What makes a country weak

Domestic conflicts

Daniel Lambach

To person

Daniel Lambach, born in 1977, has a doctorate in political science. He is a substitute professor for international relations at the Institute for Political Science and Associate Fellow of the Institute for Development and Peace at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Whether in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Iraq or Syria - the main cause of internal conflicts is the weakness of the state. States that can no longer perform their tasks are called "fragile", "disintegrated" or "collapsed". This is where the policy of the international community comes in.

American soldier in Baghdad, Iraq. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

A current view states that internal conflicts arise particularly often where the state is unable to curb the violence of competing actors (e.g. Schneckener 2006). According to the classic definition of the sociologist Max Weber, the state is "a political establishment if and to the extent that its administrative staff successfully claims the monopoly of legitimate physical coercion to carry out the regulations" (Weber 1972: 29).

This monopoly on the use of force means, on the one hand, that the state can ensure the protection of the population through comprehensive control of violence. On the other hand, however, there is also the danger that the state will use its means of violence to oppress its citizens. Such cases are well known from Nazi Germany and other dictatorships. "State" and "state monopoly on the use of force" are therefore not automatically a guarantee for peaceful and prosperous coexistence among citizens. State rule must therefore always be balanced between the various powers (executive, legislative, judicial, media) and democratically legitimized and controlled by the sovereign - the people.

Fragile statehood as a central cause of conflict

As a rule, however, internal conflicts do not arise where the state is too strong, but rather where it is too weak. These states are referred to as "fragile" (or as "disintegrated", "collapsed") because they can no longer fulfill central state tasks. This means that in large parts or in the entire national territory public safety is not guaranteed, hardly any services (e.g. in the areas of education or health) are offered and government regulations are inadequately enforced or not enforced at all.

Nonetheless, fragile statehood does not mean that these societies slide into an unrestricted anarchy in which there is no longer any order and everyone has to fight for bare survival. Instead, alternative actors and structures that organize social life come to the fore. Where the state is incapable of guaranteeing the security and care of its citizens, traditional authorities and ruling structures as well as civil society groups take its place. Tribal princes, religious authorities or village elders ensure security, pass laws, raise taxes and sit in court. And national and international NGOs perform important social and development tasks.

However, this form of alternative regulatory and supply structures also has a downside: Under certain circumstances, it contributes to the further erosion of the state and prevents its restoration and consolidation. The meaning of non-state structures shows in a certain way the limitations of the term "fragile statehood". Because the concept only draws attention to the lack of formal state structures and suppresses possible starting points for the reconstruction and strengthening of the state and an effective administration. In this respect one should be careful when using the term and concept in order to avoid errors in the analysis and counterproductive political conclusions and decisions.

But there is also no reason to glorify the continued existence of traditional and social structures in fragile states. These structures have both a light and a dark side. On the one hand, traditional authorities have considerable influence and are well acquainted with the local situation. On the other hand, chiefs, elders and church representatives are not immune to corruption and abuse of power - and since they do not hold any public office, there are no procedures for complaints or their removal. Particularly problematic is the work of so-called warlords who have appropriated local war principalities through armed force and are mostly only interested in their preservation and economic gain.

The example of Somalia

A particularly protracted example of state collapse has been observed in Somalia in East Africa for almost three decades. An uprising there overthrew the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in the 1980s, but the coalition of rebels was unable to agree on a new political order afterwards. (Conflict portrait Somalia) The coalition disintegrated, and since then various militias have controlled a patchwork of local, clan-based neighborhoods and territories. In many parts of the country, clan elders took on important tasks, e.g. by monitoring compliance with traditional or informal law and acting as mediator in conflicts. In the north of Somalia, in the regions of Somaliland and Puntland, the formation of reasonably functioning para-state systems did occur. Regular democratic elections are held in Somaliland; nevertheless, the country is not diplomatically recognized by the international community.

Since around 2012, the situation has gradually stabilized across Somalia. Thanks to massive support from the United Nations and the African Union (AU), a democratically elected central government has formed and acquired a certain degree of ability to act. The government is faced with major challenges. This includes the ongoing fight with the Islamist Al-Shabaab militias, who repeatedly carry out terrorist attacks.

