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Making poverty history - the state as the missing link

The increased financial commitment to Africa must be welcomed, not least because it is indicative of renewed political will to tackle global inequities. However, there is a missing link between the generous financial commitments, and the chance of the citizens of many countries around the world realizing the benefits of this commitment. This missing link is the state - or the governance arrangements that provide the policies and institutions necessary to provide services to citizens. Without functioning states, the legal environment, health and education services and security institutions cannot be provided on an inclusive and sustainable basis.

The responsibility to protect policy adopted by the UN recognizes that the state is the primary duty bearer of rights. It is laudable, and realistic, that where states cease to provide basic services to their citizens, non-governmental organizations and UN and other agencies step in to provide services to citizens for an emergency period. Understandably, such organizations cannot undertake to provide services to all citizens on an equitable basis across the country, in perpetuity. In reality, they are forced to provide services where they can, while the money lasts. Disbursement of aid through parallel organizations will, and should, continue to happen, where it is really needed. But use of such mechanisms must be seen as a short term solution, reserved for emergencies and crises. Where substitution for state services takes place, this must be done mindfully and explicitly, with clear exit strategies, and plans for creating state capacity to take over within specified periods of time.

Until there is a long-term view taken in each country as to which services should be provided by the state directly, which contracted out, and which delivered by community or religious or other organizations, policy will continue to be made by all on an ad hoc and unsustainable basis. As pointed out in the Sachs report, until a multi-year perspective is taken, the right investments to lift constraints in the delivery of services- such as teacher training to improve the quality of education- will not be taken. Investing in the state will not save a child’s life tomorrow, but it might be the best way of ensuring better lives for the children of hundreds of millions of citizens.

For more on this topic, read the ODI Opinion titled 'Closing the sovereignty gap: how to turn failed states into capable ones' written by Dr. Ashraf Ghani, Michael Carnahan and myself. The BBC website also recently ran a story that refers to a book Dr. Ghani and I are writing about how to rebuild failed states, with a focus on Afghanistan.