Conflict and Fragile States: Some Contentious Issues


Keynote Address delivered
by Dr. Amos Sawyer
at the Ministry of Foreign Affair of Denmark on the occasion of Danida Development Days Conference held by the Danish International Development Agency on June 11-13, 2007

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 15, 2007


Distinguished ladies and gentlemen

I thank the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs for inviting me to be the keynote speaker on this occasion of DANIDA Development Days. I also join the millions of people around the world to say thanks to the Danish government and people for productive development cooperation. We hope such international cooperation will always be mutually productive and mutually beneficial.

I have been involved in international development work in one way or another for more than 30years—but largely from the perspective of the local partner. As a University lecturer, a civic activist and advocate and as a government functionary, my work has always been about how local people can improve their lives, drawing first upon their own capabilities and benefiting from the ideas and material assistance of others. May I warn you right from the offset that my views and orientation to international development cooperation are colored more by the perspectives of national and local actors than by those external actors. This is not to suggest that there is a monolithic perspective of national and local actors as oppose to another monolithic perspective of international actors. As we all know, even at local levels where people might be seen to be in the same situation, class, sub-culture, gender and other social factors provide a rich diversity of experience and outlooks. It is events like these that give us a deep appreciation of the range of perspectives of different actors.

This event is organized to explore practical ways of addressing the challenges of development cooperation in fragile states with a view to assisting these states in developing processes of transformation. The notion of fragile state is rather new. It has to do with the vulnerabilities of 14 percent of the people of the world who live in conditions of what is referred to as absolute poverty. These people live in some 40 odd states. It is said that these states, do not only put their own people at risk but also put their neighbors and the larger international order at risk; therefore, they deserve a special type of international attention. Much effort is needed to ensure success in addressing the challenges of fragile states as a special initiative.

Our topic is about conflict and fragile states. I think this topic calls on us to consider fragile states that are in conflict and post-conflict situations. There are states like Liberia and Sierra Leone which are post-conflict states, like Afghanistan or Iraq which are still in conflict; and there are states like Uganda or Nigeria which have insurgencies going on within them. So there are different types of conflict-related fragile states.

What I want to do in this presentation is to raise a few issues about state fragility and governance in post-conflict situations. I will be raising these issues largely from the perspective of the national or local actors. You might find these issues provocative but then are meant to help us press our discourse further so that we all get a better understand of the concepts and realities we are grappling with. This is important for international development partnership.

Fragile State: What does it mean? Who says so?

The first issue I want to raise has to do with two questions that immediately come to my mind about fragile states. The first question is, what do we really (conceptually and analytically) mean by “fragile state”? The second is, do states that fall into this category know and accept that they are considered “fragile states”?

In a way, the two questions are related. Fragile states are frequently defined in three way. One definition is that a fragile state is a state that represents a “difficult environment” or a “difficult partnership.” This is a rather subjective way to define a category. Surely not the way to make friends! Is there a minister from a developing country that might want to attend a conference about a group of states so defined?

The definition improves a bit when a fragile state is said to be a state whose governments does not have the capacity or the will to provide public goods and services to all of its peoples, including the poor. Or when fragile states are defined as Low Income Countries Under Stress and socio-economic indicators are marshaled to show comparisons with other states. Yet a definition of state fragility needs to go beyond socio-economic indicators of conditions of life of a people or broad categories that refer to political will and governance capacity generally.

We need, for example, to understand why a government would lack political will. Would it be because of the lack of a national vision? Or would it be because of the lack of political entrepreneurial skills to create or take advantage of opportunities to advance an all-inclusive development agenda? Or is the lack of political will due to the existence of a zero-sum political arrangement in a deeply polarized political environment? There are numerous other reasons why a government might be seen to lack political will. And there might well be multiple reasons to explain any given situation. A set of challenges might be identified in each situation and a specific set of tools or instruments might be required to address each set of challenges.

So we need deeper diagnosis drawn from rigorous analysis undertaken within the contexts of various countries to be able to truly come to terms with the concept of state fragility. Our diagnosis will not be able to give us effective tools if it does not involve local knowledge as per local people’s understandings of their own reality. So in understanding the nature of fragility, we need cooperation—a collaboration between external expertise and local expertise. This, unfortunately, does not always happen.

The label of “fragile state” may well be resisted by some governments and people not only because of the fuzziness of categorization but also because, more frequently, this label is externally imposed—albeit with very good intention. Why should a national government accept being called a fragile state? What is the incentive for a national leadership to accept such categorization? When the Bretton Woods institutions came up with the category called “least developed states,” there was a specific set of aid incentives such that some countries on the margins of that category wanted to be so categorized.

So, there is need for a more rigorous definition of state fragility, more objective categorization and perhaps a set of incentives to induce states to participate in a set of transformative activities, hopefully that they themselves will be involved in determining.

