Fragility v Conflict – can you help with a new 2×2 please?

November 16, 2016 14 By Duncan Green

Struggling towards the finishing line on my paper on empowerment and accountability (E&A) in fragile and conflict-unity-is-strength-cartoon
affected settings (FCAS) – thanks to everyone who commented on the first draft, by the way). It’s nearly there but I need your help with one particular section.

I want to argue that lumping ‘fragile’ and ‘conflict’ together in one category is very unhelpful. In reality, many violent conflicts coexist with high levels of state capacity, while low levels of state capacity (either national or subnational) often do not generate or coexist with high levels of violence.

By conflating fragility and violence, the FCAS category muddles attempts to distinguish between E&A in different settings. That is aggravated by the use of the word ‘conflict’ to cover both contestation (omnipresent in any polity) and violent confrontation. In practice, those working on empowerment and accountability often appear inclined to interpret ‘conflict’ in its less violent manifestations, airbrushing out the horrors of war and violence. But that gives insufficient weight to issues of violence, trust and fear that profoundly change the risks and logic of working on E&A in dangerous places.

So what if we disaggregate the two in the inevitable 2×2 – does it help us think through the kinds of approach best suited to different contexts? I would really appreciate suggestions for the kinds of donor/NGO interventions that are most suited to the different quadrants, and for the countries/regions that exemplify the different categories. I’ve plonked a few in there to give you an idea, but am very unsure where things belong.

It probably needs at least one more axis – whether the state is willing or unwilling to promote empowerment and accountability (see top right quadrant), but do please have a go with these two dimensions and see what you can come up with.


I sent this to my always wise colleague Jo Rowlands and got this late night response:

‘My problem with your 2×2 , (as it usually is with them – I know they’re useful but they’re also limited as you yourself indicate in your comment about wanting a 3rd one!) is that you have to choose just one of the possible axes of fragility to juxtapose with the violence axis. Maybe what we need is an iterative 2×2 matrix, keeping the violence axis constant and cycling the other one through a range of fragility axes, in order to consider our situations through a range of lenses…otherwise, in our efforts to render something simple enough to think about, we simplify beyond usefulness.’

That sounds about right. I’m becoming a big fan of 2x2s (for example this one on aid intervention v context) because they help you look at hitherto ignored combinations and quadrants. But if they start looking like a typology, where you have to try and cram all known situations into one of four quadrants, then forget it. They should always remain an aid to thought, not a substitute for reality – a trampoline, not a straitjacket. A starting point, not the final word.

In that spirit, over to you.