Background and Scope of the Project

Weak States

A growing body of literature within the social science disciplines has developed over the last few ‎decades around the concept of “state failure”. Initially, the scholarship focused on the poor ‎economic performance of certain states, highlighting their weaknesses in delivering efficient ‎economic growth and fostering development. Performance indicators pointed to inadequate and ‎poorly functioning institutional structures, and the limited ability of weak states to provide ‎material and physical well-being to their citizenry. An emerging developmental discourse, fuelled ‎by the enthusiasm of international organizations that embraced the notion of inherent but ‎potentially “fixable” weaknesses, added weight to this body of scholarship. Aid and assistance ‎programs were implemented on the basis of this idea of state weakness, and on the assumption ‎that these internal “weaknesses” could somehow be mitigated through externally-supported and ‎specifically targeted development initiatives. Bilateral and multilateral efforts were devoted to ‎turning these weak states around, supposedly from the brink of failure, into healthy, viable ‎entities.‎

These economically-based definitions of state weakness have been significantly ‎challenged over the last couple of decades, as further scholarly efforts have considered them ‎wanting for analytic purposes. More recent interest in state failure has emphasized an additional ‎subset of issues regarding state capacity and state weakness, and broadened the discussion in ‎different directions. Much greater attention has been drawn to deeper political conditions, such ‎as a state’s legitimacy, its ability to penetrate society effectively, and its capacity to maintain ‎both external and internal security. Weak states are no longer just those that face constraints in ‎terms of resources and economic viability, but those which also feature incoherent, fragile, or ‎dysfunctional political systems. Most of the weak states literature now focuses on a whole range ‎of socio-economic and political fragilities which place pressure on the state to the point of ‎internal conflict or perhaps its potential to entirely collapse. ‎

Within this expanded definition of what construes a weak state, an increasing number of ‎countries have appeared to be in the throes of failure, particularly in Africa, but also within the ‎greater Middle East. The surge of interest in recent years in examining weak and dysfunctional ‎states has been embedded within broader securitization discourse. From the perspective of ‎international relations, fragile states are often considered a political “menace” to the rest of the ‎world, threatening international security, spreading instability to their neighbors, and creating ‎potential safe-havens for terrorists with global agendas. For those examining domestic politics, ‎conflict, internecine agitation, and civil war are all a result of the weakness, failure, or collapse of ‎the affected state.‎

In spite of the burgeoning scholarly and policy focus on studying weak states, there has ‎been limited engagement in terms of challenging the validity of these nebulous and evolving ‎concepts of weak, failed, and collapsed states. These definitions of fragile states are problematic ‎and diverse, and there is a need for further focus and exploration on exactly what is meant by ‎state strength and by state weakness. The terminology in itself has become politicized as a certain ‎global discourse has developed around it, and the classification as a weak state often has a ‎variety of negative implications for a state so designated. Weak states have less capacity to assert ‎sovereignty in the international arena, and in fact have their sovereignty frequently tested in both ‎economic and political terms. Further examination of the range of accepted “indicators” for the ‎classification of failed and weak states is also needed. ‎

Despite the expansive growth of state institutions and their penetrative reach into ‎societies across the Middle East, recent events have exposed the inherent fragility across the ‎region of what once appeared to be “strong” and overgrown states. While some of the states in ‎the region (Yemen, Sudan) are regularly designated as weak or failed states by researchers and ‎analysts, other states (Libya, Tunisia, Egypt) have seldom been considered so. Within the broader ‎region some states exhibit continuing fragilities that have been exacerbated by recurrent shocks ‎resulting from inadequate and incomplete processes of institutionalization (Pakistan, Lebanon, ‎Sudan, and Yemen), foreign invasion and occupation (Iraq and Afghanistan), civil wars ‎‎(Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Lebanon), and popular, grassroots uprisings against repressive ‎regimes (Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain). ‎

CIRS’s research initiative on weak states in the Middle East begins with a critical analysis ‎of current definitions and terminology of weak and fragile states, scrutinizing the political ‎implications of the prevailing discourse within the setting of the broader Middle East. The ‎research will also examine the domestic, regional, and global causes and consequences for the ‎Middle East of the “fragility” of states stretching from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east to ‎Libya in the west. Employing multidisciplinary perspectives, we will study the causes and ‎implications of conceptual notions of state fragility across the region in relation to areas such as ‎politics and security, economics and natural resources, intra- and inter-state relations, migration ‎and population movements, and the broader regional and global political economies.‎

Research Topics

Thematic areas

‎1.‎ The Weak State Discourse and the Middle East ‎‎2.‎ Fragile states in a globalized world ‎‎3.‎ Endangering the hegemon: U.S. security in the Middle East‎4.‎ Class formation and class struggle in the Middle East ‎‎5.‎ Rebuilding weak states from abroad: diaspora communities and homeland development)‎‎6.‎ Aid allocation and aid effectiveness in weak states


Case studies

‎7.‎ Civil war and disintegration in Sudan ‎‎8.‎ Informal and Parallel Economies in Afghanistan ‎‎9.‎ Identity and cohesion in Pakistan ‎‎10.‎ The durability of autocracies in fragile rentier states: the case of Libya ‎‎11.‎ Hezbollah’s geopolitical strategy and stability in Lebanon ‎‎12.‎ Urban politics and post-war reconstruction in Iraq ‎‎13.‎ The threat of fragility: Yemen and regional security ‎‎14.‎ Intervention in weak states: the role of Arab regional organizations ‎‎15.‎ State formation in Yemen ‎‎16.‎ Syria: strong state/ weak state? ‎‎17.‎ Institution building in Palestine ‎

Article by Zahra Babar, Assistant Director of Research at CIRS