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Towards a responsible state: building legitimate and accountable institutions

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30


Professor Charles T Call - Peace and Conflict Resolution, American University, Washington, DC

Dr Sarah Cliffe - Co-Director of the World Development Report 2011 on Fragile States


Alina Rocha Menocal - Research Fellow, ODI


Marta Foresti - Programme Leader, ODI

Marta Foresti introduced the speakers andopened the seventh meeting of ODI’s series of events on Development, Security and Transitions in Fragile States, outlining that previous events touched on a number of state and institution-building issues, and recognising that these are key features and challenges for international engagement in fragile states. James Putzel, in the first event in this series, argued that you can only know a state by understanding its political settlement and ODI’s Sara Pantuliano argued that achieving a more inclusive political settlement needed to be a key priority for fragile states. This helps set the scene for these discussions but we should also mind previous comments by Kieran Prendergast that the international community needs to focus on what is realistic and achievable. This may mean recognising that donors can only minimise problems in fragile states, not solve them.

Professor Charles T. Call, Peace and Conflict Resolution, American University, Washington, D.C.:
Charles Call began his presentation by noting that institution-building in fragile and post-conflict countries is the key challenge for advancing not only peace, but also justice and development. Despite numerous innovations among donors recently, the performance of international actors in state-building remains spotty. What do we know about factors for success? Quantitative research has identified some risk factors for conflict reversion, but statistically significant factors (like poverty or oil-dependence) actually only increase the risk of armed conflict by a few percentage points. So qualitative research is necessary to understand the key factors for success in addressing fragility in a given context - as explored in his volume Building States to Build Peace.

His qualitative research points to the significance of two factors especially. First, the well established necessity of security, either from international troops or national actors. Second, state legitimacy. The latter is not easy to define - elections are often necessary but insufficient for state legitimacy, as elected governments do not always have legitimacy or can lose it (he offered the cases of conflict reversion in Liberia and Haiti).

Positive developments in state-building include the creation of new institutions to bring together security and development within the UN system, bilateral donors and regional organisations. But well-recognised and persistent shortcomings include:

  • Challenges of effectiveness and resources: The international community has not always been willing to devote sufficient resources to addressing the challenges of fragile states.
  • Attitudes within the international community and disjuncture between development and security perspectives. Looking forward, we need more incentives and opportunities for officials and NGO actors to move between development, security and finance fields and develop cross-cutting skills.
  • Challenges regarding the creationof international civilian capacity. The current focus on international civilian capacity to deploy in fragile states risks creating a supply which artificially seeks demand, possibly distracting from developing local civilian capacity.
  • There are big challenges for coordination and coherence acrossfinance, security and development ministriesin bilateral donors. Cultural shifts toward whole-of-government are needed at the highest ministerial level, beyond the creation of institutions like the UK’s Stabilisation Unit.
  • National ownership in fragile states requires greater voice and participation across society in planning and implementation of national strategies. There is also a danger of ‘excessive support’ for elected governments, with less attention paid to opposition parties and civil society.
  • Finally, transparency is crucial. We need to recognise that states can be part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Greater transparency can be one way to push governments who are not responsive.

Dr Sarah Cliffe - Co-Director of the World Development Report 2011 on Fragile States, World Bank:
The World Development Report 2011 seeks to contribute concrete, practical suggestions to the debate on how to address conflict and fragility. In this context, analysing both quantitative and qualitative data for fragility can be helpful. For example, often cited data on conflict shows that instances of civil war have declined in the last two decades. But if we look at other, less examined, data we can identify different patterns for violence following peace agreements, organised crime which threatens the state, cross-border and sub-national conflict.

  • Violence following peace agreements: If we look at total battle deaths in the early 1990s, less that 5% occurred following ceasefires. This has since risen to more than 30%, revealing the extent to which the environment has changed for peacekeepers and those involved in post-conflict reconstruction.
  • Organised crime: The best data available is from Latin America but there is work underway to improve data for other countries. Looking at the data available, over the last 10 years there has been a sharp increase in average homicide rates (for example Guatemala). Many of the Central American countries achieved successful settlements to civil war, but then moved into a post-conflict phase where they face serious threats from organised crime. This has regional implications. Columbia has sought to integrate security and economic approaches to combat drug trafficking, resulting in a significant drop. But at the same time Columbia’s neighbours have faced significant increases in homicides, apparently linked to organised crime.

Why are these trends important? They pose challenges to the existing international architecture,  which is largely based on an assumption that peace settlements end active fighting and create secure conditions for post-conflict reconstruction. On the precipitators of conflict, the WDR is assessing the validity of a framework which covers the roles played by both ‘grievances’ (political factors, discrimination, predation) and opportunities for violence (vacuums in government, large unemployed populations, access to financing for conflict). In current debates, fragility and conflict are often treated separately but it is important to maintain the link between fragility, the quality of institutions and the related risk of conflict.

