3. Fit for fragility: Policy to practice

How do we ensure effective international engagement in fragile settings? Helping countries address drivers of fragility and reach self-reliance is not only a matter of funding. It also requires long-term partnerships, smarter programming and an appetite for risk. It involves ensuring complementarity and coherence between diplomatic, development, peace and humanitarian interventions in accordance with the DAC Recommendation on the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus. It also necessitates strategic approaches adapted to the multidimensional challenges and volatile dynamics of fragile contexts and their heterogeneous mix of individual stakeholders engaging with their own individual strategies, operating modalities and priorities. More than ever, we need to be fit for fragility.

A solid framework of global principles for effective engagement in fragile settings has emerged in the past ten years. While it has served as a useful normative yardstick, this framework has proven less successful at transforming realities in the field. In an ideal world, international partners would be free to adjust their institutional set-up and working processes to fit each context to respond rapidly, stay engaged, collaborate and be flexible. However, windows for institutional reform are rare. Therefore, institutional design of existing systems and mechanisms must be taken as a given for daily engagement and programming in fragile contexts and focus directed to making the most of existing frameworks.

Building on the findings of the 2020 fragility framework, this chapter consolidates recent learning from country case studies undertaken as part of the Fit for Fragility project (Schreiber and Loudon, 2020[1]). Based on the systems thinking described in Chapter 1, it explains how complex features of fragility manifest in the operating environments where ODA is delivered, reviews the implications of this complex landscape for international partners, and looks at ways to ensure more effective engagement at strategic, organisational, country and global levels.

Development, peace and humanitarian actors operating in fragile settings are both external to and part of the complex realities they seek to help change. As such and to be fit for fragility, they must make sure their strategies and ways of working are adapted to the features of fragile operating environments, which are characterised by substantive, strategic and institutional complexity. A practical approach to systems thinking is necessary to manage these three types of complexity affecting both donor systems and the operational environment. Box 3.1 describes the three types.

Being fit for fragility entails matching organisational features with the requirements of complex operational environments. This section looks at how the day-to-day manifestation of complexity in fragile settings can inform international partners’ engagement.

Starting with analysis of country realities, development co-operation actors can take steps to adapt to fragile and crisis-affected settings where they aim to reduce overall vulnerability and unmet needs, strengthen coping capacities, and tackle root causes of crisis and fragility. For effective results, they should harness the strengths of their existing systems and mechanisms by utilising available levers at four levels: strategic planning, country-level engagement, organisational processes and the global framework. This, in essence, is being fit for fragility, as illustrated in Infographic 3.1.

Engaging in fragile settings is an exercise in managing trade-offs, for example between short- and long-term actions, big picture thinking and technical complexities, and needs and means. Investing in the initial context and fragility analysis is key to set the course for further engagement. Thus, when clear objectives flow from a sound general analysis of the operational environment, it becomes possible to balance the key challenge of short-term uncertainties with longer-term goals.

Development practitioners working in fragile contexts increasingly recognise that technical programmatic solutions, even if well-formulated, are often insufficient to achieve the desired result. Country case studies corroborate this challenge. Many development and civil society actors struggle to articulate the development trajectory in a clear theory of change that is underpinned by systems thinking. And while political processes, informal institutions and power relations play a critical role in the success or failure of development interventions in each context, these processes are not systematically considered in the initial context analysis. For development actors, a thorough review of the context is needed as a basis for engagement, recognising multidimensional fragility as a core feature of this context. This initial analysis is essential to define the action in each context, based on comparative advantage and strategic objectives.

Since development activities serve to complement national systems, a clear vision of the desired outcomes should notably include an understanding of what an effectively functioning social contract between resilient state and society systems would look like. In the Central African Republic, for example, it was noted that political deadlines, peace agreements and electoral cycles can distract the government and development partners from creating a long-term vision for development planning. Similarly, the Chad case study highlighted the need for a more explicit collective vision of how ongoing programming contributes to building sustainability and fostering social cohesion. Box 3.2 reviews essential elements of an initial context analysis developed for the Fit for Fragility project.

