Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development

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To the contrary, their colonial legacy is one of weak, inappropriate institutions and a profoundly fragmented political identity. Together, these two structural problems preclude the formation of a cohesive population and prevent the incorporation of indigenous institutions and capacities into formal state structures.

Fixing Fragile States: a new paradigm for development?

These countries were obliged to use alien state systems that could work only if every member of their heterogeneous societies learned and embraced the same, alien culture — complete with its foreign language, laws and ways of working together. Yet, the formal mechanisms of those state systems were — and remain — far too weak to compel such cultural reorientation or even to win gradual and grudging acceptance over time by demonstrating their potency and impartiality. Insofar as they do exhibit potency, it is the power to exclude rather than include. Many Latin American countries, for instance, have for centuries distributed resources and services inequitably while suppressing indigenous languages, religions, judicial systems, land management schemes and symbols of identity.


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The instability that has racked Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Venezuela in recent years is in large part blowback from hundreds of years of institutional alienation. The combination of fractured societies and weak government warps incentives, encouraging short-term opportunism at the expense of long-term investments that could advance development. Society becomes obsessed by the conflict between identity groups, not with generating wealth or boosting national prestige.

Real life goes on outside them. State laws go unheeded because no one acknowledges them as legitimate. In such an environment, corrupt governments, crooked systems of justice and weak property rights are inevitable. Somalia and the secessionist territory of Somaliland offer one of the best contrasts between state building using imported institutional pillars, and state building using indigenous ones.

The international community has tried no fewer than 15 times since the dissolution of the Somali state in to rebuild it in a top-down fashion — and 15 times it has failed. In contrast, Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in , has built its state institutions by adopting a bottom-up approach that takes advantage of long-standing and widely accepted clan structures. Offered little external help, it has been forced to depend on its own resources, capacities and institutions.

Today, it is the most democratic state in the region and has established enough stability and prosperity to attract migrants from around the Horn of Africa. Yet the international community refuses to recognize Somaliland and persists in its Sisyphean efforts to forge a centralized Somali state.

After decades of war and predatory regimes, Uganda is rebuilding itself from the bottom up. Villagers in Rhino, northern Uganda, elect their local council representatives. Most Western policy makers and practitioners today pay lip service to the idea that states will not prosper unless they are built by local people using local resources, but the great majority of development projects continue to be designed around a generic model of state building and to be implemented with inadequate attention to the local social, cultural and institutional context.

Many fragile states have political geographies, infrastructures and governance capacities that make the standard Western model of state building with its top-down state structures and strong emphasis on formal institutions and methods of holding officials accountable highly problematic.

Panel 1: Governance and Conflict in Fragile States

National leaders have little incentive to serve distant areas populated by disparate groups because they are viewed more as competitors for state power than as compatriots. The inability of governments of large centralized states to project authority much beyond their capital cities — due to thin road networks, limited administrative resources and weak nationwide societal bonds undercut the capacity of governments to project authority and serve their populations. Unsurprisingly, stability continues to elude the DRC.

But even in more compact countries there is a need to find ways to take advantage of indigenous capacities — and narrow the gap between informal and formal institutions. One of the reasons fragile states have such difficulty in constructing effective systems of governance is that their foreign-imposed formal institutions are weak, and they conflict and compete with — and lose to — the informal institutions that drive much behaviour.

In such environments, an enormous gap separates a small cadre that manipulates or controls the state, and the general population, who are highly ambivalent at best towards their own government. Western policy has if anything only reinforced these trends.

A new approach to state building. States deeply enmeshed with their surrounding society — financially dependent, geographically appropriate, institutionally synchronized and socio-culturally representative — are far more likely to be well governed than those detached from their citizens. The peoples of Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Central Asia have enormous political, socio-economic and cultural resources, built up over centuries, that can serve as the foundation for political, economic and social development.

