Working in Fragile States, as seen from Australia and New Zealand

September 19, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I’m currently nearing the end of my three weeks in Australia and New Zealand. These trips typically involve several meetings a day withfragile states 1 government officials, politicians, NGOs and journalists. The to and fro produces a churn of topics and ideas, out of which emerge some themes, but you never know in advance which ones are going to dominate.

This time around it has been fragile states. These form a big focus for the Aus and Kiwi aid programmes, which see themselves as surrounded by  a ‘ring of fragility’ in the form of the Pacific islands of Melanesia (Papua New Guinea, Solomons, Vanuatu, Fiji). In the smaller islands aid, overwhelmingly from Aus/NZ, can be up to 50% of the government budget, raising big questions about the political impact of aid – does it, like oil or mining, inhibit the creation of a social contract by removing the link between citizens and states normally provided by taxation?

Many states are artificial constructs of decolonisation, created as recently as the 1970s. There has been little time for state institutions to evolve. Citizens feel connected primarily to their family, clan or island, but not to what often feels like the artificial construct of the nation state. The result looks messy – informal institutions sitting alongside grafted-on fragments of Westminster-style institutions, a disillusioned citizenry, lots of patronage and corruption, laced with endemic violence against women. Just to make shaky institutions worse, a resource boom has hit several countries.

For many years, aid agencies tried a state-centred approach, with lots of cash going into trying to build government systems, but few results. Now, they’re beginning to doubt the value of this and wondering what else to try. Luckily, AusAID has commissioned some impressive research on this via the Development Leadership Programme and State, Society and Governance at ANU, so it has some good ideas to test.

But there is also a hankering among donors to play a more direct role in service delivery, born of frustration and impatience. This attempt to find a short cut to development appears to have no overall idea of how it is building (or I would argue weakening) the institutions needed to deliver services in the long term (see this discussion on Collier’s Independent Service Authorities).

What else is worth trying? Here are my thoughts after a couple of weeks of conversations:

  • Outsiders should focus on identifying and investigating problems, but then step back and get local players together to seek solutions (see Matt Andrews on problem-driven iterative adaptation).
  • In many situations $10,000 can really help, whereas $10 million massively distorts systems, creates perverse incentives and generally messes things up. How to ‘politically sterilize’ such inflows? One option is breaking the big chunks down into lots of smaller ones, but that can be very demanding on staff time.
  • solomonsAnother is cash transfers. These can either be the traditional variety – to individuals or households, sometimes conditioned on things like keeping kids in school. But AusAID has an interesting line in what I call community cash transfers – transfer medium sized chunks of money ($50k) to villages, to fund either whatever they want to do (Afghanistan National Solidarity Program) or something chosen from a menu of options (PNPM in Indonesia, or AusAID’s current plans in East Timor). This approach may do more for community cohesion than individual cash transfers. Scott Guggenheim, an AusAID legend who has been described as a ‘one man Global Public Good’, seems to be behind a lot of this stuff.
  • There are several alternatives to banging your head on a weak or parasitic national state – working with local state bodies, as we do in the DRC, for example. Or with city-level authorities. Or focussing on non-state centres of power, such as faith organizations or emerging urban middle classes. In the otherwise chaotic highlands of Papua New Guinea, Oxfam has developed enough on-the-ground presence to identify and support community leaders (without throwing too much money around). Livelihoods work such as helping farmers get organized can also create nuclei for future citizens’ movements.
  • In Australia, Oxfam has done interesting work supporting Diaspora communities, eg Darfuris, to develop their ability to do advocacy back home. Diasporas have money, contacts and knowledge – the question is what, if anything, western governments or INGOs can do to help them.

And a few comments on what not to do

  • Parallel provision without any idea of how to hand over to the state in the long term (back to Paul Collier)
  • Deficit thinking: this is where outsiders identify ‘deficits’ in governance or accountability, and try and fill them. Deficit-thinking oftenfragile stampincorporates assumptions about where institutions ‘should’ be ending up. Typically, this looks something like Western parliamentary democracy and a Weberian model of an efficient independent state bureaucracy, when the reality in many Pacific islands is a more horizontal network of nodes of power – money, traditional leaders, bits of the formal state, churches, NGOs, aid agencies, China.
  • Try not to invade – DFID’s fragile states research found a very poor record of state-building following external intervention.

Lots more to say on the topic, not least the link to complexity thinking, but this post is already too long, so over to you and the comments section.

One final thought – as I was writing this, news came through that AusAID is being absorbed back into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in addition to the new Aussie government freezing aid spending in real terms (and cutting it this year). I really hope this doesn’t endanger their cutting edge research and programming on fragile states – we need all the help we can get on this.

September 19, 2013
Duncan Green