How to ensure increased aid to fragile/conflict states actually benefits poor people?

December 18, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Following the UK government’s announcement of an increase in spending on aid for fragile states, Ed Ed CairnsCairns, outlines Oxfam’s experience in fragile states and the potential lessons for the future.

The announcement that the UK will spend 50% of its aid budget in fragile states was made in the aftermath of the terrible atrocities in Paris, Beirut and Bamako. But it’s also the latest step in development agencies reframing their work in a world in which extreme poverty is disproportionately concentrated where violence is high, and where accountable states are pretty absent.

As Duncan reminded us recently, this transformation is neither new nor completed. 2011’s World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development certainly gave it a push. This September’s Sustainable Development Goal (number 16) to ‘promote peaceful and inclusive societies’ seemed a high watermark. But we all know how difficult this is to get right, how much more must be done, and that governments and NGOs alike need new strategies to do so.

fragile states 2So far at least, the UK’s new target perhaps begs more questions than it answers, and I’ll come to them in a minute. But the bigger question for aid in fragile states really is: what works? In Pakistan, Afghanistan, South Sudan, the Philippines and elsewhere, Oxfam has developed programmes to help communities to cope with and at best reduce violence. We’ve seen that conflicts threaten everyone, but that women and girls face particular impacts. That is why we have supported women’s groups in a number of countries to have their voices heard in peace processes, and to seek security and justice from the state.

We’ve been funded by DFID to pilot new ways to support civil society in South Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, DR Congo and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This is a stark recognition by DFID as much as us that too much donor policy on fragile states has been focused on building ‘effective’ but not necessarily accountable states, and that no society will be stable until its citizens (and civil society) can hold that state to account.

In too many countries, the state is not benign; it is predatory, requiring both donor governments and NGOs to put supporting civil society, and influencing the state at the heart of their strategy. In eastern Congo, for example, people say that ‘the community no longer trusts the authorities’, as our annual assessments of the threats people face repeatedly show. Even there however, real results are possible. Oxfam’s work with local ‘protection committees’ has not brought peace, but it has helped at least some communities achieve greater safety.

In truth, however, Oxfam’s own work in fragile states meets with progress and setbacks. We know that transformative change is unlikely within the few years that both NGOs and governments usually plan for. We must plan over far longer periods of 10 or 20 years in a way that allows us to adapt to the inevitable setbacks that will happen. And we need to be realistic about what aid can achieve in the absence of far wider change, which is precisely why we try to join our on-the-ground programmes and our influencing work so closely together.

In Somalia, for instance, many communities have been remarkably resilient despite years of conflict, not least because of the remittances which 40% of Somalis rely on. But in the past few years, banks, including in the UK, have become increasingly nervous of servicing that lifeline because of counter-terror and anti-money laundering regulations.

In other words, DFID can spend any percentage of its aid in fragile states, but there’s far more that must be done, fragile states 1and that involves UK departments far beyond DFID. In September, Oxfam’s Chief Executive, Mark Goldring, wrote about the challenge to see DFID’s strategy in Yemen and British arms sales as coherent. On that kind of coherence, the new Strategic Defence and Security Review has not reassured me. There are good things in it, such as doubling the number of UK military contributed to UN peacekeeping, but it’s disappointing to see no commitment to vigorously implement the Arms Trade Treaty after the UK took ten years to help make it international law. We cannot build resilient states without tackling the international as well as local drivers of fragility, of which irresponsible arms transfers are surely one.

But let me return to DFID’s new 50% target. At least a third of the world’s most vulnerable people live in fragile and conflict-affected states, and some estimate that figure could rise to two-thirds. In that context, DFID’s target seems quite right. But there are risks, and some of those risks may be particularly prominent at a time when the UK and most donor countries face compelling security threats.

The government will spend that 50% ‘including in regions of strategic importance to the UK, such as the Middle East and South Asia.’ Oxfam itself helps provide aid to more than a million people in Syria, as well as millions more in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan, and other countries that are high on the UK’s security interests. But we must not turn our backs on Burundi or the Central African Republic or anywhere else where the lives of thousands, but probably not the interests of the UK, are at stake. We must remember those countries considered stable right now, as Syria, Egypt and Libya were five years ago, but where inequality, scarce resources or political oppression may increase their risks of violence in the future. And we must remember, as Syria shows only too well, that conflict and fragility affect many neighbouring countries, and so any list of fragile states should be treated with some flexibility. 

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.

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.

The government is right that security is vital for development. Equally, development is vital for security and so supporting development and poverty reduction in fragile states through wise use of the aid budget will result in real dividends for security. We must also remember that security is not just about establishing robust states, but also about human security for the people of developing countries, which means ensuring that justice, accountability and upholding human rights are key components of any strategy for working in fragile states.

Those points should inform not only where DFID’s 50% is spent – not disproportionately on ‘regions of strategic importance’ to the UK.  It should also inform any debate on the OECD guidelines on what counts as Official Development Assistance. The UK has always championed the strict use of those guidelines, and to its great credit, it has hit the 0.7% target without weakening those rules. The last thing it should do now is to join with any other governments pressing to spend ‘aid’ to tackle the security or terrorist threats that they, rather than developing countries, primarily face.

In announcing DFID’s 50% target, David Cameron repeated a phrase he has used often before: that the UK will ‘keep our promises to the poorest in the world.’ That certainly means spending 0.7% of GNI on aid. It also means spending it on the purposes promised – on tackling poverty, inequality and humanitarian crises in fragile states and other developing countries – now and in the future.

December 18, 2015
Duncan Green