system.

Mohammad Zahidul Islam Khan, psc, acsc is Group Captain in Bangladesh Air Force and a Chevening Scholar, currently pursuing PhD at University of Reading, United Kingdom. He can be reached at:

© Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), 2017.