Flexible programming and finances are crucial in rapidly evolving contexts. For example, funding that is tightly earmarked for use in a specific location may leave vulnerable populations without assistance if they are on the move or returning after displacement. Compliance systems can also be a major impediment to flexibility. International partners therefore must seek to take advantage of any room for building flexibility into their programming. In the Central African Republic, joint funding mechanisms such as the Bekou Trust Fund and Minka funds provide a vehicle for programmatic flexibility. Pre-positioned response capacities, such as the UNICEF-led Rapid Response Mechanism, offer another avenue for joint investment into flexible mechanisms. In addition, adaptive programming is an important way to ensure flexibility and iterative learning in these fluid contexts.

From a financing partner’s perspective, including contingency scenarios in programming and flexibility in design, procurement and contracting allows programming to evolve with the fragile context rather than needing a complete overhaul. The goal is to manage risks rather than avoid them, adopt adaptive programming practices, and seize potential opportunities for collective learning and change. These measures also make it possible to stick to long-term goals while managing short-term realities. In the Central African Republic and Honduras, development actors’ flexibility was constrained by several factors including, for example, pressure to either disburse or lose funds; programme quality standards that are ill-adapted to insecure or otherwise unstable environments; and short-term, project-based financing that impedes operational partners’ ability to develop a long-term vision and retain staff.

Fragile contexts frequently present conflicting signals that can be hard to capture in a single narrative. Finding ways to capture nuances is often a challenge. The country case study in Honduras, for example, highlighted the utility of donor institutions having frameworks, strategies and tools that take into account the different types of fragility and not only whether a particular country is in or is not in crisis. When countries present a set of mixed signals of crisis and recovery, as can occur in a post-conflict setting, it is challenging but often critical to frame a complete narrative to help maintain international attention by focusing on the context’s potential for development.

Binary understanding of how a partner country situates itself on its development path can lead to binary response, either the provision of humanitarian assistance or development co-operation, for example. To avoid such simplistic approaches, iterative learning, a good enough approach and clear goals can help build nuanced response to complex challenges. Selecting achievable goals and realistic outcomes is an essential part of this challenge.

Most DAC members tend to have a limited country presence. This restricts their capacities and means to navigate complex landscapes, making it all the more important to invest in joint action, leverage partnerships and ensure a realistic approach.

Allies for peace can generally be identified within the political, administrative and civil structures in fragile contexts. An example is Liberia, where there is a recognised value of identifying and partnering with niche and sectoral administrative entities to ensure national ownership and technical competence, notably in the agriculture sector. However, bilateral co-operation must also involve a diversified, whole-of-society approach, with attention to stakeholders’ perspectives across the country. To maintain legitimacy, the state must deliver in both the capital and the periphery. In the Central African Republic, for example, it is critical to support the government to ensure a minimum administrative presence and service delivery for the population outside Bangui, including in the eastern areas that have low population density.

Some of the most critical drivers of fragility are also among the most politically sensitive. Creative, coherent and context-specific approaches can help overcome political sensitivities. An illustration of this can be found in Honduras, where actors have sought creative solutions to tackle important but controversial issues such as human rights, corruption and the rule of law, while mitigating risks to other, ongoing development programmes. In that endeavour, as noted in Chapter 2, linkages between development and diplomacy are key. While recognising the need to safeguard humanitarian space, actors must also acknowledge and address the political causes of humanitarian needs and vulnerabilities. Honduras provides an example of how a political-technical divide and communication deficit can impede crossover and linkages between technical experts and high-level leadership, thus undermining the ability to back technical-level discussions with strategic decisions.

