Mapping paths out of fragility and conflict

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Following on Monday’s presentation of the World Development Report, Stephan Massing of the OECD’s International Network on Conflict and Fragility looks at the role of external support in fragile states.

 Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa – where the legitimacy of the reigning power-holders has been seriously questioned by popular protest – bring home the threats to global stability posed by the world’s 30 to 40 fragile states.

While these threats have stirred deep anxiety in the international community for over a decade, the current political upheavals remind us of the need to head off instability by helping to build legitimate and responsive states.

 State fragility threatens the livelihoods of one in six people on the planet. It poses particular challenges for donors, who have witnessed the hopelessness of trying to graft Western institutional responses onto fragile contexts.

Viable solutions need to take into account the particular distribution and dynamics of local power; they need to recognize the trade-offs between development objectives, the fine grain of social expectations and the evolution of regional dynamics.

To be realistic, the conception of statebuilding must be grounded on how the state – at all levels of authority – connects with the people, and how people in turn view the power that governs them. Failing to do so can make an aid programme moribund before it gets off the ground.

The fact that there is no blueprint, nonetheless, doesn’t mean that you can’t sketch a framework for making strategic decisions in fragile states. In practical terms, donors can operate at multiple levels inside and outside institutions – or across regions – to promote statebuilding, but a certain amount of humility is required. The process is a long one, and is driven first and foremost by dynamics within the country.

The process needs to start with looking at the pacts and agreements that link the country’s main political actors (the political settlement), the capacity of the state and its institutions to deliver key functions and services, and the nature of public expectations. Development policy towards each country must be anchored in a clear understanding of the dynamics of power: who is in charge, how do power holders derive their support, and what levers do they have at their disposal? Most significantly, what opportunities exist to spur improvements in governance, and can sound partnerships be formed?

On this basis, using some of the analytic tools now common in the aid community, fundamental choices must be made. The pursuit of multiple simultaneous objectives, as the international community has done in Afghanistan, threatens the fulfilment of any single goal.

Instead, donors must acknowledge the difficult choices they face, for instance the trade-offs between short-term objectives of ending violence or delivering basic services quickly, and the longer-term objective of building institutional capacity. 

Statebuilding is endogenous and highly political. It involves not only developing the capacity of state institutions, but also negotiating their place in societies. While priorities will differ according to context, the new OECD Policy Guidance on Supporting Statebuilding in Situations of Conflict and Fragility draws particular attention to the following entry points for external support:

  • Supporting local conflict management mechanisms – be they formal, informal or traditional – to help address the causes of conflict and mediate tension and dispute.
  • Identifying opportunities to foster inclusive political settlements; supporting processes that strengthen state-society interaction, including fostering transparency and accountability.
  • Strengthening institutions to perform state functions that are strategically important for statebuilding, such as security and justice, revenue and expenditure management, economic development (particularly job-creation), and basic service delivery.

The international community needs to work in new ways with state, non-state and regional actors and across multiple dimensions of the state-society relationship to help build strong states. Instruments and tools need to be adapted to meet statebuilding objectives. And external actors need to strengthen their own capacity and align their incentives with those of the states they are supporting.

There is no single path out of fragility, but at least we have a map of the terrain.

Useful links

OECD work on conflict and fragility and on governance and development

OECD aid statisticsAidflows visualiser and Query Wizard

Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics (ABCDE), hosted at the OECD in Paris, 30 May-1 June

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