Fragility, Resilience, and Libya Two Years After Revolution

Given widespread regime collapse in the Middle East, a financial crisis hangover affecting much of the international economy, the dislocating effects of global climate change, and other fundamentally destabilizing trends, one might argue that state fragility and failure—not resilience—ought to be the focus of the development community in 2013. Under these trying circumstances resilience can seem like a less-than-urgent extravagance, a concept for the salad days of politico-economic cycles when storms subside and hatches are un-battened.

Photo of Libyan graffiti from the revolution

On the contrary, the notion of resilience is crucial, not just to our understanding of state weakness, but also to the ways and means of overcoming it. The pursuit of resilience must take place alongside the pursuit of state stability. This integrated approach is often poorly executed on the ground. A policy bias toward fragility harms the development community’s ability to make lasting change where change is most needed. We see the promise of and need for an integrated approach in the undeniably fragile nation of post-revolutionary Libya, where DAI has worked for the past two years.

Fragility—A Useful Construct?

Why is fragility such a problematic concept when we attempt to apply it in today’s world? We argue that three weaknesses are particularly important. First, the determination of fragility is not especially descriptive. Since the end of the Cold War, theorists have struggled to situate fragility in the most important policy-making and development contexts. A consensus about the concept has grown up around state-centered measurements of, for example, political authority, institutional capacity, and exposure to external shocks. But determining fragility by these indicators is less a diagnosis than an exercise in relabeling the disease’s most prominent symptoms. Does a country experience poverty because it is fragile, or is it fragile because it experiences poverty?

Second, the determination of fragility is not especially predictive. If the largely unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union was a wake-up call for prognosticators about the need to develop analytical tools for anticipating state failure, then the startling advent of the Arab Spring some 20 years later may have put to bed any notion that we can do so. It is true that five years ago professional observers deemed the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to be chock-full of fragile states, but they were most likely to attribute that fragility to internationalized sectarian conflicts, political Islam, or looming resource crises—particularly in water and oil. Few, if any, predicted that mostly secular and middle-class frustration with government would play the suddenly decisive role in bringing down regimes.

Photo of Libyan graffiti from the revolution

And finally, the determination of fragility is not especially ameliorative. Identifying threats to a state is not the same as identifying the tools and resources needed to mitigate them. Nor does a fragile diagnosis always result in a rush to improve and leverage a state’s inherent strengths. In fact, low levels of foreign aid—or the overconcentration of that aid among a limited range of donors, resulting in aid volatility—is a common measure of fragility. Other measurements of state fragility that emphasize institutional capacity often mask long-term problems by focusing on short-term success indicators; incremental policy reforms or improvements in service delivery, for example, may not at all correspond with societal expectations, particularly among fast-evolving middle classes. Development responses to the Arab Spring have demonstrated that our 20-year experiment with fragility as a concept has yielded little consensus about what ameliorative steps or transitional methodologies we should undertake when a regime does finally collapse.

International organizations concerned about fragility have begun to acknowledge these conceptual weaknesses. In 2013, for example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) replaced state-centered definitions of fragility with a definition based on the “overarching importance of the social contract between citizens and the state.” But while this is surely a better way to imagine any country’s overall health, there remain doubts about whether we can objectively measure the quality of state-society relations, particularly in the context of relatively short-term development programs. As if conceding the foggy development implications of fragility, more than half of the OECD’s official definition of the term is dedicated, instead, to the meaning of resilience. “Fragility and resilience,” says the OECD, “should be seen as shifting points along a spectrum1.” The Governance and Social Development Resource Center at the University of Birmingham puts the relationship differently, but nonetheless confirms its usefulness in clarifying fragility’s practical ambiguities: “It is increasingly common for development agencies to conceptualize fragility in relation to its opposite—resilience2.”

Resilience Unchained

The OECD’s notion of a continuum gives the impression of a state’s zero-sum slide between fragility and resilience. Defining the two as opposites, meanwhile, may lead to the assumption that one quality cannot exist in the presence of the other. A better way of approaching the relationship is to think about resilience as a later-stage phenomenon that not only exists alongside fragile elements of the state, but often exists because of them.

We might express the same idea metaphorically, by imagining the state as a city built on a flood plane. More fragile states are those whose markets, government buildings, and social gathering-places are built in low-lying areas. While it is possible to defend these areas during a crisis—using sandbags or floodwalls—the defenses are temporary, resource-intensive, and relatively easy to breach. Resilient states, on the other hand, are those that have learned to shift public assets and institutions to higher ground. Though storm waters may come as often to these states as to others, their ability to nurture diversified economies, accountable institutions, and inclusive politics means that they are more naturally resistant to a flood’s damaging effects.

Photo of Libyan graffiti from the revolution

One problem, in MENA at least, is that the short-term abundance of natural resources both enables and encourages states to focus on sandbag defenses against pressing economic, social, and political challenges. This tendency is among the more harmful effects of the so-called “resource curse” afflicting oil-states that might otherwise invest in resilient, higher-ground economies and institutions.

A second problem of the resource curse is that it can result in donor complacency toward states with the potential to improve their resilience by way of international assistance. The taxpaying public of the global north—which often equates foreign aid with monetary aid—is not typically inclined to support sustained assistance to financially wealthy countries. This often means that development agencies and nongovernmental organizations remain on the sidelines in these states until a crisis occurs, at which point they rush sandbag support to status quo institutions and policies. By disengaging between crises, then doubling-down in the midst of them, the donor community not only forfeits its potential to contribute to long-term reforms, it can actually find itself working against them—this approach, in other words, is more concerned with the flood than with the city.

