Why the Aid Community needs to step up on Fragile/Conflict States

February 16, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Everyone in the aid biz is talking fragile and conflict affected states these days (FCAS – I’ve given up on trying to get everyone to adopt FRACAS….). That’s partly because that’s where poor people will predominantly be in a couple of decades time, as more stable places grow their way out of extreme poverty, and partly because of the link to the security agenda that so fixates many governments – the ‘hotbed of terrorism’ argument.

Fragile - this way up
The only way is up?

That could be a problem. I would go as far as saying FCAS could be the graveyard of the aid business, because they are the hardest places to work/get results in. Traditional cooperation with states is more likely to go wrong. The focus on ‘zero tolerance of corruption’ is more likely to blow up in our faces. Aid is often concentrated at the short term humanitarian end of the spectrum, when conflicts and fragility are often prolonged. Expat staff (especially the more experienced ones, who are more likely to have family commitments) often prefer posts in Paris or Delhi, not Kabul or Goma. And other traditional aid partners like the private sector or Civil Society Organizations are often also weaker in such places.

Anxieties over this direction of travel may be one reason for the injection of research funding. I’m involved in two projects – Action for Empowerment and Accountability is investigating how social and political action occur in FCAS, and the LSE’s Centre for Public Authority in International Development (CPAID) is trying to understand how power operates in such places.

5 parts of fragility
The OECD’s 5 axes of fragility

But where do you go if you want a broader overview of FCAS – eg how they vary; the historical accounts of ‘turnaround’ countries that have somehow escaped from fragility and conflict; the comparison of how different aid approaches do (or more often don’t, and sometimes even make things worse) work in such messy places; an understanding of who else wields power when states are either absent or predatory, and whether we can work with them?

The answer is not obvious. Research is driven by funding, and funding is generally for new research, rather than for providing a repository of wisdom, experience and advice. Those are often an almost accidental accompaniment of research – you get a bunch of researchers in a university or thinktank, and their body of knowledge and experience becomes a place others can tap into, but it is on top of their day jobs (churning out new papers).

It’s like a large scale version of the conversation I once had with our outgoing Afghanistan gender adviser. We met by accident in Dubai airport, and she told me that typically expats in Afghanistan work a couple of years, then leave, either through burn out or because they are on short term contracts. Then new arrivals start the learning process all over again (often including repeating the same approaches and discussions of the previous years – at worst, producing a Groundhog Day of ‘steep learning curves’, followed by loss of the accumulated knowledge. Then repeat.) Can’t we do better than that?

Looking more broadly, I see aspects of such an institution elsewhere – for example the International Growth Centre

Feeling fragile? Let's all be nice to each other
may not be enough……

pulls together different disciplines to look at markets and growth, or the GSDRC is a resource centre that responds to donor requests for literature and the like. But otherwise, wisdom and experience seem to be concentrated either within institutions, or in informal networks and individuals – I started thinking about this during a conversation with fellow aid greybeard Steve Commins, who mentioned that people at the World Bank, DFID and INGOs sometimes see him as the institutional memory, even though he doesn’t work for them any more – he’s become the guy who points out that the Bank actually ran projects and research on a given subject 15-20 years ago, which everyone’s forgotten as the staff with experience are rotated onwards again and again until the knowledge has evaporated, and the Bank/DFID/INGO is about to do it all over again.

If FCAS really are the future/cemetery of the aid business, surely it should step up its ideas on this? A FCAS Centre could:

  • Act as a convenor, bringing together what we know about how FCAS function, history, turnarounds etc, and the past and present of aid interventions there. It would draw on different disciplines and players, researchers and practitioners etc.
  • Balance the larger debate with practical support and exchanges on programme design and experimentation on shared problems like how to overcome the intractable divide between short term humanitarianism and long term development programming.
  • Support those FCAS governments seeking a better deal from the international system.
  • Plug into local sources of knowledge in different countries, to ameliorate the impact of staff turnover.
  • From Oxfam’s point of view, I’d hope it could include some of the vital issues such as gender rights or civil society space, which keep slipping off the FCAS agenda, and yet could offer new ideas and solutions.
Child collecting bullets
A child holds up bullets collected from the ground in Rounyn, a village about 15 kilometres from Shangel Tubaya, North Darfur. Most of the village’s population has fled to camps for internally displaced because of heavy fighting between Government of Sudan and rebel forces.

It could also tackle some of the institutional problems that bedevil aid in fragile states – high levels of staff turnover, risk aversion, the unintended negative consequences of the results and value for money agenda (results tend to be even more unpredictable, slower, and aid more expensive than in more stable settings).

It might not work of course – it could become some opaque institution of little tangible benefit, a creature that is not unknown in the aid business. But given what is at stake, isn’t it worth a try? And if aid organizations can get more savvy at working in these messy places, there’s likely to be useful lessons for working in the more stable Zambia/Malawi type places too.