Government in fragile states

23rd January 2017

Last week I joined United Nations and World Bank staff for a meeting on supporting government functions in fragile and conflict-affected settings – an issue we think a lot about at AGI. Here are five quick takeaways – two positives and three outstanding questions that stood out for me:

(NB: The event was held under the Chatham House rule so I won’t mention specific names)

2 good things

  • Putting government on the agenda: One participant said supporting public administration used to be at the heart of the development agenda but in recent decades has been deemphasized. That’s a problem because governments’ inability to provide security, economic opportunity and basic services is a big reason 1.6 billion people live in fragile settings. The UN and the Bank now want to step up their game on supporting fragile states governance. The Bank is set to increase financing for fragile states under IDA 18. And the UN talked at the meeting about more support for core government functions during peacebuilding operations. All of this is excellent news from where AGI sits.
  • The WB-UN nexus: This event marked another step towards greater UN-Bank collaboration in fragile settings building on commitments made by Ban Ki Moon and Jim Kim. It’s a particularly live topic given IDA 18 (see the last bullet) which means the Bank will be playing a larger role in fragile countries – traditionally mainly UN terrain. One takeaway for me is that this won’t be easy for these two giant bureaucracies and I’ll admit I sometimes struggled at this event with the whirlwind of dueling acronyms. But there’s tangible progress such as a commitment to do joint assessments of government functions. Harmonizing is good for these institutions and, more importantly, means more support for and less burden on governments in those settings.

3 remaining questions

  • Bold or cautious: We wrestled with what international organizations’ role should be in countries with delicate, informal political settlements. We looked at useful case studies of international partners helpfully contributing to government reforms (Timor-Leste) and examples of external pressure on fragile governments leading to disastrous consequences for national stability (Yemen). When there’s a legitimate, uncontested government in place the answer seems clear: we partners need to support that government to succeed. But in many fragile settings that’s not the case. That leads to more questions than answers about when external organizations should support core government functions.
  • He who pays the piper: I was struck by how much these multilaterals are constrained by the donors who finance their work when I typically think of the World Bank and the UN as imposing rules on developing countries. Several participants said that financing today comes with more strings attached than even just a few years ago which makes it that much harder to take politically smart, adaptive approaches to programming. One person talked about, for instance, how the features of civil service reform programs that are most appealing to donors aren’t a good fit for fragile country governments.
  • What do we know?: It’s striking how much we still need to learn about how to strengthen government effectiveness and institutions. In sessions on center of government, civil service and local government we often came back to things like “it depends on the context” or “it’s hard without political will and capacity”. And maybe that’s correct. But as more financing and resources go into supporting fragile states in the coming years, we’re going to have to get better at helping governments to perform the substance of their roles or else we may see that 1.6 billion number go up not down.