Aid in ‘Politically Estranged Settings’ and the Disappointment Cycle of reading new papers

April 25, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

I often experience a ‘disappointment cycle’ when reading papers on aid and development. The initial question/framing gets me excited – this is really going to tell me something new/interesting. But then the paper peters out, reverting to standard prescriptions and vague generalizations.

That certainly was my feeling with the new paper from Chatham House and New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Aid strategies in ‘politically estranged’ settings: How donors can stay and deliver in fragile and conflict-affected states got my attention first because of ‘politically estranged’:

‘more than 49 per cent of people in countries on the World Bank’s list of fragile and conflict-affected states (FCS) now live in situations where relations between national authorities and major donors are ‘politically estranged’.

Estranged situations are those where: (i) ruling authorities have taken power by extra-constitutional means; (ii) states are under comprehensive sanctions; (iii) societies are in transition back to a constitutional order; or (iv) elections are internationally disputed. 

This is really interesting – so much of aid, especially that of bilateral and multilateral donors (who provide the vast bulk of the cash) rests on relationships between donors and national/subnational governments. What do you do when those relationships break down?

One option is for donors to walk away, but the paper argues that ‘There are sound national interest, geopolitical, collective security and ethical reasons for donors to stay engaged in estranged settings. While development aid by itself cannot prevent conflict or instability, its suspension can exacerbate fragility. Suspension of aid can deepen suffering, prompt further displacement of people and strain humanitarian instruments already responding to more than 340 million people in need worldwide. Withdrawal erodes societal capacities and institutions, increases the risk of negative spillovers, especially to neighbouring countries and regions, and can intensify geopolitical competition.’

The paper argues that political estrangement hacks away at some of the basic plumbing of the aid relationship: accountability breaks down when states don’t play ball; lack of information makes efforts at inclusion (e.g. of minority groups) very hard to monitor; the infrastructure for delivering basic services may not exist – try delivering humanitarian aid when there is no functioning system for currency exchange. Finally, these contexts are often chaotic – constant adaptation is required, which is not exactly the aid industry’s strong point.

It then promises that ‘a range of options exists for donors to remain engaged without ignoring the sources of estrangement’. But this is the point at which my disappointment set in. The ‘so whats’ for donors are:

‘collaboration across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus to:

— Build and maintain domestic support (i.e. in donor countries) for engagement;

— Establish and communicate clear expectations with national actors – i.e. sanctioned authorities and civil society and community groups;

— Design delivery modalities and oversight mechanisms that channel aid effectively; and

— Adapt programming rapidly to circumstances.’

That all sounds far too close to business as usual, something born out by the resulting ‘Menu of Options’ (below).

Take the toughest quadrant – high risk and low willingness to engage. The recommendations are shove more money through NGOs and direct to communities, zoom out to regional dialogues to try and get some traction on reluctant governments and start paying nurses and teachers directly.

What’s missing from this? How about

1. Seeking pockets of effectiveness and non-estrangement, e.g. particular ministries or subnational governments that are working OK and keen to engage with donors? Manchester University’s ESID programme did some great work on this (see link) and it seems a genuine option where national relations are ‘estranged’

2. Identifying ‘public authorities’ like faith organizations or traditional leaders, who enjoy legitimacy and scale, sometimes more so than national governments? This seems more promising than just defaulting to NGOs, as the paper suggests, given how small and peripheral such organizations often are.

3. Supporting individuals, rather than projects, through expanded scholarship schemes (aka cash transfers for current and future leaders)?

4. Or even my old favourite, positive deviance – find out where the existing system has thrown up some successful/less unsuccessful efforts to provide basic services or accountability (without aid necessarily playing a role) and see what lessons or practices could be helped to spread?

I’d be interested in other suggestions, because what’s in this paper seems far too conservative. If I’ve been unfair on the authors, they should feel free to weigh in in comments. Important caveat – I only read the 16 page policy brief, not the full 86 page paper, but if there are some gems in the paper that don’t make it into the brief, that’s an even more serious crime, IMO.

April 25, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. I would be disappointed too Duncan, if the range of stakeholders considered does not seem to include private sector actors – often local businesses that continue to deliver essential goods and services even in the most conflict-affected settings.
    Proven ways for donors to engage (indirectly) with such actors exist.
    Here are just a couple of examples:
    Agricultural extension in Niger Delta:
    Healthcare providers in Somalia:

  2. What is missing from so many of the practice papers is a bottom-up perspective. The perspective is usually that of donors, lacking consideration of the role of local residents and power dynamics in shaping pathways to development. When the donors and a govt are estranged, the estrangement usually also extends to citizens, particularly minorities who are deprived of rights or access to services. The discussions miss identification and opportunities for entry points which recognize the full spectrum of relevant actors, even those with whom there is sharp disagreement, in the chance of coopting, neutralizing or building constituencies for excluding them. The reference to “community approaches” noted in the paper needs analysis based on deeper understanding of incentives and security needs of affected populations.

  3. Duncan- can you clarify what the difference between your #1: pockets of effectiveness, and #4: positive deviance is, please? Is it that pockets of effectiveness are limited to the public sector? Otherwise, I would see them as an example of positive deviance, no?

    1. Post

      That’s right Katherine, Pockets of Effectiveness is more about functioning bits of the state, whereas Positive Deviance is broader, and more about outcomes – health, education, accountability, women’s rights etc. So in PNG, we’re looking for examples of villages that have got rid of SARV (Sorcery Accusation-Related Violence) and then trying to understand why and what (if anything) could be spread.

  4. In earlier times democracy was assumed to be an outcome of economic development and modernization, the belief now arose that democracy is a prerequisite for development.
    From the 1990s democracy promotion was placed prime on the international development agenda.
    Early attempts to promote democracy in the developing world suffered from inadequate and superficial conceptualizations of democracy evinced in various forms of democracy promotion by Western countries which led to a re- introduction of competitive multi-party elections, primarily through various kinds of election support and election monitoring/observation financially enabled by Western Democracies.
    In Africa, following the granting of state independence, ‘institutional templates’ were transferred to these new African States.
    African governments unwilling to introduce positive prescriptive administrative institutional reforms resulted in the imposition of political conditionality as a method used forcing the government to comply resulting by the mid 1990s with almost every African nation regime having conducted at least one multi-party election.

  5. If there isn’t a chapter on the construction industry, the paper is missing something. In both Somalia and Afghanistan large parts if not all of the industry is or at least was for sometime in the hand of the wrong people. Meaning that money spent building roads, refurbishing buildings, and the like helped fuel the conflict.

    One of the UN agencies in Mogadishu recognized the problem and tried to address it. The agency hired a newly formed, “clean” company to add a couple of stories to its office building. The contractor/war lord/ politician who had the monopoly on construction work in the area paid a visit to the agency to warn that there would security issues on the job site if the agency went with the new, clean company. The agency manager thanked him but said not to worry, there would be security guards on site. A couple of days later the two security guards and the 20+ workers were gunned down. The contractor/war lord/politician who issued the warning came back afterwards to say his company could take over the work and there would be no security issue. I don’t know what the final outcome was, and I don’t have an easy answer for the problem. Anyone who does please share it.

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