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Engaging with Fragile States: Challenges and Opportunities

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal

The Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) of the World Bank hosted a conference in Addis Ababa on ‘Engaging with Fragile States: Challenges and Opportunities’ on Tuesday and Wednesday last week (24-25 July).  It was organised in close collaboration with the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

Overall, I thought the conference was very interesting, especially in terms of the people it was able to bring together. There was a good mix among the participants, including a lot of multilateral and bilateral donors (WB, EC, UN, DAC, DFID, DANIDA, AusAid, etc) as well as African government officials (especially from Liberia and Sudan), representatives from regional organisations (ECOWAS and AU), some academics (especially James Putzel from LSE, Robert Picciotto from King’s College, and quite a few students/professors from Addis Ababa University), and a few think tank and CSO representatives (FRIDE, Oxfam Kenya, and ODI).

Ashraf Ghani was there as well. He made the keynote address during the opening session of the conference, and he was speaking as Chair of the new Institute for State Effectiveness that he and Clare Lockhart have recently established in New York.

The WB will put up all of the presentations (and hopefully the video links as well) on the IEG’s website and the full conference proceedings will be published in the form of a book. Here I would just like to highlight a few points that caught my attention.

The overall quality of the presentations and of the discussion in the plenary was quite high, touching on issues that, while largely familiar, remain challenging or otherwise unresolved. Above all, the conference served to highlight the fact that state-building has now become one of the leading priorities of the international community (in fragile states and beyond), and that a focus on MDGs is simply not enough to address complex development challenges. This does not mean that agreement has been reached on what exactly a fragile state is, and on what state-building entails.  Each of the presenters seemed to define the terms in a slightly different way (while some key characteristics – like weak institutions and lack of state capacity – were common to all of them), and there was a plea from Robert Picciotto to avoid getting sucked into what he described as a ‘semantics chaos’.

Nevertheless, conference participants highlighted the need to recognise that different kinds of fragility call for different kinds of (donor) interventions for state-building. Even here, however, making clear distinctions between different kinds of fragility remains very difficult. Poul Engberg-Pedersen from NORAD, for example, suggested that there are four types of fragile states:

• Those that are conflict-prone;
• Those that suffer from a so-called ‘resource curse’;
• Those that suffer from ‘bad governance’; and
• Those that are landlocked

But it is entirely possible that a given country is affected by two or more of these conditions, which makes categorising countries into distinct groups within a given typology rather challenging.

Aside from this issue of defining fragile states, other points that came up repeatedly included:

• The issue of ‘political will’ should not be confused with the need for political leadership to carry state-building efforts forward. ‘Political will’ is not a very helpful concept, as it tends to be used as a blanket factor to explain why some state-building efforts fail without providing any nuance or context (Engberg-Pedersen).  A focus on political leadership is much more useful because it enables an analysis based on the opportunities, constraints, and incentives leaders face when undertaking reforms (or not).  This, in essence, is a political economy approach to state-building.
• A  ‘poverty of knowledge’ seems to pervade state-building efforts: there is remarkably little sharing of (state-building) experiences across countries and among donors, which means that the wheel is constantly being reinvented in different individual settings and that comparative lessons are not being learned.
• There is a considerable need to strengthen South-South cooperation and lesson learning.
• Donor coordination has been identified as a problem at least since the 1970s, and it remains a big challenge to this day. A big part of the problem with donor coordination in fragile states contexts is that foreign, military, and political objectives coexist with developmental ones, which makes it much more difficult for donors to agree on a common platform or set of interventions.  This goes to the heart of a fundamental challenge the international community has yet to address: despite the fact that, over time, there has been a considerable accumulation of lessons regarding state-building interventions, very often these lessons are simply not learned, be it for a lack of political will among actors (donors and others), or for other, more structural reasons.

It is interesting to note that the question of how viable the simultaneous pursuit of three key donor objectives in the political (democracy), economic (market economy), and institutional (state-building) arenas in fragile states is was not a significant focus of the conference. James Putzel from the LSE’s Crisis States Programme did address this issue directly, but for the most part, there seems to be an implicit assumption that efforts to promote democratisation, economic liberalisation, and state-building are mutually reinforcing and can be carried out simultaneously without generating any unintended (negative) consequences. In truth, the relationship between these three processes is much more complex and challenging, and needs to be analysed much more deeply. Among other things, the tensions embedded among these three objectives highlight the need to prioritise and sequence interventions in a very careful, thought-out manner that is highly sensitive to context.

In general, the line-up of speakers was very strong. I did feel, however, that the conference programme could have done more to provide greater space to African government representatives to tell their side of the story about the challenges they confront in building functioning and responsive state institutions. A couple of government officials, especially from Cambodia and Liberia, spoke on the second day, and Ashraf. Ghani also spoke from the perspective of Afghanistan’s ex-Minister of Finance, but I think the conference would have been significantly enriched if more advantage had been taken of the insights coming from domestic leaders, other than giving them the floor during the time for questions / open discussion. For instance, many of the presenters touched on the issue of what Ghani has come to define as the ‘double compact’ – the accountability mechanisms that link governments in post-conflict/fragile states with donors on the one hand and with their own citizens on the other.  It would have been fascinating to hear from the representatives of the different African governments present at the conference how they manage these different relationships and what challenges they confront in establishing accountability both upwards and especially downwards.  

One final point: a question that did not come up in the conference itself but that on which I tried to gather informal views is whether indigenous African perspectives of what ‘state-building’ is (as distinct from ‘nation-building’) coincide with what donors and a mostly Northern-dominated literature on the subject have come to understand by it – or even whether ‘state-building’ is a concept that resonates with Southern actors. From the information I was able to collect, it seems that the term ‘state-building’ is something that is very new for many African actors and that there isn’t a clear indigenous perspective/interpretation of it.  A representative from the African Development Bank told me that he was the one who introduced the term state-building – now a major priority of the bank – into the ADB’s language, and that he did so after being actively involved in the discussions of the OECD DAC Fragile States Group. NEPAD also does not seem to have a particular take or view on ‘state-building’ as such, and is rather focused on issues related to ‘governance’ and ‘capacity building’.

Overall, it seems that, while the international community has embraced the importance of state-building and institution-strengthening as key priorities in their work, especially in fragile settings, there are still more puzzles and challenges than there are answers. Some of the most pressing questions that need to be addressed include the following:

• How can the tensions embedded within different donor objectives be better addressed? How can the sequencing and prioritising between different donor activities be more closely attuned to specific contexts, and what kinds of trade-offs need to be considered? What can donors do to address more fully the problems that may arise between the long-term horizon of state-building and short-term concerns within the international community to produce results? (For example, the need to promote state capacity and institution-building over the long term is often in tension with the need to provide basic services in the short term because the latter tends to be done in a way that undermines government structures and can lead to the creation of semi-sovereign or weak states that lack legitimacy).

• How can domestic actors be more fully involved with state-building efforts so that there is a real sense of ownership, and how can indigenous views of what a state-building project should entail be better captured?

• What incentives and obstacles do domestic and international actors face in building effective states?

• How can the ‘poverty of knowledge’ identified above be addressed and lessons actually used/internalised in informing donor practice?

• And finally, is the international community prepared to make the kind of sustained and long-term commitment that state-building requires?