The definition of fragility in the development process emerged in the 1990s and the designation of a "fragile state" is used to describe a set of situations, from countries in crisis, at war and in the process of reconstruction to humanitarian crises, disasters and situations of extreme poverty.

According to the OECD’s definition, "A fragile region or state has weak capacity to carry out basic governance functions, and lacks the ability to develop mutually constructive relations with society. Fragile states are also more vulnerable to internal or external shocks such as economic crises or natural disasters”.

Situations of fragility and conflict constitute the need for priority response because they have a profound impact on their own development and global security, adversely affecting the lives of millions of people around the world.

The approach to fragility must provide for reconstruction – peace-making and returning to "normality", restoring the institutions, human resources and physical assets – as well as prevention through the identification and mitigation of risks (institutional, human, natural and environmental), planning and decision-making, strengthening resilience and monitoring.

In the initial phase, and in order to support the identification of countries considered as fragile, four main indicators have been identified: political indicators (which include the delegitimisation of the state, progressive deterioration of public services, widespread violation of human rights and security issues); social indicators (including demographic pressures, intense movements of refugees and internally displaced persons, chronic and continuing flight of human resources and levels of well-being and quality of life); economic indicators (allocation of economic development); and environmental indicators (risks of natural disasters and/or interaction between environmental and human activities). A collective list of "fragile states" was drawn up by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the African Development Bank. By 2015, this list included thirty-three countries, including seventeen from the African continent.

With the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (and taking into account SDG 16 – Stable and Peaceful Societies and Strong Institutions), a new approach to fragility was introduced which applies to all countries of the world and is based on the five issues of (i) violence (ii) justice (iii) responsible and inclusive institutions (iv) economic inclusion and stability and (v) capacity to adapt to the impact of social, economic and environmental disaster.

The main Portuguese co-operation partners are, for the most part, fragile states and affected by issues related to conflict and/or institutional weakness, meaning that support for these countries is of particular importance to Portugal with both bilateral and multilateral co-operation.

On a bilateral level, co-operation with these countries is particularly important in the process of establishing peace and with issues relating to the state, including institutional reinforcement in key areas of governance, rule of law, safety and the provision of essential services. Such action has been aligned with Portugal's international commitments, most notably the principles for good relations with fragile states (approved in 2007) and the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States (an agreement by partner countries and donors during the 4th High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in South Korea in 2011), which Portugal signed and in which some of the priority Portuguese co-operation countries (East Timor and Guinea-Bissau) were also represented. 

In order to establish a more consistent and integrated approach (whole of government) for interventions in these areas, Portugal approved the National Strategy for Security and Development in 2009. The link between security and development has also been an important priority for programmes with the partner countries and, in the case of those who have signed the New Deal, the respective PICs/PECs have been progressively aligned with the principles and objectives (PEC of East Timor and Guinea-Bissau). 

In all bilateral co-operation programmes, strengthening governance and rule of law are the main priorities. 

This level of importance is also reflected by the strong commitment by Portugal to carry out the commitments made by the EU during the Portuguese Presidency (2007) in order to strengthen links between the entities involved in security and development and improve the situation for fragile states.

Portugal was also a strong supporter of including in the 2030 Agenda the SDG 16 for stable and peaceful societies as an important way of recognising and strengthening the link between security and development whilst focusing on fragile states, despite the universal nature of this agenda.   

Furthermore, and within the framework of ongoing discussions about development funding, Portugal has been advocating that co-operative activities in the area of security, which have had a proven impact on development, can be considered as public development aid, regardless of the involvement of any military or civilian agents.

Given the priority of fragile states, Portugal has been participating in work sessions focusing on those countries, particularly in the International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF) as part of the OECD Development Assistance Committee. This network exchanges knowledge and promotes the best ways of changing the traditional methods of providing support in the contexts of fragility. It also produces reports and policy procedures and publishes the States of Fragility report. 

Portugal has been participating in the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (IDPS), the first forum for political dialogue to bring together the countries affected by conflict and fragility (g7+), development partners (INCAF) and the Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS). Besides focusing on results, this dialogue aims to provide a channel of communication for fragile states by establishing solutions based on strong partnerships, mutual accountability and state appropriation, as well as devising a global approach to the problems of development and security.