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Conflict, fragility and recovery: six years of research, three surprises

Written by Rachel Slater, Paul Harvey, Richard Mallett


For the past six years, the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) has been seeking to understand how processes of post-conflict recovery and state-building play out in some of the world’s most challenging contexts – and to equip policy-makers and practitioners with better information on how to support those processes.  

In 2012 SLRC surveyed almost 10,000 people across five countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Uganda. Three years later more than 8,400 of the original respondents were found and re-interviewed. 

The conclusion? State-building is as much about cultivating relationships and negotiating politics as it is about investing in tangible deliverables. Getting the right ‘building blocks’ in place is important, but so too is the ‘glue’ that holds them all together. 

Today, SLRC publishes its final reports from phase one. Here, three researchers who have been on the programme since its inception reflect on some of the big surprises.

Frequently asked questions

Rachel Slater: getting to grips with the ‘turbulence’ of recovery

After six years of SLRC research, I’m left with a sense of how overwhelmingly delicate the process of recovery and state-building is. I would describe people’s lives in fragile and conflict-affected situations as turbulent.  

In our measurements of food security, we find some people moving over three years from being among the least food secure in their communities to the most food secure. Other people are on the opposite trajectory, their situation being one of stark and rapid decline. We’ve also seen how long it takes to build confidence and trust in government actors, and how quickly that can be eroded. As our DRC research team put it, ‘trust comes on foot but leaves on horseback’.   

The big surprise for us is that driving this turbulence is not only violent conflict but also wider shocks. Especially environmental and health shocks. We’ve had to make sure that our understanding of people’s lives and what we can do to support them isn’t viewed only through a conflict lens. 

We are left with messages for international donors about the need to recalibrate their expectations and timelines, shift their mindsets away from common assumptions and prepare for things to get worse before they get better.

Frequently asked questions

Paul Harvey: the importance of dignity and fairness

When we set out to research the links between service delivery and state-building, we expected to find that improvements in people’s access to services – like healthcare and education – would lead to more positive perceptions about their governments. We didn’t find this and at first worried about how to present a negative finding. Did our evidence suggest that donors should give up on state-building or that governments should stop delivering services?  

No. Instead, a fascinating and more nuanced narrative emerged; the way in which services are delivered and the relationships between people and government officials matter. We summarised this as ‘it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’.  

Underpinning this are concepts of trust, fairness and dignity. I was bringing up two young children at the time of SLRC and fairness is key to parenting. You can solve most disputes by ensuring equity. People’s views of what government can and can’t do as they emerge from brutal civil wars seems similar. People in South Sudan recognised the limits of what their newly formed government could do but wanted fairness across ethnic divides.  

Dignity was also a factor. Our work on jobs and markets found that people were often struggling in exploitative and abusive jobs whilst being treated badly by agencies and officials. Support was too often dependent on who people knew. The limited benefits of peace dividends were captured by the powerful. It is clear that more support is needed for forms of collective action to combat exploitation, demand better pay and improve working conditions.  

Throughout SLRC, we challenged ourselves to present to DFID, the World Bank, aid agencies and governments not just our findings but the ‘so what’ implications of our work. A focus on fairness, trust and dignity is a lot harder than building schools or equipping clinics but no less exciting. When so many feel disenfranchised by their government, aid actors and governments need to focus more on how they relate to the people they are trying to serve.

Frequently asked questions

Rich Mallett: familiar isn’t the same as effective

I’m surprised by how so much programming in this area remains unchanging in the face of fresh learning and mounting critique. 

The impact of war on states, societies and economies is complicated. Recovery is a process that requires careful support and facilitation, demanding smart approaches not blanket solutions. But when we look at what is actually being done, the lack of diversity and experimentation is remarkable. 

Take capacity building. This continues to form a huge pillar of aid policy. It absorbs a quarter of aid spending every year – about $15 billion. The idea is to get actors like governments to the point where they can perform effectively without outside support. That’s hard. Meaningful capacity building has to be about how states relate to, and treat, different sections of society. This is the stuff of politics.  

And yet, SLRC’s research shows that capacity building tends to be boiled down to basic deliverables that tick boxes but produce little. One health worker I interviewed in Sierra Leone a few years ago probably summed it up best, ‘Training, training, training … how much training does one person need!’ 

The funny thing is, we’ve known about the problems and disappointments of capacity building for many years. SLRC is not the first to highlight these things. What is most surprising is the fact that the tried-and-tested approaches, ill-fitting in many contexts, continue to dominate. There are big questions to answer about what is really driving policy and programming – particularly when that doesn’t seem to be research and evidence – and what can realistically be done to disrupt the status quo.