Towards a bloc identity for fragile states: the Dili international conference on the post-2015 development agenda

Timor-Leste’s indefatigable finance minister, Emilia Pires, spoke about the g7+ group of fragile countries when she delivered the Development Policy Centre’s inaugural Harold Mitchell lecture in November 2012.  She chairs the g7+ and is also a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on the post-2015 international development agenda, charged with quite rapidly developing broad recommendations on what should follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) upon their expiry in 2015.  Wearing both of these hats, she convened an international conference on the post-2015 development agenda last week in Dili.  This brought together nearly 50 countries—g7+ members, Pacific island countries, Portuguese-speaking African countries and development partners—to discuss how the specific development challenges faced by fragile and conflict-affected states should be reflected in the post-2015 framework.  You can read the Dili Consensus here, and also the outcomes of related discussions among Pacific island countries here [pdf].

Under the Development Policy Centre’s partnership with the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PIPP), I was part of a team that provided some facilitation for the Dili conference, before and during the event.  I discuss below five specific points about the conference and its outcomes that I think are particularly noteworthy.  While I’m generally content to observe the smokestacks of the post-2015 industry from a safe distance, and am not a fervent believer in the value of UN high-level panels, I do think Timor-Leste’s decision to convene this discussion was a wise and well-timed one.

First, the Dili conference was, to my knowledge, the first such interaction between two quite different types of fragile state—one type being conflict-affected, the other geographically vulnerable.  Fragile states lack a bloc identity.  Even the typology of fragile states is a fraught business—for example, the OECD counts 47 of them and the World Bank 35, while neither the OECD nor the Bank counts certain countries that consider themselves obviously fragile.  In contributing to some background work for this conference, I found a useful starting point was simply to look at the intersection of three groups: the two mentioned above and the group of 49 Least-Developed Countries.  This gives 23 “core fragile” states that face challenges in multiple dimensions, including 16 of the 18 g7+ members.  This core group can then be enlarged in various directions, for example by including countries experiencing transitory conflict, or exhibiting high levels of climate change vulnerability with low adaptive capacity.  However they are defined, fragile states are diverse.  They are also more than usually preoccupied with their own challenges.  For both of these reasons, they have tended not to caucus or search for common ground.  The formation of the g7+ group has begun to change that; the Dili conference was another step toward building a sense of collective, if loose, identity among fragile states.

Second, in the context of MDG achievement, the most general point of commonality between fragile states is that they are all on the wrong side of the implacable average.  The eight MDGs as originally formulated were global goals.  The 21 associated targets were not intended to be applied to individual countries but, inevitably, they are so applied in countless reporting documents.  When targets defined for the average country get applied to every country, a lot of countries will necessarily get fail grades—including most of the countries represented in Dili, for most targets.  Even countries that have done remarkably well on some things in absolute terms get marked down in terms of proportional progress, simply because their starting points were so bad.  (This is one frequently-remarked problem with the MDGs, on which Terence Wood has recently written here.)  Fragile states therefore need to be able to set their own, realistic targets that are aligned with, rather than inherited from, a global framework.

Third, in discussing the more truck-sized gaps in the MDG framework, much common ground emerged.  Some countries were concerned primarily about peace-building, others primarily about climate change mitigation and adaptation (President Anote Tong of Kiribati, a core fragile state, spoke compellingly on this).  But all countries agreed on the centrality of inclusive economic growth and state effectiveness—with variations in emphasis according to whether a country’s growth depends more upon natural or human resources, or whether the quality of its government is impeded more by problems of institutional capacity or political legitimacy.  In effect, the outcome saw the concerns of the g7+ group of countries, already quite well encapsulated in the peace-building and state-building goals that were incorporated into the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States [pdf] in 2011, augmented by the climate-centred concerns of the Pacific island countries.  The result was the identification of four goal areas requiring attention by the High-Level Panel, which can be roughly labelled inclusive growth, peace and justice, state effectiveness, and climate change.

