The New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States: How do we reach Paris from here?
More than thirty governments and a bunch of multilateral organisations endorsed the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, while attending the 4th High Level Forum for Aid Effectiveness at Busan in South Korea last year. The New Deal emerged from two years of discussions in the International Dialogue for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (IDPS). This dialogue involves representatives of conflict-affected or fragile countries and a number of donor and multilateral agencies. It has been supported by the International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF).
“Fragile States” is of course one of those useful-but-lazy classifications beloved of international relations and aid professionals. At its core it refers to countries whose institutions are inadequate to manage the differences within society, and are thus at risk of violent conflict. I prefer think not of fragile states, but of fragile countries or fragile societies. This reinforces the inclusion of non-state institutions in analysis. It recognises that states emerge from and within societies, rather than the other way around, and emphasises the importance of citizenship.
The seven fragile countries initially represented in the IDPS were Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Southern Sudan and Timor Leste. They have been joined by others, making up a group of around sixteen known as the g7+. According to their website, the g7+ aims to “provide a fragile state perspective on fragility in order to work with donors to improve the effectiveness of their assistance and help the membership to transition out of fragility – to say ‘goodbye to conflict and hello to development’.”
The IDPS produced the New Deal document for the Busan forum. They based it on two earlier IDPS documents: the Dili Declaration and the Monrovia Roadmap. (There is clearly some good attention being paid to branding here!) Interpeace’s IDPS Policy Brief #6 summarises all three documents nicely, emphasising that they should be taken as a whole, not read in isolation.
They provide a general discourse on and a framework for reducing fragility and strengthening the resilience of fragile countries. This is organised around five Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals, PSGs, within which changes are needed in countries wishing to reduce their fragility and risk of conflict:
- Legitimate politics – fostering inclusive political settlements and conflict resolution
- Security – establishing and strengthening people’s security
- Justice – addressing injustices and increasing people’s access to justice
- Economic foundations – generating employment and improving livelihoods
- Revenues and services – managing revenue and building capacity for accountable and fair service delivery.
This is very encouraging language. Meanwhile the New Deal itself lays out a set of principles for collaboration between fragile countries and international aid providers. In the original, these are grouped in a long list under the acronyms FOCUS and TRUST (more branding!), but to save space I’ll summarise them in a shorter list as:
- Country-led processes for change, based on a frequently updated context analysis of fragility, using and strengthening a country’s own systems, and emphasising inclusive political dialogue and leadership
- A single vision and plan shared by the country, donors and multi-lateral agencies, adopted as part of a “compact” to improve harmonisation and donor coordination, and used for multi-stakeholder monitoring
- Transparent aid and fiscal systems, mutually informing and involving governments, donors, parliaments and civil society
- Aid flows which are timely and predictable, more accepting of risk, and which strengthen and are increasingly channelled through a recipient country’s own systems.
The IDPS process continues, post-Busan. Participants met in Paris at the end of January to chart next steps. Among others, they emphasised the importance of keeping their process going in fragile countries, and in this respect discussed a generic operational framework for “exiting from fragility”. They also agreed to push for wider involvement and recognition of their work, e.g. by having the PSGs recognised at the UN.
So, what does the New Deal represent?
Like many others, I have been critical in the past of some aspects of the aid and development sector. In particular, of our seeming inability in practical terms to understand “development” in the round as an organic and political process of evolution, in which societies become more peaceful, fairer, better governed, freer, more open and more prosperous – rather than reducing it to “poverty reduction” and a set of mainly technical goals as summarised in the MDGs. With this in mind, what opportunity does the New Deal represent?
There is plenty to celebrate in the process and outcomes of the IDPS so far – and for more details see the well-informed recent analysis by Interpeace in their new IDPS Policy Brief #7. The IDPS has successfully brought together a growing number of individuals, agencies, countries and governments, to discuss development in its broader and historically accurate sense, as progress towards peaceful and resilient societies served by responsible states. The IDPS, by starting small and gradually attracting interest from others, has used this discussion to create an incipient international movement with some influence over national and international policies.
