The state of the state: building confidence, trust and political will

1914 2014To mark the centenary of The First World War, we will be publishing a series of articles looking at what has changed over the last century in a number of domains. In his second article, Alan Whaites team leader, Governance for Peace and Development at the OECD discusses statebuilding and the role of the state.

Charles Tilly famously remarked that states make war and war makes states. The events of 100 years ago would suggest that he had a point. WWI swept away an era of empires, establishing new states and fuelling the rise of both democracy and one-party government. At the same time, the conflict increased the role of state institutions: mobilisation of entire workforces, rationing of food, increased taxation. The state began to engage in the lives of ordinary people in ways that were previously unimaginable – and ways that have left long-term legacies in terms of administrative structures and capacity.

But we should not be misled: the WWI example is far from universal – or persistent. The nature of modern warfare usually turns Tilly’s words on their head: societies making war often unmake the state. Combinations of factions, militias and gangs can emerge to provoke conflict; with state systems frequently torn apart in the process – and the effects can be prolonged. While working in Afghanistan at the end of the past decade, I was struck by the way friends and colleagues reached back to the 1960s in search of examples of government delivery systems. But then this was in a context where at the start of that decade (in 2002) a UN/World Bank preliminary needs assessment suggested that “even at the central level in Kabul, ministries or departments are war-damaged shells, without even the most basic materials or equipment, and with few experienced staff.”

Afghanistan has not been alone. For numerous communities torn apart by conflict, the state of the state can be a significant obstacle to rebuilding. Evidence shows us how the loss of the developmental scale and reach normally attributed to states can have a heavy impact on services and economic growth, even where civil society organisations are working hard to fill the gap. The African Development Bank has tried to calculate the developmental cost of conflict. Their analysis of three African countries suggests that it will take between 19 and 34 years to recover the levels of GDP lost to war and instability. The 2011 World Development Report found that the in countries most affected by violence, the poverty rate was 21% higher than in those not affected. These statistics mask very real human suffering: death, rape, malnutrition and displacement.

States, of course, are at best imperfect and may themselves be sources of predation, abuse and inequity. They may also become vehicles for political discord and exclusion, which in turn foster conflict.  Yet achieving a sustainable end to violence has long been linked to statebuilding – an endogenous process of state-society relations (as defined broadly by the OECD in 2008). This definition points to the importance of responsive country systems that have the potential to encourage trust and confidence, and the capacity to support inclusive politics.

The important role of states in enabling political settlements to develop puts a premium on the capacity of government systems. When participants met at the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan in 2011, they committed to using developing countries’ own systems by default when working on public sector issues. This implied a need to think differently about supporting state-society relations – a need that was in keeping with experience. A 2010 OECD report on how to avoid doing harm when supporting statebuilding found that the tendency to work through parallel (non-state) systems can have damaging effects.

The debate, however, remains contentious and is often couched in terms of risks – such as risks to providers of development assistance, although the risks run both ways. Fragile states have much to lose when resources flow through parallel or off-budget, mechanisms. In 2011, aid represented 104% of the GDP of Afghanistan, yet only 12% of it was delivered on-budget. A World Bank report indicated that much of the aid was delivered through parallel delivery systems (such as Provincial Reconstruction Teams), leaving legacy problems for the government in terms of co-ordination, maintenance and sustainability. Additionally, by keeping a tight hold on the use of development resources, external actors may actually inhibit the growth of responsive state society relations.

Recent research has challenged the assumption that certain types of service delivery – favoured by aid organisations – automatically build legitimacy and confidence in post-conflict states. One implication is that rather than delivering traditional development formulas, what matters for peacebuilding and statebuilding is responding to public fears, wishes and aspirations. To meet public demands, however, a state needs the freedom – and political will – to prioritise areas that will build confidence and trust, which are not necessarily those areas selected by consultants, advisers and funders. Yes, supporting states in determining their own priorities – in consultation with citizens – and then resourcing them to deliver does involve considerable risk for the funder, sometimes both financial and reputational. Yet one lesson from WWI is that conflict can either build or debilitate the responsiveness of states – and without confidence, political will and trust, it can become part of a prolonged and destructive cycle.

Useful links

OECD work on peacebuilding, statebuilding and security


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