Managing the Recovery of Failing States (Part II)
How much can the international community truly expect from a fragile, post-conflict government?
October 7, 2009
The recovery paradigm for broken states is no longer the Marshall Plan, which built on the experience of institutions that had been interrupted by a period of violent conflict.
In a world of fragile and failing states, governments may well lack not only the financial resources, but also the capacity, will and legitimacy to lead a recovery.
Effective recovery efforts will require broader engagement with a variety of actors, including the private sector and the non-governmental groups that often have labored to sustain some basic services during the period of active conflict.
Although Afghanistan and Pakistan present the most urgent cases for U.S. attention, Africa provides a useful laboratory for understanding the perils of working in countries with weak or failed state institutions.
Somalia, of course, stands out as the defining failed state, lacking a functioning national government for 18 years. But Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Cote d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic and Chad all offer up current insights into countries that have traveled well over the abyss and are struggling to edge back.
Mozambique, Rwanda, Angola and most of Uganda offer varying levels of hope that stability, sanity and civic norms can be restored. However, both Kenya and Nigeria have experienced increased violence associated with flawed elections, and Guinea has fallen into a new round of political thuggery.
Africa's longest running civil war — the North-South conflict in Sudan — concluded in the historic 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This attempted to hold the nation together by providing the South an autonomous government, and an option of later voting for secession if unity seems unworkable.
Southern Sudan — deemed the least-developed territory in Africa — presented one of the world's longest post-conflict to-do lists. At the time of the peace agreement, 90% of the people of Southern Sudan earned less than $1 per day, the standard international poverty line. The territory boasted few paved roads, with the rainy season precluding overland transport in much of the country for over half the year.
Following United Nations-run humanitarian operations just after the war, the newly formed South Sudan government wanted to establish its administrative legitimacy and manage the region's recovery and development. A multi-donor trust fund administered by the World Bank channeled project funds through government ministries.
However, in Southern Sudan, government ministries were staffed by former leaders of the armed resistance who lacked any experience in a development-oriented government. Western firms and consultants didn't hijack the development programs, but many of the projects under government management fell short of delivering tangible gains to a destitute population.
For lack of other post-peace benefits, the government provided jobs to those whose war records, or whose power to disrupt, required a new income stream. Supported by oil revenues, civilian government employment ballooned from a targeted level of 100,000 to around 190,000 in 2007 and 237,000 in 2008.
Job descriptions, recruitment standards and civil service pay structures all were missing. Southern Sudanese living in the United States reported that Sudanese friends living and working in Kenya and Uganda made regular visits to Juba, the Southern Sudan capital, to collect paychecks for jobs they did not even pretend to perform.
Sudan provides a cautionary tale in the world's tortured search for the best ways to help broken states recover. But similar perils occur in peaceful low-income countries when donor countries and development agencies assume that national governments will accomplish more than they really can.
Melissa Thomas, associate professor of international development at Johns Hopkins University, warns of donors and development agencies launching one program after another that national governments are expected to some day take over — despite the lack of resources and administrative capacity.
In a working paper on poor countries' unfunded obligations, she argues that the "enormous mismatch between poor governments' resources and their mandates" undermines government accountability and the rule of law.
She explains that when low-income countries establish programs and pass laws, but only implement them in piecemeal fashion, governments are creating a vast discretionary space in which the state "necessarily picks and chooses which of its policies or laws to implement, at what time and for whose benefit.'' In other words, the pattern serves as an incubator for corruption, or failure.
Thomas cites the experience of Uganda, which promised universal — and free — primary education in 1997. Donor support helped, but resource constraints still cramped an otherwise laudable initiative. The result, she says, was "that while children would not be turned away for lack of school fees, neither were they guaranteed a teacher, a classroom or a book."
Donors scrambled to finance classroom construction, she notes, but teacher morale plummeted amid badly overcrowded classes. Eventually, teacher absenteeism rates became some of the highest in the world. (Other studies have emphasized that Uganda's HIV/AIDS pandemic has been a major source of teacher absenteeism.)
Western aid planners understandably have difficulty grasping how limited state capacities truly are in the poorest countries. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. government spent $8,264 per U.S. citizen in 2006. Compare this with the outlays of $74 per person in Tajikistan, $26 in Niger and $18 in Afghanistan.
As the figures below suggest, a modest-seeming program in the United States could be a show-stopper in Niger or Afghanistan:
Donor agencies recognize the problem and routinely incorporate capacity building and training initiatives into aid programs to get weak institutions up to speed. But in situations where donors expect government institutions to take on entire sets of tasks they have never before attempted, the success rates are staggeringly low.
For the best of reasons, the World Bank financed a pipeline to enable war-torn, impoverished Chad to sell its one asset that the rest of the world wanted to buy — oil. In what was meant to be a model for avoiding the oil curse that has plagued other poor countries, the World Bank insisted on a complex system for managing the new oil revenues in ways that would tangibly improve living conditions for the Chadian population.
Capacity-building work would help the government to prepare budgets, execute them and deliver services to the population. The program envisioned levels of accountability and performance that had never before been seen in Chad.
They did not materialize — notwithstanding unstinting efforts to build the needed capacities. Oil prices surged, swelling the petroleum coffers. The government became preoccupied with buying off or fighting back rebel militias. Corruption problems persisted, and overall public expenditure management showed little improvement.
The Chadian government eventually reneged on the original terms of the program, triggering a full World Bank suspension. This was followed by a subsequent agreement, which also ended in failure. After that, the Chadians repaid the original loans out of their oil revenues, and the ambitious revenue-management program was retired.
There are lessons in these cases, of course, but no obvious or easy solutions. Where national governments lack capacity, political will or credibility, international donors must seek or cultivate viable partners from the private sector or local non-governmental organizations. They also must avoid shutting state structures out completely, which can weaken them even further.
Often, there are institutions that can make up for a lack of state capabilities. In Bangladesh, BRAC, a national non-governmental organization, has gained international credibility and capacity while retaining its roots in local communities.
Though BRAC is considered unique, it could be replicated if various international players recognized the critical role that non-state actors might play, and worked to cultivate a broader mix of local partners.
Greater realism about the limited capacities of low-income governments — particularly those touched by conflict — is sorely needed.
Editor’s Note: Read Part I of this series here.
In situations where donors expect government institutions to take on entire sets of tasks they have never before attempted, the success rates are staggering low.
Africa provides a useful laboratory for understanding the perils of working in countries with weak or failed state institutions.
The U.S. government spent $8,264 per U.S. citizen in 2006. Compare this with outlays of $74 per person in Tajikistan, $26 in Niger and $18 in Afghanistan
Sudan provides a cautionary tale in the world's tortured search for the best ways to help broken states recover. But similar perils also occur in peaceful low-income countries.
Journalist Tim Carrington is a journalist and development specialist. From 1980 through 1995, he covered finance, defense and international economics for The Wall Street Journal, working in New York, London and Washington. Since 1995, he has worked at the World Bank, launching a training program in economics journalism for reporters and editors in Africa and […]