Some of those associated with the IDPS have become comfortable using this broader narrative of development as progress from fragility to resilience, even though it goes largely against the grain of their previous approaches, and arguably against their short-term interests. The process has helped remove some of the unhelpful stigma attached to the (otherwise helpful) concept of fragility, by engaging representatives of fragile countries in the discussion. It has become less of a subject-object or us-and-them debate, in which those in fragile contexts previously felt they were being unfairly criticised. This change has allowed participants from all sides to consider how to operationalise this narrative, e.g. by identifying new generic goals, “pathways out of fragility”, and the need for new partnerships between donors and fragile countries.
So the critical thing now is presumably to support and reinforce this momentum. But first, let’s be aware of some of the challenges, lest our wilful or witless ignorance of them becomes an obstacle to success. The first thing to note is that the IDPS focuses more on the question of effective aid, than on the question of effective development. E.g. it is telling that the New Deal is framed mainly in terms of what donors must do differently, seemingly negating its own language of local leadership, dialogue and inclusion.
Another challenge is that the process has so far engaged specific individuals, ministries, departments and agencies, rather than governments, and much less “countries” – i.e. the people and institutions of the countries involved. And the involvement of civil society has been patchy. It is therefore less representative than the list of its members and endorsers might imply. This means it risks marginalising itself, like so many of the more difficult aspects of public policy, through lack of genuinely broad ownership.
Finally, the IDPS uses a very generic language of fragility. So far, the IDPS has failed to explain the general concepts either in detail or in terms of the specific realities of the actual fragile countries which are members of the IDPS. It has skated over the political realities and dilemmas inherent in its own narrative. For example, how does one develop an inclusive “compact” between a country (rather than a government) and aid providers, in places where politics are based on patronage and winner-takes-all, rather than inclusion, representativity and dialogue. Above all there is no narrative of how actually to move from fragility to resilience, when the vested interests of those in power tend to coincide with the circumstances of the (fragile) status quo, whatever their good intentions.
Ultimately, most of the institutions engaged in the IDPS process have a vested interest in things staying much as they are, at least in the short-term. And they are largely driven by short-term incentives. So whatever their rhetoric and however well-meant, the New Deal represents a big opportunity for change, but not yet a change that’s ratcheted in place.
There is plenty that can be done to support and continue to promote the kind of progressive thinking represented in the Dialogue so far, and in particular to help answer the question: we know roughly where we want to go, but how do we get there from here? It seems to me there are main two tracks to this. I call them the International Discourse and In-Country Momentum.
The language of the IDPS is good, in so far as it goes. But history shows that the combination of fragile state governments, international aid agencies and geo-political realities is a powerful force in favour of the status quo. There are good reasons why the rhetoric of fragility as used in the IDPS so far has skated over the surface: it is genuinely difficult for all these vested interests to change their behaviour, in order to achieve the kinds of changes envisaged by the PSGs. Patronage-based governments need to stay in power, and to do so they need to feed the patronage system – a system which the PSGs say must change. Most bilateral donor agencies are accountable to parliaments and will have trouble making the case for operating with a greater degree of risk, especially as they have for decades under-reported the risks and losses actually occurring. To make things worse, they have also over-simplified the development narrative in their communications to taxpayers and MPs, making it that much harder now to introduce the more complex model implied by the IDPS. Meanwhile the multi-lateral agencies are tied to the status quo by the sheer weight of their bureaucracy and by their mandates and political status; and arguably neither the bilaterals nor multilaterals yet have the tools or the institutional incentives needed for the new agenda.
Therefore it is incumbent on the rest of us to help them keep the discussion going, to shine a light honestly and with care on the dilemmas and contradictions thrown up by the IDPS, and help identify practical ways forward. A few years ago, I would have been much more pessimistic of the prospects, but the work of the IDPS fits in well with other, parallel processes such as the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report, and the growing realisation that the MDG narrative ill-serves the world’s poor. A momentum for change does seem to be building. To support this, we need to keep the language of the IDPS alive, using and reinforcing it for example in published articles, on the radio and TV and yes, even blogs. We need to use it when submitting questions and in evidence to parliamentary committees in donor and aid-recipient countries, and at international gatherings. We need to help journalists understand the importance of changes in the way development is seen and understood. And we need to use the language of resilience and fragility in practical ways, pointing out or suggesting how resilience can be built; as well as identifying policies which seem likely to undermine it.
