Do fragile states evolve like forests? Insights from complexity thinking

January 7, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam’s engagement with physics-trained complexity enthusiast Jean Boulton is starting to generate some really interesting ideas. Jean has been helping us think through our work in fragile states – the big challenge for a lot of aid organizations over the next few years. Just before Christmas, she came in to tell us where her thinking has got to on the different kinds of fragility.

Drawing on Buzz Holling’s work researching the life-cycle of forests (I love this kind of disciplinary boundary-hopping), Jean looked at how complex ecological systems evolve over time, how diversity leads to resilience and how even natural systems can become rigid and brittle as they mature (see slide).

Boulton fragility cycleWhilst societies and nation states are subject to much more interference and influence from the wider world than is typical for your average forest, the work is important as it is based on observation, and cuts through the seemingly endless (and not always fruitful) discussions as to what complexity words and theoretical concepts actually mean.

Turning Jean’s cycle into a much more boring table

Stage Characteristics Typical aid interventions Countries that may look a bit like this
Birth Emerging out of chaos; no fixed patterns; lots of growing (and vulnerable) shoots; power and control fluid Be prepared for sectarian conflict and potential to fall back into chaos; nurture new shoots as they appear; support ‘structuring’ and emphasise the voice of civil society in influencing new institutions and in power and resource-sharing; recognise the potential for large corporations and others  to exploit the power vacuum South Sudan


Youth Diversity; resilience; stable due to multiple relationships; power sharing Act to strengthen capacity and livelihoods, maintain  and expand economic and political diversity ?
Maturity Efficient, but with falling diversity; relationships are reducing in number and becoming fixed; power static and concentrating in fewer hands Support minorities and the less powerful; defend diversity; build livelihoods, education and strengthen civic capacity and voice to combat potential for concentration of power in hands of elites Mali
Old Age Locked in, rigid relationships, autocratic power Support citizens movements in breaking/disrupting rigid power relationships. OPTI
Potential for collapse Brittle to the point of failure; power battles re-emerge Protect ‘islands of effectiveness’, strengthen the voice of civil society, be cognizant of future potential economic or geo-political ‘tipping points’ Yemen
Chaos Many structures collapsed, fast-changing dynamics and shifting power bases, great potential for violent conflict and taking advantage of power vacuum Humanitarian response; supporting civil society and non-violence movements, ensure the voice of the citizen is heard in the international arena, continuing to envision post-conflict solutions Syria

The reason I like this typology is both that it creates a dynamic sense of how fragility evolves over time, and the implications for would-be ‘change agents’, whether local or foreign. For example, when institutions are new and malleable and vulnerable, there is a lot more sense in devoting time to influencing them and protecting them from co-option by elites, than when they have become sclerotic and autocratic. It also creates a sense of ‘seizing the moment’ – institutions, once co-opted by the powerful, become much more resistant to ‘democratisation’; equally, when institutions collapse, the potential for various groups – ideological or economic – to exploit the power vacuum, is high.

I’d be interested in your additions/improvements, as I have a feeling I will be using this in the future.