For wealthy states that lack the political will to build resilient institutions and economies, development agencies may find it impossible to marshal both the domestic public support and the technical resources necessary for assisting fundamental reforms. Where that political will does exist, however, the donor community should be making louder cases for engagement, using resilience as its justification.

Libya's Case

In Libya, fraught predictions and prescriptions tied into the fragility narrative —which is largely focused on the country’s chaotic security sector—have both discouraged and distracted from international efforts to build resilient institutions. By its own admission, the Libyan government has resorted to unsustainable, floodwall tactics in managing challenges to its post-revolutionary economy. Low-output public sector employment has expanded dramatically to include tens of thousands of jobless ex-combatants. Subsidies on food, energy, water, and fuel remain extraordinarily high. Repayment periods for state-sponsored housing loans can extend 100 years or more. The government even dispenses universal cash grants during holidays and times of crisis. Customs and taxes are low. A single commodity—oil—accounts for almost 95 percent of gross domestic product. Libya’s Central Bank warns that if public expenditures are not curtailed soon, the country may suffer from deficits within five years.

Libya’s leadership, however, is planning for a vastly different future economy, and it is doing so with rare consensus and urgency. DAI has helped the Ministry of Economy plan for a reduction in state subsidies, one that also mitigates shock on low-income families, minimizes inflation, and secures access to essential goods. We have helped the ministry refine its economic diversification plan, which includes strategic investments in transportation, communications, energy, tourism, and agribusiness infrastructure. A number of state-owned banks are considering privatization, and all banks are developing strategies for investing in private enterprise. At ministries across government, an assumption has taken root that, though the country’s reserves may last much longer, Libya must plan for the total depletion of oil and water resources within 15 to 20 years—a healthy margin of error.

Libya is also planning for dramatic changes in governance. Already, national elections have resulted in the peaceful transfer of power from a self-appointed war council to a representative congress. Diverse political parties have emerged, but no single party has dominated the political process. Two elections for congress president, two prime-ministerial elections, a vote of no-confidence, and the promulgation of a political exclusion law have all tested these institutions’ early ability to peaceably resolve competing interests at the national level, and mostly these institutions have succeeded.

Photo of a Libyan woman voting during the General National Congress Elections.

A principal demand of the revolution has also been the decentralization of political authority, and it is here that the government plans some of its most audacious and promising reforms. By passing both a municipal powers law and a municipal administration law, the central government has declared its intent to surrender many of its own prerogatives—and much of its own funding—to municipalities. This proposal may alleviate competition and distrust between cities—a principal driver of conflict in Libya—while improving institutional accountability and service delivery within them. DAI has worked with the ministries of Local Government and Planning to chart implementation of the country’s decentralization program, and to plan for the development and installation of critical local systems, including for financial management, program management, communications, and economic planning. A goal shared by all stakeholders—and supported by most research on fragile states—is that these municipal governments will become the most dynamic agents of state transformation.

To achieve these goals, Libya must also demonstrate its capacity for political inclusiveness, as well as openness toward international partnerships that can generate investment and technical exchange. Here there has been cause for concern. Reconciliation between revolutionaries and regime loyalists has yet to conclude, and violence between these groups continues, especially in the East. Tribal and ethnic conflicts persist in parts of the South and West, and outbursts of Salafi conservatism have led to the destruction of Sufi religious sites. Worse, the 2011 attack on the U.S. government compound in Benghazi threatens to return Libya to pariah status among its would-be international partners.

Yet these crises have failed to reverse positive social and political trends. Not one, but two reconciliation efforts have begun at the national level with the support of both Congress and the Prime Minister. Politically motivated violence against the electoral process has been remarkably rare. A representative of Libya’s minority Amazigh community has been elected head-of-state, and civil-society has been a reliable voice against extremism.

In Libya, then, we have at least three critical pieces of high ground where the state might build a more durable future: the country—and not just the government—has demonstrated its commitment to diversify the economy, bring government closer to the people, and include a wide range of national and international voices in its state-building efforts. What the country badly needs, however, are the technical experts and business investors who can transform this political will into effective institutions, policies, and markets. The great risk is that continued disorder among revolutionary militias and further acts of extremism—both inevitable—will focus international assistance on security-sector outcomes. If these programs become the international community’s exclusive concern in Libya, then we will sacrifice long-term resilience in an effort to compensate for short-term fragility.

In America’s revolution, after the defeat of British forces at Saratoga, Sir John Sinclair, a loyalist to the Crown, worried in a letter to Adam Smith that Britain might be ruined. Smith replied in a way that might have seemed foreboding: “There is a great deal of ruin in every nation.” Smith’s purpose, however, was not to join Sinclair in defeatism, but to reassure his friend that, while all states are flawed, a few like Britain simultaneously possess the fortitude to survive their most fragile moments. Resilience is neither the opposite nor the absence of fragility. It is a separate phenomenon, often forged in the context of threats, and tied to specific achievements in political, economic, and social organization. In Libya, as elsewhere, it is the pursuit of resilience rather than the eradication of fragility that, for the development community, offers the most practical and promising way forward.


  • A policy bias toward fragility may have crowded out resilience as a driver in recent development thinking.
  • But resilience is neither the opposite nor the absence of fragility. It is a separate phenomenon, often forged in the context of threats, and tied to specific achievements in political, economic, and social organization.
  • Post-revolutionary Libya is a fragile environment that shows the need for an integrated approach responsive to security-driven fragility concerns but also open to long-term resilience policies.


OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). 2012. Fragile States 2013: Resource Flows and Trends in a Shifting World. Paris: OECD Publishing. Report by the DAC International Network on Conflict and Fragility.

Mcloughlin, Claire. 2012. Topic Guide On Fragile States, Governance and Social Development. Resource Centre, University of Birmingham. Birmingham, U.K.