What they most need in terms of outside assistance are innovative forms of state building that take advantage of those resources. This does not mean that conventional, Western political models have no relevance to non-Western societies, but it does mean that those models need to be adapted to accommodate indigenous governance models, patterns of behaviour, needs, realities and capacities. International actors must place far more emphasis on seeking locally appropriate solutions for problems of governance, land and resource management and knowledge transfer if their assistance is ever going to translate into locally propelled — and thus sustainable — development.

Fixing Fragile States by Seth D. Kaplan - Praeger - ABC-CLIO

The goal should not be centralized states with Western-style laws and a democracy defined solely in terms of regular elections. Instead, aid agencies should strive to promote capable, inclusive, participatory, responsive and accountable governments, no matter what form they take. One way to accomplish this is to channel foreign aid away from corrupt and centralized governments and towards locally accountable entities, both governmental and non-governmental. But she is surely also right to condemn capital transfers that do nothing except sustain African despots and stifle entrepreneurship.

Foreign cash has its place in kick-starting development, but only if it is used in politically astute ways that reinforce the natural accountability mechanisms of society and that do not prop up shell-like government organs unresponsive to the needs of their own citizens.

The debate sparked by Dead Aid has also called attention to the fact that foreign assistance comes in many forms other than financial. Another change that Western agencies need to embrace is attitudinal. Over long stretches of trial and error, they were able to establish resilient political settlements and institutions and the social norms and national identities for cooperation and constraint.

The fundamental question is whether development partners can help fragile states to leapfrog decades of crisis, war, and destitution on a path to peaceful, just, and inclusive institutions and resilient political orders.

New Book on Poverty and Development in Fragile States

The current aid paradigm to support fragile states focuses on promoting economic growth and eradicating poverty, not managing major crises. It attempts to transplant Western institutions and best practices in a bid to make Somalia into Denmark. It works through short-term, one-off projects, scattered technical assistance, and uncoordinated efforts between countries and partners.

This paradigm is increasingly viewed as obsolete, but a new paradigm has yet to fully emerge.

The nature of development

Notable success has been achieved in avoiding or managing major crisis through the practice of resilience in major sectors like food security, climate adaption, and disaster risk reduction DRR. These efforts, however, have not been designed to promote country-wide resilience in the face of complex risks, which is precisely what is needed to exit fragility. Alarmingly, the majority of DRR assistance bypasses fragile states altogether despite their acute vulnerability.

More holistic approaches are beginning to emerge. Stabilization and prevention approaches have begun to adopt a resilience lens to better understand how risks of disaster, destitution, and conflict interact and mutually reinforce one another and how to leverage resilient capacities for fragile political settlements.

A New Paradigm for Development

When focused on greater empowerment and inclusion of women, social capital can increase their entry into wider markets and support peace efforts through bridging efforts across divided communities and links to formal institutions. Countries where women made up 10 percent of the workforce compared to 40 percent were 30 times more likely to experience internal conflict. Renewed calls for investing in human capital and infrastructure in fragile states are necessary but not sufficient to cultivate underlying societal norms and networks for trust and cooperation, which are the largest deficits in fragile states.

Adaptive approaches are focused on achieving outcomes through iteration and continuous learning of what works for given contexts, not programming through pre-fixed solutions and end of program evaluations. New donor consortia for adaptive learning show further promise in shifting development paradigms to more effectively work in complex and fast-changing fragile contexts. These efforts must be widened to serve more development agencies and the institutions and practices of governments and local organizations who are the ultimate shareholders and stewards of change.

Many development partners assume technical solutions are the fix without factoring in the political dynamics. The WDR helpfully introduces a framework for governance reform that calls for the diagnosis of political power. From there, it identifies drivers for change to increase policy effectiveness through enhanced cooperation, commitment, and coordination—critical functions of governance institutions.


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  5. Academic faculty members who want to consider using the text for their classes can request an exam or desk copy here. The book is suitable for courses on international development, global poverty, foreign aid, the politics of development, African politics, Arab politics, comparative politics, and comparative economics. An excerpt, endorsements, and the table of contents are provided below.

    Please contact me if you want any further information. It is, he says, up to the elites and leaders of the developing world to start building and operating this machinery.

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