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Wickedness in fragile contexts

July 17, 2018

Today, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) publishes its annual States of Fragility report. It’s a mammoth, 250+ page document setting out current fragility trends as well as some current responses.

More than 80% of the world’s poorest will be living in fragile contexts – places with inadequate governance and the presence or a high risk of violence – by 2030 on current trends. The report makes a strong case for more, better and more widely distributed funding and support for them, and to strengthen their institutions.

The report says ‘there is no straightforward way to describe the state of fragility in 2018’, not least because fragility is by nature a multi-dimensional problem. Of course, and I’d go further and say it’s a classic “wicked problem” – i.e. a problem so complicated that it can’t be adequately defined or described in order to prescribe a solution. Wicked problems were first defined in respect of social planning, half a century ago. The way to approach wicked problems is, first and foremost – recognise their “wickedness” and accept there are no simple solutions. Having done so, it’s then important to work collaboratively in diverse teams, in a participatory and iterative manner, taking stock frequently of what one has learned and achieved – and revising the approach as required as new opportunities present themselves or apparent opening close down. One can’t ‘solve’ them, but one can make and recognise progress towards “better”.

Recognising the wickedness of fragility is – perhaps counter-intuitively – empowering, as it allows one to accept that it’s beyond our ken to fully grasp, and thus work on specific, narrower aspects of an issue – while of course keeping the wider complexity in mind. I’m currently involved in a project examining how to respond to the complex situation in the Lake Chad Basin, where Islamic extremist violence, state neglect and repression, climate fluctuations, climate change, rapid population increase and a host of other factors are interacting to make most people’s lives a misery, and where the search for ‘a solution’ is a fool’s errand. A veritably wicked set of problems.

Recognising wickedness also means it’s OK not to be able to fit your programme into a classic cause-and-effect log-frame. In fact, it’s often better not to try and know the outcomes in advance, but set up systems to monitor what occurs and take it from there.

The tension between values and interests in aid

Fragility is correlated with conflict. Indeed, fragility is practically a synonym for conflict-prone. Yet, according to the report, only 2% of aid funding to fragile contexts in 2016 was classified as supporting conflict-prevention, and a further 10% as supporting peacebuilding (though I’m unsure of the difference). While this is no doubt partly a product of blunt aid classification systems, it’s surely also a sign that much aid in fragile contexts is deployed without being properly tailored to the context. After all, it’s hard to argue that practically all aid in fragile contexts should not have the goal of reducing fragility, and thus violence, as a matter of pragmatism and ethics. And any programmes designed with that in mind surely entail either conflict prevention or peacebuilding…

With that in mind, I contributed a short piece to the OECD’s report: section 1.4 on page 35. This explores aspects of the ever present tension between the altruistic values supposedly inherent in aid, and the political interests of donor governments. There is much to be said on this subject, much of it unfortunately unlikely to be acceptable in a document published by the major aid donors’ own think tank. Nevertheless it’s commendable they wanted to commission such a piece.

In the article, I question the way ‘Value for Money’ is deployed in fragile contexts, where value (in terms of reduced risk and fragility) is hard to evaluate a priori, and may in fact take many years to accrue – and may never, in some cases. I also challenge the insidious ‘what works?’ agenda, which assumes that only methodologies which have already shown their worth should be deployed and funded. This risks side-lining some of the innovative, iterative, process-oriented programmes required to address “wicked problems”. If the goal is reducing fragility, surely it will take many years before we know if a particular methodology has ‘worked’?

I also point out how rich country voters’ fears of terrorism and immigrants are being exploited in perverse ways to distort programming – and ignoring evidence which does not fit donors’ political claims. For example, the evidence that development progress increases, rather than decreases emigration from poor countries, at least initially.

Ethics in aid

As I have said in earlier blog posts, aid in fragile contexts needs to be held to a very high ethical standard, in part because of these kinds of tensions between values and interests. In some respects the conflict between donors’ interests and virtue is akin to the conflict of interests known to the medical profession, which gave rise to the concept of do no harm. But the political institutions typically available in fragile contexts don’t readily allow international actors to obtain the equivalent of the medical patient’s consent, nor to be held accountable by citizens. As a result, the ethics of international development aid must place a high value on the need for responsible and informed practice, and we need to be more explicit about this.

A renewed emphasis on ethics becomes all the more important as aid is increasingly concentrated in fragile contexts, and especially in situations where donors are also trying to achieve other goals than human development, and which may be in tension with them, such as reducing terror threats within, and immigration towards their own borders.

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