The population and the economy of the already very poor country have suffered from the decades of war. In all common development indicators, Somalia is well below the average for African countries. Politically, the integration of the autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland into a federal republic of Somalia still to be created is still in the stars.

Machining strategies and dilemmas

The policy to overcome fragile statehood is known as state-building, often misunderstood as "nation-building". Right at the top of the agenda is the development or strengthening of central state institutions, e.g. police, judiciary, administration and the military. The (re) building of states has become an important field of humanitarian emergency aid, development cooperation and peacebuilding in recent years. Relevant measures are the provision of equipment and infrastructure, financial aid as well as education and training of personnel (see text on institution building, Chapter 5).

In supporting the (re) building of states, representatives of the international community face numerous strategic and moral dilemmas. They have to weigh up between their interest in domestic and regional stability on the one hand and the protection of human and civil rights on the other. Assuming that the stability of the state (and its regional environment) is endangered in an autocratic country, should measures to strengthen the state be supported from outside in order to avoid a violent escalation of the internal conflict? Corresponding measures can perhaps restore stability in the short term, but at the same time enable the authoritarian government to abuse the police and military capacities thus created to further suppress the population.

Because of such conflicting goals, state building must always be thought of and implemented in relation to other goals, such as the protection of human rights, the fight against poverty and democratization. At the same time, external actors must be clear about their priorities at all times in order to be able to make appropriate decisions in the event of conflicting goals. This was clearly not the case in Afghanistan. There the international community was navigating back and forth between the goals of democratization, state-building and fighting the Taliban without a strategic compass.

Experience to date with externally supported state building is mixed - corresponding measures often only achieve partial goals and stir up new political conflicts. Often this is due to an approach that is too "technocratic" and short of breath. External actors often underestimate the time and resources required to build institutions and do not realize that such reforms produce not only winners but also losers, who then use their position to thwart the implementation of reforms.

Practice also shows that formal institutions are always influenced by informal, social practices and institutions, such as clan structures or traditional forms of jurisdiction. As a result, hybrid political orders emerge with elements from both "worlds" (Fischer / Schmelzle 2009). In some West African countries it is not uncommon for elected parliamentarians to seek additional traditional posts, such as the title of "chief", in order to gain additional legitimacy. This is not a fundamental problem of state building, but it clearly shows how important it is to take local conditions into account when planning and implementing reform programs.


Debiel, Tobias / Klingebiel, Stephan / Mehler, Andreas / Schneckener, Ulrich (2005): Between Ignoring and Intervening: Strategies and Dilemmas of External Actors in Fragile States, Bonn, SEF Policy Paper No. 23.

Fischer, Sabine / Schmelzle, Beatrix (eds.) (2009): Building Peace in the Absence of States: Challenging the Discourse on State Failure, Berlin.

Grävingholt, Jörn / Ziaja, Sebastian / Kreibaum, Merle (2012): State Fragility: Towards a Multi-Dimensional Empirical Typology, Bonn, German Development Institute, Discussion Paper No. 3/2012.

Lambach, Daniel (2008): State Collapse and Regional Security, Baden-Baden.

Lambach, Daniel (2013): Fragile statehood: terms, theories and political discourses, in: Meyer, Günter et al. (Ed.): Statehood in the Third World - Fragile and Failed States as a Development Problem. Mainz: Johannes Gutenberg University, pp. 31-58.

Putzel, James / DiJohn, Jonathan (2012): Meeting the Challenges of Crisis States: Crisis States Research Center Report, London.

Risse, Thomas (2012): Governance Configurations in Areas of Limited Statehood: Actors, Modes, Institutions, and Resources, Berlin, DFG Collaborative Research Center 700 Working Paper No. 32.

Weber, Max (1972): Economy and Society: Outline of Understanding Sociology, 5th Edition, Tübingen.

Schneckener, Ulrich (Ed.) (2006): Fragile statehood: "States at Risk" between stability and failure, Baden-Baden.


Fund for Peace: Fragile States Index 2015

Tetzlaff, Rainer (2002): The African States between Democratic Consolidation and State Breakdown, in: From Politics and Contemporary History, Issue 13-14 / 2002, pp. 3-6.

Disintegrating States, in: From Politics and Contemporary History, Issue 28-29 / 2005.