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If you think conflict prevention is expensive, try conflict

Written by Marcus Manuel


​The awful developments in the Central African Republic are finally drawing the world’s attention to an often forgotten country.

Tragically this is not the first time the country has hit the headlines – there is a clear sense of déjà vu given events ten years ago. Indeed, twenty years ago a local donor learnt that soldiers were about to riot because their wages hadn’t been paid. He desperately ran around the other donors to try to raise the $10 million needed to bridge the gap. No one was willing. It was too much. It was too risky. Aid wasn’t for the military.  After soldiers had torched the capital, donors spent $100 million in emergency humanitarian assistance to fund the cost of reconstruction.

Last week, amid the continued turmoil in the Central African Republic, the OECD launched their annual global report on fragile states. It identified some very encouraging developments, not least the continued increases in the flows of remittances to fragile states – now twice the level of aid. The report also turned a very timely spotlight onto the potential for fragile states to increase their own tax revenues, and set out ways aid agencies could support them doing so (currently just .07% of aid goes to this area).  

But, particularly given the situation in the Central African Republic, one fact stood out from the report: according to the latest available data (to 2011) development aid to the most conflict-prone countries has declined for two years running. While donors continue to fund humanitarian emergencies the budget for development aid that could be used to prevent them is being cut.

These cuts fly in the face of the fact that the world’s poor are increasingly concentrated in the poor, fragile states. In the last twenty years the numbers of people living in extreme poverty in stable countries has fallen by 75%. The numbers in fragile states have shown no change. There is little expectation that this pattern will change – at least without a change of approach. Add to this the latest evidence from the World Bank showing projects in fragile countries have higher success rates, and the current trends of aid allocations begin to look nonsensical.

This coming April the controllers of the world’s aid budgets will meet in Mexico to discuss improvements to the international aid system. The recent cut in aid to fragile states should be on the agenda. The UK government has long prioritised the needs of fragile states and a recent report by the International Development select committee sets out a strong case for preferential treatment to fragile states. But if the UK can’t persuade the rest of the world to agree then it will be left again to pick up the bill – either its fixed share of UN peacekeepers or its typically very generous share of humanitarian appeals.

At the meetings in Mexico policy makers should also be seized with what all the perverse cuts in global support for fragile state means for another country that has been in the news: South Sudan.

When Southern Sudan's peace agreement was signed in 2005 I walked the length of their entire paved road network – all 100 metres of it.  This is a country the size of France where there had been no development for forty years. A small group of visionary South Sudanese and local donors devised a long-term plan to make up for the lost years by building a national road network of around 5,000 km (which would have still left the country with the lowest road density in the world – half that of Niger and one tenth of Kenya).  But over the next seven years only one major paved long distance road has materialised. It is just 200 km long.

The vision of thousands of kilometres of roads joining up a new nation has degenerated into the nightmare of over ten thousand ‘White Army youth militia’ tearing a fractured country apart. And everyone is left wondering, what if those same young men had spent the last seven years building roads and earned enough to start building their own homes? What if they were looking to another seven years of work to finish the job? Would they have been so ready to pick up arms? And would the people and the politicians in the oil producing regions – hundreds of kilometres away from the capital – have continued to have felt so isolated and so marginalised?

More aid and more roads by themselves would have not solved the problems in South Sudan. The solution to the country’s problems is fundamentally a political one that can only come from South Sudan. But too few new roads certainly made the political problems much harder to manage.

Cutting aid to fragile states makes no sense. Conflict prevention is expensive. But you think conflict prevention is too expensive, try conflict.