Fourth, the discussion was not dominated by calls for aid.  Indeed, a strong theme of the conference was the need for fragile and conflict-affected countries to diagnose and take responsibility for their own problems, with support rather than direction from donors.  At the same time, there was a clear message that many of the challenges facing this group of countries can only be overcome through external or global collective action.  Most obviously, curbing greenhouse gas emissions depends upon collective action by major emitters, and adaptation to the inevitable effects of climate change will require the construction of accessible and responsive financing and advisory mechanisms at the global and regional levels.  Sustainable and equitable management of natural resource wealth in fragile states depends in part on how developed countries regulate the activities of multinational corporations.  And growth through employment depends in part on developed-country policies with respect to international labour mobility.  In these and other areas, fragile and conflict-affected countries would be beneficiaries of, much more than contributors to, progress toward appropriately-defined global goals.

Fifth, while the Dili conference was not intended to be, and was not, a technical discussion about the precise framing of goals, the formulation of targets or the selection of indicators, it did raise two quasi-technical questions.  One question is whether there should be “how” goals in the post-2015 framework, rather than just “what” goals.  The g7+ narrative has sometimes spoken of the need for “precursor” goals or targets related to peace, justice and state effectiveness.  Another question is whether there should be goals that call explicitly for global collective action.  A peace goal, for example, could in principle be defined in this way; a climate change mitigation goal, one might assume, would have to be so defined.  However, moving in either of these directions takes us away from something that is generally agreed to be the most desirable feature of the present MDGs—that they define concrete goals for human well-being to which people, or at least politicians, can readily relate.  The average person does not aspire to live in a country with competent public financial management; it’s the benefits of such management that they want.  Nor does the average person aspire to live in a world which has negotiated a particular kind of climate change agreement; it’s the benefits of such an agreement that they want.  Once you go beyond social development objectives, expressing global goals in terms of human well-being gets harder.  It might well be possible to do so without sinking into a quicksand of debates about what are the precursors or ingredients of development.  Let’s hope so, or the Dili storyline might not make it out of the foundry.

What next?  Well, Emilia Pires now has much stronger backing vocals when she goes to the next High-Level Panel meeting in Bali at the end of this month.  It seems even more inconceivable than it was previously that the post-2015 framework would omit goals relating in one way or another to inclusive growth, peace and justice, state effectiveness and climate change.  However, it remains entirely open how such goals might be articulated.  Any excessive prescriptiveness about how governments govern and function, or about the outcomes of multilateral negotiations, will quickly propel discussions into a cul-de-sac.  Maintaining focus on why things matter to people—and on the ends rather than the means—is the more promising path.  I don’t know whether the post-2015 process, as it has been constituted, will eventually produce a simple and rational outcome, or have much impact in terms of national policy-making, global collective action or the volume and distribution of aid.  I do believe, though, that Timor-Leste did something very useful by bringing together this diverse group of countries for the first time on its soil.  Fragile states are now a little less a fuzzy statistical category, and a little more an organised grouping with a shared view of their aspirations for the future.

Robin Davies is Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre.  You can also read Nikunj Soni’s take on the Dili conference on PIPP’s Pacific Politics blog, here.

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Robin Davies

Robin Davies is an Honorary Professor at the ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy and an editor of the Devpolicy Blog. He headed the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security and later the Global Health Division at Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) from 2017 until early 2023 and worked in senior roles at AusAID until 2012, with postings in Paris and Jakarta. From 2013 to 2017, he was the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre.


  • Dear Robin,

    Many thanks for the update from Dili. It is a great overview.

    I’m wondering if you can give a bit more of a sense of how the discussions of ‘fragile states’ were linked (or not) to earlier discussions about the unique development challenges facing small states (particularly small island developing states) and earlier attempts at forging a ‘bloc identity’ for small and vulnerable states.