Insufficient Peacebuilding

The second issue I want to raise is the recognition that post-conflict peacebuilding is an under-supplied element of the conflict transformation process. All states coming out of conflict are fragile. The conflict transformation process tends to move us from peace agreements to interim governments, often dominated by leaders of armed groups, to elections and to what we think should be democratic governance and normal development programming.

We forget that elections are a democratic process that gives us a legal government and one considered legitimate, hopefully, by the majority of the people. But elections do not necessarily change the predispositions and attitudes of people—making them more accepting of each other, tolerant of divergent views, and committed to the governance arrangement and loyal to those who govern. Sometimes we assume that once elected, leaders would become magnanimous and committed to advancing the wellbeing of the entire citizenry. Well, this does not necessarily happen automatically.

Now-a-days, since South Africa, we believe that a truth and reconciliation commission will take care of most of the conflict-related antagonisms once it is set up. We also expect further confidence building to take place largely through the delivery of services to the people. We forget two things: We forget that the people draw a distinction between what they see as services being delivered by the international community (especially when every project carries a logo) and those undertaken by their own government. Quick wins by the international community do not automatically enhance a government’s standing among its own people.

We also forget that deprivation is relative: as long as disparities exist, there will be a basis for contentions, disgruntlements and the potential for destructive conflicts. And that patrimonial, clientelists, and other identities continue to exist in post-conflict, post-elections society and do lay claims on the loyalty of local peoples. Thus, a strategy that seeks to deepen legitimacy by building consensus and taking into account the voices of opposition and the marginalized cannot be overstated. In some post-conflict countries, there is more dialoguing going on between the government and international actors than between the government and other relevant political actors at national and sub-national levels.

I am of the view that there is too little peacebuilding activities going on in many post-conflict states, given what is needed to create a conducive environment for the consolidation of peace, post-conflict governing arrangements and development programs. International partners can help encourage national and local leaders (political and civic) to engage in a serious internal dialogue on the way forward for their countries I am referring to all-inclusive dialogues through which national visions are focused, national covenants agreed and national accommodations arranged. Such dialogue should aim to build consensus on a national development agendas and to deepen the legitimacy of both the governance arrangements and the governing leaderships. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of inclusive dialogues in many countries that are today considered fragile states.

Not all peacebuilding undertakings need to be undertaken on a massive scale and purely about building confidence and feelings of inclusion. They can involve small groups enhancing understanding of development dilemmas and engaging in problem solving. Executive-Legislative retreats on budget preparation or infrastructure development plans. Local level discussions on preparation of PRSPs, community-level discussions of a governance reform agenda---all of these can be undertaken in a way that builds confidence, provide civic education while soliciting inputs into public policy-making processes. This is how you begin to transcend fragility and develop a robust polity.

In my experience, some international partners have been too quick in becoming impatient with internal dialogues, even where countries like Liberia have just come out of war and bitterness and suspicions run deep among actors whose new political roles require them to cooperate among themselves. It is true that such dialogues are of high transaction costs but their benefits can also be high.

The impatience of international actors with sustained dialogues has more to do with their need to meet home-country or internationally determined timetables and benchmarks. Thus, many times, the policy agenda is designed to respond much more to donor requirements than to local conditions.

Fragile states must be perceived to be in an extended state of peacebuilding. International partners will do well to assist by investing in peacebuilding. There should be a peacebuilding dimension to every international intervention. Peacebuilding and the reconstruction of the state are not incompatible in post-conflict situations. Peacebuilding can in fact be an essential element of the strategy of state reconstruction.

I am aware that not all governments will want to engage their civil societies, private sectors and the international community in a peacebuilding undertaking out of which would come a diagnostic exercise and appropriate tools to address immediate post-conflict dilemmas. Some governments do not want to talk to their own people, let alone to international actors. My sense, however, is that an increasing number of African states are already being constrained by the requirements of the African Peer Review Mechanism to engage in such undertakings. Thus, in defining state fragility more rigorously for Africa, we have an opportunity for the international community to reinforce an African initiative. Many international actors are already individually supporting the APRM.

Alignment and harmonization of agendas

A third issue I would like to briefly discuss has to do with the international approach to interventions: the issue of alignment and harmonization of agendas. Quite a bit is being written now-a-days about the need for alignment of international interventions with internal agendas and about the need for harmonization among international partners. Both of these are important.

If the objective of international cooperation in fragile states is to assist these countries develop institutions and policies to transcend their current conditions and embark upon a program of transformation, then there is no substitute to a strategy of alignment of agendas of external actors with those of country-actors. Running a parallel system of governance is not the answer when faced with weak domestic capacity. A parallel system run by international actors under such conditions can only detract from the environment needed to build domestic capacity. It can also perpetuate dependency. We would not be able to assess capacity-growth of domestic institutions and related contribution to output as long as there are parallel operating international institutions. Moreover, dismantling such parallel institutions is often resisted by external actors, especially by their local representatives and operatives and others who make a living through them.

