Delay elections in favor of power-sharing agreements in fragile states, David Cameron says

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo by: European Union / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is arguing that the international development community must completely rethink the way it approaches fragile states to ensure reforms take hold and such countries do not plunge back into instability.

That could include potentially slowing down timetables for elections in fragile countries because of concerns that going to the polls too soon could exacerbate divisions, rather than heal them.

Cameron is the chair of the LSE-Oxford Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development, a joint project of the London School of Economics, Oxford University and the International Growth Centre. He said the commission’s report found that one of the biggest problems with the response to fragility is imposing unrealistic goals on states, which often have weak institutions or are recovering from violent conflict — or frequently both.

“For a set of the most fragile states, we really have to do things differently because what we’ve been doing up to now hasn’t worked,” Cameron told Devex. “Our critique of what has happened in the last 20 years is that the leverage of Western powers has gone into setting out the constitution-writing timetable and the election timetable rather than the power-sharing agreement.”

“Western countries have wanted to encourage democratic norms and practices, but we’ve been putting things the wrong way round.”

— David Cameron, chair of the LSE-Oxford Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development

Fragile states can be rife with conflict and corruption, with governments that struggle to provide basic public services and employment opportunities for citizens. They struggle with security, social divisions, and floundering private enterprise. All of these conditions impact not only the struggling state itself, but neighboring countries who see instability spill over their borders, and the globe at large, where the ripple of migrant flows can be felt on separate continents.

One of the report’s key recommendations is to slow the push for elections and instead focus on power-sharing agreements that can keep disparate factions at the same table and productively engaged with one another, rather than returning to armed conflict.

By 2030, half of the world's poor will live in fragile states. The LSE-Oxford Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development says a new approach is needed for countries caught in the “fragility trap.” Source: International Growth Centre

“Western countries have wanted to encourage democratic norms and practices, but we’ve been putting things the wrong way round,” Cameron said. “When you’re dealing with a post-conflict country, the arrangements for power sharing, the arrangement for checks and balances on power, that work being done to do that is so vital because it’s that that actually enables successful multiparty elections and fully functional democracy to follow.”

International actors must recognize the utility of state building step-by-step, eschewing laudable yet unrealistic goals bound to end in failure and frustration.

“It’s not easy to say to, in the case of Libya, a bunch of people all with their own armed militias ‘now then, you’ve got to peacefully power share,’” Cameron said. “But every bit of leverage you have should be put into that settlement rather than using your leverage on things that are important for the future, but a future that won’t work unless you get the basics right.”

The commission focused on fragility because of the issue’s position at the nexus of many of the thorniest problems in global development: Mass migration, extreme poverty, terrorism, and trafficking.

According to the report, more than half the world’s poor will live in a fragile state by 2030. Helping avoid this global condition requires the transformation of two separate spheres so a fragile state can rid itself of that moniker: Politics and security, and the economy. The commission found that while both international actors and domestic governments have a role to play, it is the national elements that are often more effective at laying the foundation for a successful road out of fragility.

Q&A: The World Bank's pivot to fragile states

The World Bank wants to move earlier into conflict-affected and fragile countries with more funding, more staff, and a mandate to focus on prevention, according to the institution's fragility, conflict, and violence director Franck Bousquet.

Other recommendations include supporting domestic security forces instead of long-term, international peacekeepers, focus on citizens of the state rather than international donors, and not tying international support to implementation of particular policies.

“A government that delivers services is extremely important, and then along the way you build the foundation of democracy,” said Dr. Donald Kaberuka, former president of the African Development Bank and co-chair of the commission.

“It’s important to understand that democracy is a shared goal worldwide. It is an aspiration. So, I think what international organizations try to do or should do is to help countries along the way get to their particular goal.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.

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