    Putting aside discussions about technical definition of membership for a moment (there has been a long debate about what constitutes a ‘small state’ or a ‘small and vulnerable state’) the unique challenges and concerns of small states have long been of concern to multilateral agencies like UNCTAD and the Commonwealth Secretariat.

    The particular challenges faced by small island states led to a global UN conference in Barbados in 1994, which drew up a ‘Barbados Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States’. A key challenge was to identify exactly what made small states (which were often island states) unique. Key concerns were around exposure to ecological disasters and economic shocks, as well as a number of unavoidable constraints associated with small size. The concept of ‘vulnerability’ emerged as a defining feature of small island developing states (and small states more generally).

    Subsequent to the Barbados meeting, in 1998, the Commonwealth Secretariat drew up a ‘Commonwealth Vulnerability Index for Developing Countries’, and perhaps unsurprisingly most states on the index were small states or small island states.

    In the late 1990s a concern also emerged that small states faced economic marginalisation as a result of global trade liberalisation (as many small states in the Pacific, the Caribbean and Africa relied on postcolonial trade preferences for key exports). In this context, it was seen as imperative that specific work programs be developed for small and vulnerable states at a range of multilateral agencies.

    In 1998 the Commonwealth Secretariat and the World Bank established a ‘Joint Task Force on Small States’ which sought to identify ways that multilateral and regional donor institutions might better meet the needs of small states. A report was produced in 2000 that included ‘development frameworks towards small states’ from: the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Inter-American Development bank, the IMF, the UN (including UNDP and UNCTAD), the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

    Early in the new millennium there was even discussion of a new category of states at the WTO – which would allow for special and differential treatment, and new aid for trade for small and vulnerable economies. At the launch of the Doha Round in 2001 the WTO established a work programme specifically intended frame responses to challenges faced by small vulnerable economies in the international trading system. However this programme has, to date, achieved relatively few outcomes for small states.

    With regard to ecological challenges, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) at the UN has of course been very important from the early 1990s; advocating for strong multilateral action on climate change. Climate change is, ultimately, an existential threat for some small states in the Pacific and elsewhere. In recent times AOSIS has also led campaigns for ‘Loss and Damage’ measures to be considered as part of the global climate change negotiations. AOSIS is now calling for ‘an international solidarity fund that would compensate countries for economic and non-economic losses stemming from slow-onset climate impacts’.

    Outside of the climate talks, and here I may well be wrong, it seems momentum for a ‘bloc identity’ for small states in international fora has slowed somewhat in recent years.

    To return to the Dili Meeting then, is it accurate to suggest that this new alliance of ‘fragile states’ – which seems to link previous groupings of small and vulnerable states with ‘conflict affected’ states – might reinvigorate the search for a ‘bloc identity’ for vulnerable states in international fora, specifically through the attempt to negotiate and frame ‘post-MDG’ goals tailored to their unique needs?

    I too have tended to avoid ‘the smokestacks of the post-2015 industry’ but if these talks among ‘fragile states’ allow for discussion to move on to the unique policy measures and international partnerships that are needed for encouraging inclusive development in states like those of the Pacific region, perhaps the post-2015 discussion will be very useful after all.



    • Wesley,

      Apologies for this delayed reply, and thanks for your useful account of past attempts to forge certain forms of bloc identity among small states, particularly small island developing states (SIDS).

      You are right that such attempts have never really succeeded, and have not been pursued very vigorously in recent years. The idea of a special, formal UN category of SIDS, analogous to the category of Least-Developed Countries (LDCs), came up again in 2010, when Maldives sought support for a General Assembly resolution on this point. This was in the context of (wait for it) the five-year review of the Mauritius Strategy for Implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action. There was little support outside the AOSIS grouping, though Australia’s then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, expressed general interest in the idea in one open forum. The paucity of support is in part explained by the fact that non-SIDS LDCs fear the dilution of any preferences they might enjoy by virtue of their LDC status, though in reality such preferences are not very significant. Another factor is the technical difficulty of defining any notion of vulnerability that is really unique to small states.