Responses: The WDR will be drawing together, from the work done by many researchers and agencies, lessons learned on what has worked and what has not in responses to conflict and violence. We take an approach which is based on citizen confidence in the legitimacy of peace-building and state-building efforts, much as Chuck emphasized. This is quite different from a technocratic approach to building the capacity of institutions, but focuses on citizen expectations of their state. We will be looking at both current and historical examples of recovery from conflict, in both developed and developing countries, to assess how legitimacy and political settlements are achieved in practice. One early lesson relates to the realism of international expectations on the speed of transformation. For example, in Portugal the transition to an elected civilian presidency took ten years after the 1975 revolution, and went through a number of stages. In the countries which have achieved the fastest transitions to state-society relations delivering economic prosperity (for example South Korea) this still took some decades. But we expect transitions in developing countries to be much quicker. Instead, we need to see state-building as a gradual process. At the same time, we need to ensure that states struggling to prevent or recover from conflict are able to deliver something positive for the population in the short term, otherwise the gap this creates in state legitimacy may enable spoiler elites to challenge for power. The international response often treats states as independent units but states are subject to important external factors, including at the regional level. An effective response would tackle internal weaknesses and address external pressures.
Some challenges for the international community, and bilateral donors in particular, include:

  • We need to draw the right lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan: It will be important to highlight the successes in recovering from conflict around the world in the face of declining public support. I also concur with Chuck on the need to be cautious about the deployment of international civilian capacity from developed countries. 
  • Finally, we need to focus on building a consensus on what we do know with those outside of the ‘usual players’, beyond the OECD, such as regional organisations and middle income countries who are playing an increasing role.

Alina Rocha Menocal - Research Fellow, ODI (discussant):

  • State-building is now a key international priority – in some ways this is a corrective to the late 1980s backlash against the role of the state in development. But we also need to recognise, as Charles Call points out, that the state can be both solution and the problem.
  • There is growing awareness that processes of state-building are political and that ultimately, they need to be internally driven. But it is still difficult for donors to appreciate just how political this is.
  • There remains a tendency to assume that ‘all good things can go together’ but we need to mindful of the fact that states are the product of political struggles and as such the logic of competition is at their core.
  • There is agreement on what is at stake in state-building, namely the need to build states which are legitimate and inclusive, and the need to be realistic about what can be achieved.
  • A key question remains how to empower people in fragile states to challenge difficult political settlements: in other words, how to brioaden the boundaries of political settlements. This remains a crucial challenge – as the example from Guatemala mentioned by Sarah Cliffe demonstrates, conflict can end but there may not be a broadening of the political settlement and often power structures remain. Research into elections reveals that these can be very limited in terms of helping to broaden the boundaries of the political settlement as political leadership rarely substantively changes.
  • The international community needs to change in two key ways: firstly, donors need to appreciate the gradual nature of state-building. This will require longer time-frames for programmes of support. Secondly, donors need to build the skills of their in-country staff. Overall, donors need to consider that at present their own incentives, approaches and ways of working may not fit with the approaches needed to work effectively in fragile states.

Key points raised in the discussion:

  • There was agreement on the dangers of a focus on international civilian capacity. In Iraq, the top-down approach of the military and civilian deployment overlooked local capacity – but mentoring and empowering local actors can lead to positive results.
  • There were questions regarding the role of bilateral and multilateral donors in trying to bring about changes to political settlements and the scope for facilitating peaceful contestation. Donors need to take account of the political implications of all the instruments they use, including wealth-sharing agreements, decentralisation arrangements and developing regulation and rules for state-private sector roles.
  • The potential role of political parties was raised, including whether and how donors can work to support political parties in seeking to support more inclusive political settlements.
  • There was discussion of how this agenda relates to that of aid effectiveness. The approach developed at Paris and Accra focuses very much on the national level, for example on national budgetary process and Public Financial Management reforms. How can this be reconciled with the need for sub-national and regional approaches to state-building? One way forward would be to focus on the objectives of aid effectiveness and PFM (accountability, transparency) and not on traditional models for them.
  • There were questions about whether and how powerful regional actors can be persuaded to play a greater role in smaller conflict-affected neighbours. Regional players are likely to engage if they have an interest in preventing conflict (for example, if it is likely to damage the region as a whole). At the same time, state-building processes can occur at regional and at sub-national levels. Regional organisations can also play important roles, including in legitimating states.
  • Regarding their interventions in state-building, it was asked ‘who holds the international community to account’: at present it was agreed that no one actor does this. Greater transparency, including reporting on aid disbursements, would be a first step.
  • Regarding ‘positive’ stories of state-building, it was highlighted that some of these more positive stories occur in countries or contexts where donors have had relatively little impact (such as Somaliland). Does this suggest that more radical changes are needed for the international community’s approach when engaging in fragile states?


In recent years the international community has been increasingly focusing its efforts and financial resources to support state building processes, including in fragile situations. Whilst this represents an important step towards more meaningful and effective development and humanitarian efforts (including peacebuilding),  it is an ambitious endeavour, particularly so in fragile states.  

Some of the challenges confronted by the international community include: how to foster more inclusive political settlements and more responsive and representative institutions; how to balance support to and engagement with  formal state legitimacy, for example through rule of law and checks and balances, with more informal arrangements such  as customary practices and rules.

In this meeting, the seventh of a series on fragile states, we discussed how to navigate and address some of these challenges, the progress/experience to date in supporting state building processes in fragile situations and what needs to be done to improve future efforts by the international actors.