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World must rethink aid to 'fragile' and developing states, LSE-Oxford study finds

Sabah Arar, AFP | A double decker bus in Baghdad promotes January 2005 elections with an image of a hand depositing the Iraqi flag in a ballot box.

A new LSE-Oxford report on growth and development released Thursday says the number of people living in “fragile states” is rising sharply and calls on the international community to transform its approach to providing aid to these nations.


By 2030, half of the world’s poor will be living in so-called fragile states – those nations so afflicted by conflict or corruption that their governments either lack the legitimacy or the ability to provide public services, boost economic growth or ensure employment opportunities for their populations. These nations often lack basic security, a functioning private sector, and have deep-rooted social, religious or political divisions that make uniting under a central government particularly challenging.

Such state insecurity doesn’t just condemn whole nations to poverty – it has a global effect, including “driving mass migration, providing safe havens for piracy and trafficking, and enabling terrorist training camps to thrive”, the authors note in “Escaping the Fragility Trap”.

The report – released April 19 by the LSE-Oxford Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development, which is chaired by former UK prime minister David Cameron and conducted under the auspices of the International Growth Centre (IGC) draws on research and testimony from policymakers, academics, business leaders and other experts in fragile states and conflict situations.

“The Commission’s findings are clear,” it said. “If international assistance, aid, and – crucially – economic development are to help make our world safer and more prosperous, we need to address what we call the ‘syndrome’ of fragility.”

And yet the international response to aid in these fragile nations continues to be hampered by the same mistakes of the past.

“Indeed, some of the things developed countries, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and donors have done have arguably made matters worse,” the report said.

“After decades of aid, many of these countries are as poor as they ever were – some even poorer.”

Less idealism, more realism

International agencies – including NGOs, donor countries, aid groups, the International Monetary Fund, the UN, financing institutions and peacekeeping forces – must fundamentally rethink their approaches and learn from past failures, including adopting a more realistic view of what can be achieved at the local level, the report said.

Many well-meaning programmes fail because they are “inconsistent” with what a fledgling government is capable of achieving. Elsewhere, governments have been coerced into adopting projects or programmes that they do not want or need.

Long-term solutions will likely be "homegrown", the report found.

“That may be slow and tough, but it is likely to be more lasting. Homegrown solutions and locally negotiated coalitions of governments, businesses, and civil society are the things that will make well-designed international support more likely to be effective.”

Above all, the Commission said, international donors "must stop setting out long lists of unachievable objectives and unrealistic timetables, and start working with governments rather than around governments”.

“Escaping fragility is by necessity, a slow, step-by-step, and often imperfect process,” said Dr Donald Kaberuka, former president of the African Development Bank and co-chair of the LSE-Oxford commission. “International support will be needed, but the chances of success are higher if the country and its people are in the driver’s seat.”

LSE-Oxford Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development

And yet, national actors – governments and political parties, as well as media and civil society groups – must also rethink their approaches.

“This emphasis on greater national respect and responsibility will only work if they set out their national priorities – about where they are going as a country and who they want to be," said the report.

"Owning those priorities, learning from mistakes, combatting corruption, and demonstrating accountability are all crucial.”

The Commission said rather than making international funds contingent on adopting specific policies, donors should demand what it called “governance conditionality” to make sure funds are being spent properly; guard against corruption and embezzlement; and keep dominant groups from abusing power. This can serve as an interim transparency strategy while domestic checks and balances are still being established, the report suggested.

'Pop up democracy'

Poverty and stagnation are particularly acute in nations struggling to rebuild after conflict. First steps include re-establishing security and rebuilding trust on a local level.

But what has become standard international practice is a rapid reaction to a crisis, topped off with “a veneer of high-sounding sentiments based on a salient myth”. That myth is the idea that if some “root cause” of fragility is eliminated, society will soon return to functioning.

It was this myth that was at work in ousting Saddam Hussein, after which the Iraqi state was demolished, a new constitution quickly established and a new government chosen in multi-party elections. But Iraq soon descended into sectarian conflict and chaos.

The report observed that, despite its failures, variants of the Iraq strategy have been used over and over again by the international community. From the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to the Taliban in Afghanistan, the fall of each of these regimes has been followed by what the Commission called “pop up democracy”.

“Yet none of these societies duly became flourishing democracies; instead each disintegrated into varied degrees of disorder,” it said.

Smooth transitions from conflict to peace are more likely to succeed if there is a period of power-sharing before elections are held, the report found. Establishing the “building blocks of democracy – the rule of law, checks and balances, the protection of minorities – matter as much as the act of holding elections”.

“For states trying to find a pathway out of fragility, these building blocks can be even more important,” the Commission said. 

A transitional phase, during which a government earns legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens by creating checks and balances and establishing a common purpose, “is preferable to the illusion of instant legitimacy conferred by a donor-approved election that citizens do not accept”.

“Elections matter and I am an out and out believer in democracy,” the IGC quoted the UK’s Cameron as saying on the eve of the report’s release. “But before we rush to multi-party elections, we need to do more to resolve conflicts, achieve power-sharing, and put in place the checks and balances that can help prevent another slide into conflict and failure.”

In a society riven by sectarian religious, ethnic or other divisions with a history of grievances, finding agreement on what is fair or just in going forward may prove especially difficult.

“The purpose of power-sharing is primarily to allay mutual fears, with each group able to block change that crosses its red lines,” the report said.

Moreover, this allows time for different social groups to come to some sort of agreement on a mutually beneficial, shared vision of the future.

“A key role of inclusive government is to reshape identities and values to those which support the peaceful transition of power, the obligation to obey laws, and the collective effort needed to lift the society out of poverty,” the report said.

The report also counselled that patience was key: “Transforming fragile societies is a generational process, not an event.” 

Commission member Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, told the IGC the report offered a wealth of "academic and practical evidence" for how to forge a way out of instability.

“We have much to learn from the mistakes which have been made in fragile states – it is high time for a new approach,” she said.

Escaping the fragility trap

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