Trying to promote reform in fragile and conflict states: some lessons from success and failure

February 25, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Reading the ODI’s prodigious output is starting to feel like a full time job. A lot of it is really top quality, even if ODI FCS covertheir choice of titles is sometimes a bit bland. One example is ‘Change in Challenging Contexts’, a name that doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing – a shame, as it’s a fascinating set of papers.

The papers (a 54 page whopper, plus 3 briefings) are a ‘lesson-learning series produced by ODI’s Budget Strengthening Initiative (BSI), an experimental 5 year programme set up in 2010 to support fragile and conflict-affected states to build more effective, transparent and accountable budget systems.’ The BSI worked in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, South Sudan and Uganda and with the g7+ group of fragile states. That means it is very much about insider reform efforts by Big Aid, rather than protests on the streets and civil society activism etc, but even non-insiders can learn a lot about how government systems work, and can be reformed.

The starting point for the project is:

‘Significant progress in the development of processes, systems and capacity has been achieved in Liberia, South Sudan, Uganda and elsewhere, but appears to have had little effect on outcomes. Behaviour often has not changed significantly in areas where systems are developed. This suggests that while form may be changing, functions are not. Even so, incremental, positive changes in behaviour can be seen in some areas, which in some cases have resulted in steps towards improved outcomes. What are the clues to such genuine change?

Reforms that directly attempt to exert ex -ante controls in areas where power and interests are not aligned are unlikely to be successful. Conversely, reforms that protect and make progress in areas where interests are aligned or that strengthen ex-post processes such as accounting and transparency are more likely to succeed. The unpredictable nature of fragile and conflict-affected states also means that the space for reform is often changing, which also contributes to the frequent reversals that are seen alongside progress. Nevertheless, these fluctuations also present opportunities.

Reformers are always there, although the caricature of a charismatic, articulate, sociable ‘driver of change’ is a rarity. Although ministers and senior bureaucrats may or may not show active interest in reform, they often allow (or sometimes block) reform to take place. They provide the authority for (genuine) reform. There are always some mid-level managers or junior bureaucrats who are genuinely interested in positive change and keen to address the challenges around them. Such individuals can be instrumental in achieving change. When these managers led core teams of technocrats who achieved reform and built broader coalitions of support, then genuine change was more likely.’

The papers distil ‘ten tips for reformers’:

  1. Start with a problem and an opportunity, not a comprehensive solution.
  2. Understand the space for reform.
  3. Take small steps, but know where you’re heading.
  4. Start processes and systems on the right foot and sustain them.
  5. Learn and adapt and you’ll avoid getting trapped
  6. Decide when, what and how to formalise.
  7. Join the dots. (eg linking up with reform initiatives in other ministries)
  8. Don’t try and reform alone. (lot of emphasis on building reform teams of middle managers)
  9. Those in authority provide and protect the space for change.
  10. Seek and adapt external advice.

There’s a great critique of standard donor approaches to these issues:

‘Donor representatives tend to be rewarded if their programmes are visible and they can demonstrate clear influence and results. Results need to be defined during the design phase, and Technical Assistance (TA) projects often involve pre-planned activities. There are strong incentives to ensure that logframes and workplans are implemented as originally planned, but few incentives to understand problems, acknowledge mistakes, learn from them and adapt project design. Relationships are focused on ministers rather than on middle-level reformers. Information can be obtained from a donor contractor or donor employee within a ministry. Donor incentives can therefore serve to undermine the ability of donor representatives and TA providers to build relationships of trust and ultimately thwart genuine change processes.’

And in the main report, an excellent table on the reform opportunities presented by different kinds of crisis:

ODI FCS table 1

This is just a skim – there’s a lot more meat in here, and if you are interested either in How Change Happens, or Fragile/Conflict states (which is where the aid business looks likely to end up within the next decade or two, as the stable places graduate out of aid), I encourage you to go and dig for yourself.