Sustained partnerships and informed risk-sharing offer the possibility of building trust in an otherwise often unstable environment. Lessons from case studies show the importance of mutual trust for promoting flexibility in programming and agreements. Such partnerships imply a level of risk management, identifying the comparative advantages of key partners, and investing in technical assistance that increases mutual accountability, capacity and responsibility sharing – not only at the central level.

Co-ordination is complex in fragile contexts, where everything is a priority, national co-ordination capacities are limited, and a multiplicity of actors operate in the same space. Three levels of co-ordination must be interlinked: strategic co-ordination (including on joint political messaging and strategic objectives); operational co-ordination (on harmonised and complementary programming); and technical co-ordination (towards peer learning and standard setting). Systems thinking and co-creation of programmes are ways to build bridges across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus and overcome barriers between the respective actors within each pillar of the nexus – often referred to as trilingualism – while maintaining local focus.

Co-ordination for its own sake can be a drain on human resources, which are scarce in many fragile settings. It is therefore essential to focus co-ordination activities only in areas where they will lead to more effective and efficient programming. The case studies highlight that if co-ordination is a multitude of meetings without a focus on achieving better results, there is a risk that key actors will disengage. Co-ordination mechanisms can focus on strategic priorities and shared analysis or issues; they can also be developed on a geographical basis. To be effective, these mechanisms must be complemented by an effective system for exchanging information on programmes, funding, timetables and gaps, as discussed in Box 3.3.

Seen through the lens of country-level engagement, organisational processes are the stage for back office processes and practices used to align and control headquarters-based operational support. These include the procedures for planning strategy and operations, setting budgets, measuring and rewarding performance, and reporting progress and conducting meetings. It is fair to say that, historically, most DAC members have relied on the same organisational model to operate in settings across all degrees of fragility. In the most fragile settings, the requirements of this approach tend to overwhelm longer-term strategic goals of country engagement. This explains why the desire to “do development differently” is particularly strong for donors working in fragile contexts (Gulrajani and Honig, 2016[7]).

Nevertheless, while some organisational design models seem better adapted to evidence-based adaptive management and iterative learning in fragile settings, profound organisational reform to adopt new paradigms often seems out of reach. Not only is rewiring the underlying institutional framework only possible under rare circumstances. Each effort to reform existing systems also comes at a cost in terms of short-term efficiency and impact. An alternative approach is to make the best of existing frameworks, accounting for comparative advantages and seeking complementarity among partners.

As the country case studies illustrate and the human capital analysis in Chapter 1 shows, extremely fragile contexts tend to feature limited national absorption capacity and gaps in trained national capacities. In these contexts, significant numbers of experienced international staff need to be deployed. Development partners face great difficulties in filling positions, which results in high turnover that in turn affects institutional memory and reduces the quality and speed of implementation. For international staff, incentives to apply for positions in fragile contexts are not always perceived as commensurate with the hardships of working in the context. Better rewards for commitment, tenacity and entrepreneurship are needed to make fragile contexts an attractive option to staff with the right mix of expertise and competencies. One financing partner in Honduras, for example, specifically requested that field staff include one objective in their annual performance review that is related to informed risk-taking. Not only does this prevent staff from being penalised by their institution for taking risks, but it actively inspires them to do so.

The strongest teams are those with diversity built in. Recognising that international staff’s expertise cannot be optimised without local knowledge means ensuring that the local voice is not just present but a cornerstone of a team’s development. Carefully managed, this can deliver mutually beneficial gains for both the team and its interlocutors in a fragile context in terms of design (better programmes), cost-effectiveness and legitimacy (locally and people-focused) (Slim, 2020[8]).

When operating in fragile contexts, flexibility and adaptability to future risks are crucial. However, the flexibility of the aid sector is challenged by a combination of structural and cultural elements. Country case studies show that the standardisation of processes at headquarters level actually reduces operational flexibility. This underlines how important it is that organisations maintain a culture that allows the use of available discretion within regulatory limits. Yet interlocutors reported a trend in the opposite direction. “In the past”, said one interviewee cited in a country case study for the Fit for Fragility project, “one was allowed to take action if there were no explicit rules against it. Now, if the rules do not explicitly allow it, it is perceived as forbidden”.

