Fragility in the Paradigm: Reviewing David Cameron’s Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development

David Cameron has some laudable footnotes to his otherwise problematic prime ministerial tenure in the United Kingdom, among them a commitment to spending 0.7 percent of GDP on international aid and promoting a global agenda of tackling corruption. But if he is planning on a post-prime ministerial legacy in the field of tackling state fragility and development, he’s off to a sub-par start. The report of the Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development, released this month, doesn’t make the grade.

For the kind of resources spent on the exercise we have a right to expect interesting material, and there is some. For example the finding in the paper ‘Fragility in the Data’ by Hannes Mueller that it is variability in economic growth not average growth that is the key factor in poverty reduction, is important. It is also instructive that to have a sound quantitative demonstration that the indicators for state fragility (for example as used by the Fund For Peace Fragile States Index) don’t actually predict state fragility at all, but simply reproduce data for past failings. A good illustration of this is the fact that the ratings for the Arab Spring countries didn’t show any sign of the turmoil before it happened, and only shifted towards signaling danger when it was already happening.

The recommendation that democratic elections be considered as a secondary component of governance stabilization is also salutary. It has gained the most press attention. It might have been conveyed with more conviction if Cameron had included some personal reflections on how this represents a departure from his government’s policies in Libya and Somalia.

The commission report claims that its approach is new. Mostly, that’s not correct. The emphasis on nationally-designed and -owned reform agendas has been the central plank of the G7+ group of fragile countries, and their Busan ‘New Deal’ for fragile states, which was established eight years ago. The idea of replacing policy conditionality with governance conditionality was a central plank of British support for the New Partnership for African Development sixteen years ago. The commission’s re-statements of these positions are welcome, but the report would have been better—and truer to its maxims of realism, honesty and inclusion—had it acknowledged their genesis.

Given Cameron’s interest in tackling corruption—especially so since his successor Teresa May has entirely dropped this agenda—it would have been useful to see it as a central plank of the research and recommendations of the commission. It is disappointing that it hardly figures. A prestigious report that linked the evidence of massive tax evasion and capital flight, documented in the Panama Papers and other sources, and the growing research into illicit financial flows from poor countries, with the challenges of state fragility and development would have been an interesting and innovative exercise indeed.

The academic framework of analysis is no less pallid than the politics of the report. The scholarly paradigm is the work of Paul Collier and Tim Besley. This owes much to Collier’s own work on ‘traps’ that impair development, the new institutional economics of Douglass North, and the quantitative modeling so beloved by economists. It is worth examining the framework with a critical eye, because its multiple marginal revisions are stretching the conventional state-building paradigm to a point at which one is compelled to ask whether that paradigm is in fact broken. And it does appear that the various concessions made by the authors are made so as to try to keep the core institution-building paradigm intact.

The opening sentences of the academic foreword are revealing, in ways that the authors probably didn’t intend (p. 8): ‘All countries were once fragile. No society started off with the institutions and norms needed for peace and security.’

This is a strikingly candid re-statement of the view that internal social factors—notably the adoption of particular rules for ordering political affairs—are the key to development, and it was the good fortune of countries such as Britain, France and America that they figured these out first. The sentence that follows is: ‘The first governments did not strive to fulfil some purpose agreed by society.’ The implication is that we can achieve the same outcome today, this time by benevolent design albeit through adopting slightly different paths. Collier and his colleagues sketch out a ‘stepping stones’ approach to state-building that does two things in parallel: one is to constrain the arbitrary use of power by those in government and the other is to build a sense of common purpose across society—a ‘national narrative’. But their understanding of power and politics is astonishingly technocratic, as though the task were akin to wiring an electrical grid.

Donald Kaberuka, the co-chair of the commission, formerly head of the African Development Bank and before that Minister of Finance and Economic Development for Rwanda, speaking at the launch event, encapsulated this view when he explained that the purpose of an election is to elect people who will govern the country fairly and deliver services, rather than to exchange one group of people in power for another; that the substance of government in terms of providing security, education, health, and not stealing money, is more important than the form that the government takes. In favor of a long-standing inclusive power-sharing formula, Kaberuka warned of a ‘coalition of permanent losers’ that would destabilize a government chosen on a majoritarian principle.

Nowhere, however, do they recognize that the fragility of poor and conflict-riven countries is as much a product of their position in the global political economy, which is turbulent, disturbed and unequal, as it is the shortcomings of those countries’ own citizenry with respect to following the institutional templates beloved of the authors. This is where the absence of a thorough analysis of corruption is particularly glaring. Kleptocracy isn’t a syndrome of poor countries, it is a global disease and its most powerful agents of transmission are international corporations, banks and secrecy jurisdictions.

The report also reproduces an intellectual sleight of hand that is common in this field. The central role of institutions is credited to Douglass North, the most prominent exponent of the new institutional economics. North defined ‘institutions’ expansively as the ‘rules of the game’. But, having agreed with North, most writers on the topic of state-building then slide seamlessly into using the Weberian notion of an institution as a rule-governed bureaucracy for administering public affairs. That of course is one particular form of institutionalized political life, which has been quite successful, but it’s an elementary non sequitur to assume it’s the only possible one. As different ‘rules of the game’ are tried out in different parts of the world and deliver the kinds of economic development and stability that economists like, at the same time as the shortcomings of western-dictated formulas become more evident, economists become more broad-minded in accepting what acceptable ‘institutions’ might look like. This report is an example of this process of adapting to a changing reality, as it retreats from some of the tenets that underpinned the state-building orthodoxy. But the stealthy shift from one definition of ‘institution’ to the other comes dangerously close to the vapid circularity of simply changing one’s theory whenever something happens that didn’t fit the previous version.

My perspective is that state-building models based on the Weberian-institutional, ordered allocation of power are doomed to be replaced by other paradigms, in a process of social scientific revolution, that takes account of the fact that the dominant reality in fragile countries is their weak position in a turbulent, transactional and unequal global political marketplace. We cannot understand why some countries are fragile without understanding their unequal relation to others—including Britain. We are well into that process of changing our perspectives, and the Cameron commission report is part of the increasingly elaborate and byzantine defense of the dying paradigm.


Paul Collier, Tim Besley and Adnan Khan, 2018. Escaping the Fragility Trap. Report of the Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development, chaired by David Cameron, Donald Kaberuka and Adnan Khan, London School of Economics, International Growth Centre and University of Oxford, Blavatnik School of Government.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

Stay Connected