Comment & analysis

The peacebuilding potential of fragility assessments

15 June 2012 Larry Attree

Fragile states piloting the ‘New Deal’ endorsed in Busan last December are now starting the first round of ‘fragility assessments’. Larry Attree discusses how these assessments can be used to build consensus, to ensure effective peacebuilding strategies, and to establish baselines to monitor future progress towards peace.

Fragility assessments – part of the ‘New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States’–have huge potential to help chart a course toward lasting peace in fragile states, but how – and how quickly – they should be done needs to be carefully thought through. There is understandable pressure to complete them quickly so that an accurate understanding of each country’s context can underpin international indicators on progress towards peacebuilding and statebuilding. The g7+ group of countries has also rightly called for a methodology that is not too complex to be applied in fragile contexts by local actors.

Both of these calls make sense.  Globally agreed peacebuilding indicators should reflect the real drivers of conflict in actual country contexts, and there needs to be the capacity locally to carry out these assessments. But it is even more important that fragility assessments are not rushed, and lead to the strongest possible peacebuilding strategies. For all actors, the question of the moment is then ‘how to maximise the considerable potential of fragility assessments to support progress towards peace?’

An opportunity for dialogue

One pitfall of completing fragility assessments very rapidly would be missing the opportunity for dialogue and consensus building. As the New Deal process recognised, inclusive political dialogue at all levels is a key part of generating consensus about peace. This dialogue is needed across society among all actors who have a stake in peace or the potential to disrupt it. With enough time and resources invested in them, fragility assessments can be an opportunity to renew this dialogue, reflect and build on the views and needs of all social groups, and create new momentum for peace across conflict divides. In this way we can make sure that fragility assessments pave the way for shared compacts to achieve broadly and democratically owned peace, as envisaged in the New Deal.

For example, if all stakeholders were simply brought together to complete the fragility assessment in a single round of workshops, there could be a risk of confrontation or some voices being drowned out. Identifying concerns and priorities within more homogeneous groups before bringing participants together into a plenary discussion takes more time, but would ensure marginalised groups develop an agenda to bring to the discussion and increase the chances of reaching broadly owned consensus.

The Peace and Development Analysis methodology used by the United Nations Development Programme in Indonesia is an example of this kind of consensus-building approach. Rapid fragility assessments that include only a modicum of consultation would be a missed opportunity.

An opportunity to develop peacebuilding strategies

The New Deal acknowledges that existing development approaches have failed to achieve fast enough progress in fragile states. Fragility assessments should be viewed as a step towards the fundamental change in approach that national governments, their international partners, the private sector, civil society, ordinary people and all other key actors in fragile states need to make. If the assessment process doesn’t reach out across all these groups it is hard to see how they can create momentum for change and lead to substantially better results. Sierra Leone is making its pilot fragility assessment a key reference point in its development planning process – this could set the standard for ensuring the assessments lead to renewed strategic vision.

The initial thinking under discussion within the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding in Nairobi in June 2012 is that fragility assessments should diagnose levels of fragility in each country context under five broad headings: legitimate politics, people’s security, people’s justice, economic foundations and revenues/fair service delivery. This diagnosis could be of immense value – but its value will depend on how well it is translated into a peacebuilding strategy that meets the challenges of each specific context.

For years, conflict analysis has been used to inform strategy development by many governments and aid agencies. But one of the key lessons learned has been that it is hard to move from a good conflict analysis to a good peacebuilding strategy or conflict sensitive development plan.

With time and resources, there are a number of things that practitioners carrying out fragility assessments could consider doing to make a stronger connection between fragility assessments and peacebuilding strategies:   

  • Analyse the drivers of conflict and avoid assuming that these will necessarily fall under the headings provided by the peacebuilding and statebuilding goals. For example, there is no goal on land, property and resources, but disputes over ownership of and access to these is a driver of conflict that needs to find a place in peacebuilding strategies in many contexts.
  • Identify the key drivers of conflict, identify the links between them, and prioritise initiatives that can break the links between the most important ones.
  • Consider carefully the different levels of conflict that may exist: the New Deal is framed at the national level, but assessments and peacebuilding strategies may need to address the local and the international dimensions as well.
  • Ask what divides and connects different actors, and which relationships are key to prevent conflict and consolidate peace.
  • Ensure there is space for all actors to explore their perspectives and articulate their visions for peace.
  • Focus not only on what is causing conflict and fragility, but identify opportunities for peace. The assessments provide a chance for dialogue – use this to engage with stakeholders on the role they can play in consolidating peace.
  • Don’t recommend solutions that have failed in the past: use an understanding of past peacebuilding efforts to inform a strategy that overcomes these obstacles.
  • Rapidly changing fragile contexts require flexible response strategies. Think through possible scenarios and make contingency plans for an uncertain future.


An opportunity to develop baselines

With adequate time and resources, fragility assessments could also provide a baseline to monitor progress towards peace. The New Deal included commitments to develop both objective indicators and indicators measuring people’s perceptions of progress. Saferworld’s surveys with local partners in Nepal and Kosovo, are just one illustration of what can be done. For several years we have conducted quantitative surveys tracking public perceptions in both countries, covering two of the five peacebuilding and statebuilding goals issue areas (security and justice).

Developing surveys in local languages, building research capacity, and analysing and validating findings all takes time, but is worth the effort. When trends in public confidence are understood, they provide invaluable evidence about priorities for policymakers. Building a survey component into fragility assessments would be a good way to begin generating useful data on people’s perceptions of progress, while also developing national capacity to continue to track these efforts.

A way forward

It is exciting that g7+ governments are taking the initiative to pilot fragility assessments, but fulfilling the potential outlined above is a daunting task. While swift progress and practical approaches are certainly needed, Saferworld’s experience also suggests that local actors often have strong expertise in the conflict analysis and social research processes described above. With the right kind of collaborative support from development and peacebuilding partners in civil society and the international community, existing local research capacity can be successfully harnessed through the assessment process and strengthened as a result.  


Larry Attree is a Conflict and Security Adviser at Saferworld. This blog draws out findings from Saferworld’s recent experiences in conducting conflict analysis together with Conciliation Resources in 18 conflict-affected contexts. Read the lessons from the project here.


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“It is exciting that g7+ governments are taking the initiative to pilot fragility assessments, but fulfilling the potential outlined above is a daunting task”

Larry Attree, Saferworld