Working in fragile states: Big risks, bigger payoffs

Women and children flee the fighting between Arab militias and the police in Abyei. Conflicted-affected and fragile regions will most likely miss the development targets by 2015, according to a new progress report by the United Nations on the Millennium Development Goals. Photo by: Tim Freccia / Enough Project / CC BY-NC-ND

A new United Nations progress report on the Millennium Development Goals released on July 1 found Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia home to most of the world’s poorest people.

Up to 48 percent of Sub-Saharans and 30 percent of South Asians live under the poverty line in such fragile and conflict-affected territories as Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, which are all struggling to eradicate extreme poverty and achieve other MDGs.

The report noted that fragile states comprise eight of the ten countries with the highest under-five mortality rates in the world. The World Bank estimated in 2011 that 32 percent of the world’s neediest populations will live in fragile states by 2015.

This comes as net aid disbursement for poor countries dipped 4 percent in 2012 to $126 billion and bilateral official development assistance slid 13 percent to about $26 billion, according to the same U.N. report.

It is time for a change in the sometimes risk-averse attitude among donors and aid agencies to working in fragile states because the payoffs are worth it, says Nigel Roberts, director of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2011 on “Conflict, Security and Development,” who also calls for security to be at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda.

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Roberts:

How has the context of fragile and conflict-affected states changed since the 2011 report was released?

I don’t think the global context has changed dramatically. You’ll always have a succession of countries that are working through these development problems with varying degrees of success and failure, certainly, since the end of the second world war. Where I think there has been change is in terms of the international response to dealing with these countries and what you see increasingly, particularly in the bilateral context but also among multilaterals, is a much clearer understanding that dealing with these countries requires a different toolkit than, say, the mainstream development toolkit.

Does the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States have anything to do with this change?

Absolutely. I think that’s a very big part of it. The New Deal has an added level of legitimacy because it comes from fragile states themselves. They’re owning their problems, coming up with an analytical recipe on how to approach them and then laying out in very clear terms the basic policy requirements to achieve stability in their own context. That is new and quite powerful from the point of view of the donor community. That, I think, has had a significant impact on how these issues are regarded in donor capitals.

Now, what I think has not changed, but you would not expect this to change quickly, is the translation of insights and policy statements into practice in the donor community. The main reason for that is the existence of an environment that is extraordinarily risk-averse so when it comes down to making decisions about how to operate, whether you can operate quickly, where to take risks and how to do so, aid agencies are much more hesitant and, I think, are behaving very much in the way that they have become accustomed to behaving since the beginning of this century. Two things here, in a sense, are contesting each other: an increasing risk aversion along with a much better understanding that you actually do need to take calculated risks if you’re going to be able to operate quickly and effectively.

What advice, then, would you give to donors and aid agencies looking into working in fragile states?

You need to do what you can to minimize risks and there are plenty of instruments by now that have been designed exactly to do that, but at the same time I think you have to set aside the illusion that you can eliminate risk. Now, if we look at normal development programs, we all know that the significant portion of them fail on technical grounds or on governance grounds. People do what they can to minimize those risks, but they accept them and go forward with them.

It’s really the same logic, but the risks are more intense in this environment but so too are the potential payoffs of successful operations and interventions, and I think that aid agencies just have to be more tolerant of that. A lot of that is explaining to their own authorizing environment exactly what is at stake, how they’ve tried to deal with risk, and be honest about the probability that some things are going to go wrong. I think there’s still a tendency among aid agencies to try to somehow give the impression that all the risks can actually be handled and dealt with, which can induce paralysis and slow things down at times when speed is really of the essence.

Why have so many fragile states lagged behind in meeting most MDG targets?

The MDGs don’t speak to some of the fundamental problems faced by fragile states, particularly insecurity and political instability, so it’s no coincidence that the fragile states have performed so badly in terms of attaining the MDGs because we know fairly clearly that sustained and serious political instability and violence cut away at the foundations of orderly development. If you don’t have security, you essentially don’t have development.

The U.N. High-Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda proposed standalone goals on good governance and ensuring security, but have made peace only a crosscutting goal. What did you think of their recommendations?

I think all of these goals have a certain value because they help governments and aid agencies focus their priorities. So in that sense, yes, because they attract a great deal of attention and a great deal of money. I think if you do have goals that are better aligned to the peace and statebuilding goals of the New Deal, then that is going to be much more helpful to these fragile countries. One of the things that countries which have weak institutions and fragile politics have to do is in fact focus on a very limited set of objectives since they don’t, in many cases, have a great deal of formal capacity to handle these kinds of issues.

Many fragile states steeped in poverty are actually resource rich. How can international aid come into a fragile state without fostering the so-called “resource curse”?

I think one of the problems, certainly, with bilateral agencies is they have very mixed agendas. In many cases, their real interest in fragile states is essentially the resources that are available from them, and also their interest in stability is conditional upon their broader geopolitical goals, so quite often their own interest in these countries is probably not very well-aligned with the country’s own interests. When it comes to handling resources, the potential for mishandling natural resources and having them corrupt the institutions that should be governing them is high. In the end, it comes down to the leadership choices which the countries themselves are prepared to make.

The best thing, I think, that outsiders can do if they’re really not self-interested is to help provide various examples of how these things have been done in different parts of the world. The best guarantors of good behavior are citizens’ groups in those countries themselves, not bilateral or multilateral aid agencies. What bilaterals and multilaterals can do, though, is to say – look, here’s how it was done in East Timor, here’s how this was done in the Niger Delta, here’s how this was done in Venezuela and other countries in the world that have this resource wealth and have either used it well or abused it, and to make that information as widely available as possible to those who are brokering power in those countries.

Now, there’s another side to that, which is to require that one’s own national companies behave in a responsible manner. It’s perfectly understandable that they would have commercial interest in countries that are resource rich, but what I think is unacceptable today is that they should benefit from immoral behavior by those companies. The last decade has seen a great deal of progress in that area, both in terms of physical transparency but also in terms of things like ensuring that local beneficiaries receive a fair deal for resources that are extracted from their areas, proper attention to environmental matters and so forth. And that, I think, is a very important part of the whole picture of how these resources in fragile states are managed.

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About the author

  • Johanna Morden

    Johanna Morden is a community development worker by training and a global development journalist by profession. As a former Devex staff writer based in Manila, she covered the Asian Development Bank as well as Asia-Pacific's aid community at large. Johanna has written for a variety of international publications, covering social issues, disasters, government, ICT, business, and the law.