One can understand that in conditions of state collapse or political environments made difficult by violence or repression, international intervention to create an environment of peace is often indispensable. However, beyond stabilization, a better role for international development assistance is to help empower local institutions in ways that enable them to constitute appropriate foundations for bottom-up development and for contributing to building state structures from the bottom up. Home-grown civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations that constitute or otherwise create “bridging social capital” should be encouraged and supported by international actors in such circumstance. By bridging social capital I refer to organizations or networks that bridge communities while addressing developmental dilemmas with a problem-solving approach. There are instances, unfortunately, when local NGOs and CSOs become nothing more than creations of international actors, changing mandates as donor agendas require, and withering and dying when donor money dries up.

So going it alone and running a parallel system should not be considered an option, except in extreme situations and for limited purposes and periods of time.

What about harmonization among international partners? My sense is that it is a good idea that would enhance efficiency. It is also very important for host countries since harmonization decreases the range of interventions in the same area due to donor coordination. But harmonization can have its drawback. There is the question of who (which international partner) leads in a particular area of intervention. International partners differ in styles, preferences and home office procedures and requirements. To be honest some are much more difficult to deal with than others. [In my immediate experience with governance reform in Liberia, we have the best working relationship with UNDP. The institutional culture of UNDP seems best suited to how we want to work with international partners.] So the institutional culture of the international partner must be considered when decisions are taken regarding harmonization and the designation of an international partner to lead in a particular area of intervention.

In addition to international donor partners, there is a range of international non-governmental organizations, all with their own niches and all needing to be responded to. Sometimes this can be overwhelming, given limited capacity and the range of issues that any single local or national agency can handle. Harmonization must also include the interventions of international NGOs.

Harmonization with regional partners

Regional partners are of a different category of international partners. Frankly, I think they are often overlooked for the role they play in post-conflict situations in Africa, largely because they too are recipient countries and organizations. In Africa, they typically contribute a major intangible resource to peacebuilding: trusted good offices and a sanctions regime of shame, among other assets.

Perhaps there is a cultural issue here in mediation and resolution of post-conflict dilemmas: Western mediators frequently revert to legal frameworks and call for an interpretation of the law; African mediators, by contrast, go the extra mile: they would call for compassion for the suffering masses, upliftment of the image of Africans, and plead for demonstration of solidarity among “brothers and sisters.” There is a complimentarity between western and African approaches and this is why the harmonization of international interventions must include African regional interventions, especially in peacebuilding in post-conflict African states.

The need for a new type of post-conflict state

A final issue I would like to put on the table is about the nature of an appropriate post-conflict state. The post-conflict state must be a different type of state if it is to meet new challenges. It must be capable, responsive and participatory. The notion that a central government should have the capacity to supply all the answers to the development challenges of a country pushes the envelope a bit too far, can heighten expectations and can be a potential source of conflict. Indeed, the state needs to have the capacity to respond to the needs of its citizens. However, one of the most critical resources that a state needs is the institutional resources of its citizens. Development of multiple levels of governance, especially sub-national governmental institutions including semi-autonomous regions or provinces, where necessary is a design imperative if post-conflict states are to be successful in holding together their populations in a common polity. The post-conflict state needs to include a combination of appropriate top-down and bottom up institutions—providing synergy for a system of governance that include state and non-state actors, local and regional actors, all operating under the sovereignty of the state. Louise Andersen and her colleagues of the Danish Institute of International Studies have referred to a multilayered approach to governance. We of the Bloomington School call it polycentric governance.

For Africa, the post-independence state cannot be resurrected not only because parliaments and other institutions of central government are rising up and insist on having a say, but also because local governance and provincial arrangements with constitutional authority are being created as a price for stability and a partial formula for transcending fragility.

This means there is need for a new approach to the provision of public goods and services. Co-provision and co-production among public and private actors at various levels of governance will have to be accepted. Education, health, infrastructure development will all have to be co-produced at various levels of governance and within private, public and mixed domains of governance. I know that international partners will find it difficult to adjust to these new developments because many of them operate with the notion of the Weberian state in mind. The quest for democratic self-governance requires the development of a new conception and design of the state. And this also should be a subject of popular discourse.

Let me stop here. There are many more issues one could put on the table. We have not even talked about the nature of the post-conflict governance reform agenda or development strategy. We do, however, need time for discussion.

Thank you very much and congratulations for providing an opportunity for frank and provocative discourse. I wish you success through the entire three days of deliberations.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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