Rethinking policy responses on fragile states

The evolving policy discourse on fragile states has covered many of the criticisms made of the concept itself and its policy implications, including the need to be context specific, build on local systems of governance, engage for the long-term and beyond state institutions, and consider how having an international presence affects internal power dynamics. While new and innovative approaches have started to emerge in some of the academic work being done on fragile states (eg, the emergence of “hybrid political orders”, the role of non-state actors), there is still a gulf between policy discourse and practice. In an attempt to address the fragmentation of the actors, mandates, objectives, cultures, and bureaucratic logics involved in peacebuilding and statebuilding, on-going efforts to improve international support to fragile states tend to focus mainly on internal organisation, means, knowledge, capacity, policy coherence and coordination.

As laudable and difficult as such efforts may be, they risk merely covering up other more fundamental shortcomings of the international action being taken in fragile contexts. Ultimately the main driver for change in the way international actors operate in fragile states is politics. International support needs to build on an understanding of the local political context – including the internal political dynamics that operate both among local actors and between them and external actors – and go beyond state-centred approaches that fail to take on board how fragile states actually operate. There is also a need for clearer political guidance and greater transparency around the role of international actors and the political motivations, objectives and impact of their interventions in fragile states.

The issue of “fragile states” had been addressed in academic literature and policy circles well before it started to attract increasing political attention post 9/11. The formation and/or crisis of the state, which is at the basis of the fragile states debate, has long been researched and debated in academic literature, especially in relation to state formation in the post-colonial period. The political use of the notion of the weak, failing or failed state is not new either and, as pointed out by Jonathan Di John, was specifically used to justify colonial rule. However, it re-emerged more prominently as part of the international policy agenda in the 1990s as a result of different (albeit inter-related) humanitarian, development and security concerns and priorities that began to adopt policy approaches which sought to address fragile states in a comprehensive manner.

Good governance a core concern

As the first section of this paper outlines, policy approaches to fragile states have been influenced by, among other things, poverty reduction strategies and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the concepts of human security and “responsibility to protect” (R2P), new approaches and modalities for aid effectiveness, democratic governance, conflict prevention and resolution, and the “war on terror”. However, these are not necessarily convergent or complementary policy agendas and have thus resulted in varied, and sometimes divergent, policies and political approaches and goals. Nevertheless, there seems to be a consensus among international actors that peacebuilding and statebuilding should be the overarching goals guiding policy thinking and external assistance in fragile states.

At the core of international concerns and current policy responses in fragile states is the issue of good governance. International actors, and many people in developing countries, increasingly see governance as the “missing link” in the security-development nexus, and a key reason why cooperation policies have largely failed to promote sustainable development and stability. Governance has thus come to be a key feature of donor strategies in fragile states. However, despite donor rhetoric about upholding/supporting governance in fragile states, commitment, in practice, appears to be much more tentative and ad hoc.

Peacebuilding and statebuilding agendas merge

The evolution of the peacebuilding and statebuilding agendas, as well as the many challenges and tensions faced and caused (intentionally or not) by external interventions and support in fragile contexts are discussed in the second section of this report. Both agendas combine development, governance, and security and appear to be increasingly joined-up.

Peacebuilding was initially associated with peacekeeping efforts in conflict and immediate post-conflict contexts, but the first generation of peacebuilding missions failed to stop some of those countries from slipping back into violent conflict. The shortcomings of those missions were partly attributed to having too narrow a focus on rapid political and economic reforms and placing too much emphasis on quick gains and a rapid withdrawal. Since then the concept of peacebuilding has thus expanded to include both the prevention of violent conflict and efforts to help bring about lasting peace. However, some see the inclusion of statebuilding as part of peacebuilding as problematic and possibly counter-productive.

Statebuilding, for its part, no longer focuses exclusively on the reconstruction of political institutions in the aftermath of conflict and state collapse, or on the role of institutional state actors alone. It is recognised as being primarily an endogenous process involving a diversity of actors and not just a top-down process, but also one in which state institutions have a key role to play. Many donors now believe that international actors must base their priorities on an understanding of the interaction and mediating processes between state and society at their various levels, as well as between social groups. It is also recognised that statebuilding is a complex, lengthy and non-linear process and that donors may need to be in for the long haul.

Gaps between the rhetoric and practice

While there is clearly an overlap between peacebuilding and statebuilding objectives, the merging of the two agendas is not without problem. The multitude of actors involved, all with different and sometimes conflicting political agendas, priorities, guiding principles and rules, funding mechanisms, experiences, timeframes and pressures to deliver renders agreement on a shared strategy and international coordination extremely difficult.

The final section examines the significant gaps between the rhetoric and practice of international donors, as well as the limitations of the role of international actors and their ability to support peacebuilding and statebuilding processes in fragile states. Operational, institutional, and intellectual barriers are standing in the way of changes to a donor approach that tends to be highly rule-based, technocratic and compartmentalised. New donor structures and approaches are being developed.

However, while institutional reorganisation and capacity-building, improved knowledge and understanding of the political economy of the context, greater awareness of and sensitivity to deeply contextual issues such as legitimacy, and greater attention to governance and security-related issues are all positive steps, they do not constitute a miracle cure for the fragmentation of the actors, mandates and objectives involved in peacebuilding and statebuilding efforts. To counter this fragmentation, there needs to be a shared understanding of the political context and a political strategy on how to achieve common objectives and priorities. So far, despite the political rhetoric around ownership, alignment and context-based solutions and the recognition that diverse forms of state organisation exist, there appears to be little substantial change in the way international actors operate in fragile states.

This policy brief forms part of the Noref project, supported by the Ford Foundation, on the internal and external dimensions of state fragility.