      It seems unlikely at this point that there will ever be general agreement on a criteria-based definition of “small and vulnerable states” for the purpose of conferring privileged and automatic access to resources or preferences. In that sense, and also because the primary focus was not on access to resources or preferences, the event in Dili probably cannot be said to have reinvigorated earlier discussions on small state identity.

      An alternative way to look at it is to see the relatively new g7+ group as similar in nature to the AOSIS group—a club of countries with broadly similar characteristics that band together to pursue common goals. The significance of the Dili conference, as I saw it, was that it created an initial connection between the g7+ group and an important subgroup of SIDS, such that each group now has a clearer appreciation of the other’s particular interests and concerns, and both groups have identified a core set of common interests. The conference might have helped to form a coalition, if not a category.


  • Robin,
    thank you for taking the time to provide such a lengthy and detailed response – it is good to get this sense of what the discussions covered over and above what was captured in the final consensus document

  • It is too bad that the FSM’s delegate to this convention, Senator Peter Christian, had to cancel out because of domestic commitments. We would have liked to participate. In any event Robin’s report is excellent and thought provoking. My concern in reading the report is I am not sure what a how goal is and how it can be better than a what goal. I hope it does not become a ready made excuse. Churchill said :”sometimes it’s not good enough to do your best, you have to do what it takes.” I also am a little ambivalent about this newfound bloc identity. For this bloc, the measure of success for any member is to be able to leave the bloc behind.

  • Perhaps most tellingly, the Dili conference appears to have been a conference “by the fragile, for the fragile”, and as such, its outcomes might be understood as being “of the fragile”. In this sense, the most encouraging thing in Robin’s report is the observation that calls for aid were less notable than calls for ownership. The first baby steps away from fragility may come from acting with robustness, and in this sense the final point – the possibility of “how” goals instead of “what” – may be the logical next step to transcending the objectification inherent in MDGs overall. I will watch that space with interest.

  • Thanks Robin for this post and commentary which is really useful. I have noted as have others that the Dili consensus makes no reference to addressing the issue of gender based violence. This is a huge problem in the Pacific as we know (& in conflict-affected states pre-existing problems are often exacerbated) so it would be instructive to learn how, if at all, it figured in the discussions in Dili.

    • Tess,

      In response to your question about the absence of an explicit reference to gender-based violence in the Dili Consensus, I think the short answer is that it reflects a strategic choice to home in on broad goal areas that are completely missing in action at present, rather than areas that are considered to be at least partly reflected in the MDGs. In addition, the heavy emphasis given to peace, justice and human rights is of course relevant in a general sense.

      That said, gender-based violence is obviously fundamentally different in kind from violence associated with social conflict, largely eludes measurement and law enforcement and cannot be said to be reflected in the MDGs: MDG3 on gender equality and women’s empowerment has just one associated target, relating to gender equality in education, and none of the four associated indicators relates to the prevalence of violence against women.

      I think these points were well-recognised in the discussions in Dili. At the front end, ESCAP’s Executive Secretary, Noeleen Heyzer, drew a link between security at the societal level and violence against women, saying that the latter was often a barometer of the former. In the course of preliminary discussions among Pacific island countries, on 26 February, there was some debate about the double-edged character of the concept of “culture,” the preservation of which was seen as an important goal for the region but also a potential barrier to the elimination of discrimination and violence against women. In addition, Dame Carol Kidu of PNG emphasised the potentially distorting effects of narrowly-defined MDG targets, which in the health sector may have led to a reduced emphasis on certain health services of particular importance to women, including family planning and adolescent health. And finally, Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao included explicit reference to ending violence against women in his closing address.

      I should note that a range of other important points were quite prominent in discussions but not explicit in the final, broad consensus document, given the nature of the latter. These included points relating to educational quality, non-communicable diseases, private sector development and access to credit, and women’s political representation.

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