High-level decision makers have a role to play in making organisational culture more attuned to country realities and fully exercising bureaucratic flexibility to adapt processes to the context. This relates to issues such as organisational ethos, contract terms, logical frameworks, targeting criteria and more coherent and consistently set funding cycles across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus.

The multidimensional and often ingrained nature of fragility across many contexts requires more varied and intense analytical efforts and a broader range of tools than typical development programming can offer. In Honduras, for example, development actors and civil society representatives said in interviews conducted as part of the Fit for Fragility project that a better understanding of historical, anthropological and gender-specific fragility factors and the political economy of the context would allow for more effective engagement.

Such an approach requires international partners to be able to access sets of expertise and skills beyond the traditional development realm. Depending on the context, this is where diplomatic and security actors could provide an enabling function (Chapter 2). This also would involve promoting coherent and effective engagement across all involved pillars of public administration, guided by common objectives and field needs. Beyond a whole-of-government approach, investing in a whole-of-society approach offers a way to mobilise expertise and capabilities from civil society and academia.

In terms of their exit strategy for post-crisis settings, international partners should avoid disengaging at the first signs of improved security and political stability. Progress should be rewarded with redoubled financial efforts and stronger inclusive partnership. The country case studies of Liberia and the Central African Republic show that diminished international attention can quickly lead to setbacks. After a crisis, development and stability needs are added to still acute humanitarian needs, creating even more need for support. As the situation improves, however, it is important that partners develop the vision for accompanying the partner country on its new, post-crisis path and define evolving requirements in terms of local ownership, authority and service delivery. For conflict-affected contexts this means analysing the components necessary for successful transitions to sustainable outcomes (OECD, 2020[9]).

Despite the changing landscape of fragility arising from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is broad consensus overall on the substance of the development agenda and principles as well as general agreement among DAC members that aid effectiveness, including in fragile settings, needs renewed attention.

Development co-operation in fragile contexts is increasingly under pressure from alternative models of international engagement and ODA disbursements. In Liberia, for example, donor planning cycles are often too short and institutional frameworks too constraining to accommodate the large-scale projects that would propel the country’s economy and economies like it. A longer-term development co-operation horizon and increased efforts to diversify the resource mix might allow bilateral and multilateral partners to set targets that are more ambitious and increase their impact.

Over the past ten years, the international community has developed and put into action various initiatives and normative frameworks to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and increase development effectiveness in fragile contexts. However, the space for dialogue around effectiveness is narrowing (Brown, 2020[10]). The current dialogue offers limited opportunities to share analysis and joint approaches for fragile settings involving development actors beyond providers of traditional ODA. Where they exist, these spaces also generally focus on commitments rather than dialogue (Bracho, 2017[11]). (Re-)enlarging the global space that encourages dialogue, notably on aid effectiveness and partnerships but also for conflict prevention and peacebuilding, is essential to effectively engage in fragile contexts.

To a large extent, being fit for fragility also involves being fit for collaboration. In Chad, for instance, donors in the capital appear eager to co-ordinate on implementation. But their institutional priorities and frameworks are not always optimised for co-ordination. Some of the building blocks for such collaboration exist at the country level, where donors are working on the same types of analyses and developing similar logical frameworks. Here, at the country level, there also is political will and a close-knit donor community to push co-ordination forward. However, procedures and institutional mechanisms (e.g. dispute resolution mechanisms, auditing mechanisms and other legal frameworks) often present practical impediments to co-ordination other than information sharing. These structural constraints run counter to the shared goals of improved flexibility and coherence. Continued attention to ensuring better interoperability among international stakeholders in fragile settings is important for increasing the impact and effectiveness of collective engagement.


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