A key element of this must surely be to move the debate away from a narrow focus on aid, to examine other international currents and behaviours which either undermine or support resilience. But ultimately, what seems most important is to focus attention on changing the story – the narrative – of progress. People need to get used to the idea that development is not just about poverty reduction and a series of technical changes, but about historical and political changes in society.
With this in mind, a sustained, honest debate is still needed about what kinds of changes can be realistically and legitimately expected over the short- and medium-term as part of progress towards the PSGs. Honesty will be very hard, as the very legitimacy and continued access to resources of those around the table, will be on the table. The IDPS has the ambition to get the PSGs adopted by the UN, perhaps as part of the “post-MDGs” framework. This is a great idea, and must be done in a way that learns the lessons of the MDGs themselves. For example, we must not create another set of “global goals”: the goals must be set at local and national level, inspired by, rather than designed to fit, the PSG framework.
The IDPS will have made a truly significant contribution to the international policy environment if it can provide to the UN and other development actors, not just the paragraphs already written about the PSGs, but a truly comprehensive conceptual framework showing how its members see the emergence of more peaceful societies, and legitimate states with fair and functional relationships with their citizens. I.e. not just where to go, but some honest and disinterested guidance on how to get there. Because we don’t know that yet.
The “international discourse” is all very well, but the place where all this matters most is in fragile contexts themselves. This is where practical and locally specific answers to the questions raised above will be found. As the IDPS continues to grow, it will become heavier on its feet, and may find it harder to reach consensus on its mandate, much less its views. It will continue to play an important role as a discussion forum, but I suspect practical progress will largely take place elsewhere. Therefore the place for civil society to get engaged in promoting and supporting the ideas of the IDPS must be mainly in the member countries of the g7+.
The IDPS has helpfully provided activists in all those countries with a language and a reference point for action – and one which their governments have to some degree formally embraced. Civil society in fragile contexts – supported by internationals where appropriate – can thus use the language of the IDPS to mobilise change. They can demand their inclusion in “One vision, one plan”, and in the “compacts” to be agreed between countries and international donors. They can refer to their government’s membership of the g7+ and therefore its commitment to inclusive dialogue, to providing people-centred security, access to livelihoods, basic services, and so on.
Most importantly I suggest, they can use this language not just to hold their leaders accountable, but to identity pathways of progress, and thus move politics into the realm of progressive thinking. As with the international discourse, there are no easy answers in, say, the Democratic Republic of Congo to the question: how can we achieve a more legitimate politics, able to resolve conflicts with justice and without violence? Nor is it obvious how Sierra Leoneans can develop a growing economy with room for wide and equitable participation, in a timeframe consistent with people’s expectations. Likewise, the people and governments of Burundi, Liberia, Central African Republic, East Timor, South Sudan and the other g7+ members face similar and other challenges meeting the aspirations represented by the PSGs. What they all have in common – and this is shared by the international agencies, when they dare to admit it – is they don’t exactly know how to get from here to there. As the Frenchman famously said when asked the way to Paris: “it’s hard to reach from here; may I suggest you start from somewhere else?”
And yet, we have to start from where we actually are. So the PSGs can be used by politicians, business people and civil society in fragile countries to stimulate discussion about whether these are the right goals and, if so, how can we start making progress towards them. They can thus become an important basis of political planning and accountability, and can slowly help turn patronage-based politics into policy-based politics.
This will lead in all kinds of different directions, depending on circumstances. It will generate useful learning internationally, but local and national processes need their own time and space. One of the worst things the IDPS could do is mandate some kind of new PRSP-type or “national action plan” framework, to be replicated in all member countries, and forming the basis of the “compact” with donors. One of the great and long-overdue insights of the past few years is that development is above all a political process. Therefore we must guard against a generic set of prescriptions and formulas for “exiting fragility”.
Overall, it is easy to criticise and be cynical about the IDPS, seeing it as yet another example of new wine in old bottles, and old wine in new. I suggest it is better to take a sceptical view, seeing the IDPS as a process which has opened important doors. It is up to the rest of us to wedge these doors open and keep pushing them on them, both locally and internationally.