Resilient state-building: A new approach for the hardest places

By Jonathan Papoulidis, Global Director of Fragility and Resilience, Food for the Hungry Inc., Fellow, Columbia World Projects

Today, fragile contexts are the centre of the global development crisis and poised to bear the worst of the pandemic and climate change. Even before COVID-19, some 80% of the world’s poorest were estimated to live in fragile contexts by 2030—the end of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Over a decade ago, the OECD’s group of donor countries – the Development Assistance Committee—declared that state-building was the central objective for good international engagement to support fragile contexts. Despite its importance, partners have struggled to outline an effective approach to state-building, often defaulting to short-term projects and scattered technical assistance to address systemic breakdowns in institutions, markets and social contracts. This has contributed to highly uneven results and missed opportunities in diverse fragile contexts, including Haiti, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Liberia and Libya.

State-building, sequencing, and the case for resilience

According to the OECD, state-building is an “endogenous process to build state institutions, capacities and legitimacy driven by state-society relations”, rather than an exercise in building formal institutions based on Western blueprints. However, and although forward-looking, the OECD’s vision to foster “resilient states” that can manage and adapt to changing social, political and institutional challenges lacked policy guidance that could turn it into action.  

Most guidance was concerned with the right sequence or combination of state-building reforms. What most of these debates missed was a concern over the nature of these reforms. Most assistance in fragile contexts is primarily focused on meeting human needs through poverty reduction and economic growth, not on addressing complex risks that continuously lead to crises and disrupt the development (and state-building) agenda.

There are assumptions that investments in rapid economic growth can support exits from conflict traps and that growth has inherent  “peace-building qualities”. Yet today’s most peaceful societies and advanced economies are more a product of better management of major crises, conflicts and setbacks than of efforts to accelerate growth.  

Although Western countries’ efforts to build resilience to repeated crises eventually reshaped their political settlements, institutions and economic distribution, they evolved in incremental, non-linear ways and over longs periods of time.  Most European countries were “‘fragile states’ for most of their historical trajectory”

Countries that more recently emerged from fragility, like Malaysia, Thailand and  Ghana did so in part because conflicts and crises compelled their ruling coalitions to agree on more durable institutions to foster growth and legitimacy, and avert future crises.  

Similarly, while Bangladesh’s political settlement is still violently contested, competing elites have made concessions to allow for a pro-growth strategy and greater investment in resilient development, spurred by political incentives, societal pressures and moral convictions to avoid another historic famine and civil war. 

As much as the development community has shaped Bangladesh’s development agenda, the country’s focus on resilience has also shaped the priorities of international partners away from just meeting human needs, resulting in outsized support for resilient solutions in infrastructure, macroeconomic stability, service delivery, women’s mobility, disaster management and social protection.

In many of today’s low-income fragile contexts, like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Chad, Nigeria and Angola, there have been surprisingly high growth episodes that were undercut by conflicts and disasters.  Resilience through political and societal adaptation to looming risks is key to sustained growth, and growth is key to invest in greater societal resilience. 

A central question for the development community is whether its state-building doctrine can be reimagined to support more resilient political settlements and development approaches to help fragile states and societies exit their predicament. 

An emerging paradigm shift from “fragility to resilience”

Several years ago, the OECD redefined fragility as a combination of higher risks and insufficient coping capacities within states, systems and communities to deal with these risks and their root causes. 

This new definition, and accompanying online framework, helped to spearhead a shift in the development community’s focus away from only needs, towards complex risks and coping capacities. It has contributed to an emerging “fragility to resilience” paradigm. 

The United States and the European Union have subsequently developed strategies to build resilience in fragile contexts. The World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Nations have developed new fragility and resilient assessment tools, frameworks and financing instruments that can be applied to resilient state-building.  

State-building for resilient development

These policy tools have quietly begun to translate into a new approach to state-building for resilient development.  This includes the World Health Organisation’s and USAID’s pioneering efforts for resilient health systems in fragile contexts and the latter’s work on resilient education systems. It also includes the World Bank’s move to adaptive social safety nets, the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s work with local governments on resilient food systems, and the IMF’s emerging focus on macroeconomic resilience.

To support these state-building efforts, the OECD’s guidance on resilient systems analysis provides one of the few macro-level frameworks on risks and coping capacities – precisely what was needed a decade ago.

Resilient political settlements and country platforms

Beyond developmental resilience, partners must also support state-building efforts to promote enduring political settlements. State political processes must adapt to political and economic challenges without triggering conflict and instability. Although state-building is an endogenous process, recent evidence underscores the value of long-term engagement arrangements between governments and partners to support political adaptation through “mini-bargains” and evolving institutions, capacities and coalitions, since targeted interventions lack the necessary scope for iteration and staying power for impact.

Where they are possible, the most important mechanisms for long-term engagement to support political and developmental resilience are country platforms.  Country platforms are government-led bodies that provide a centre of gravity in fragile contexts for dialogue, collective action and mutual accountability between governments, partners and societal stakeholders. They have been tried for over two decades in places like Rwanda, Afghanistan, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Niger, with new platforms emerging in Lebanon and Libya—but without the benefit of a guiding global doctrine or learning agenda.  They are the least examined element of aid discourse and practice.

A widening group of partners including the G20, the World Bank and UNDP have committed to support these platforms in fragile contexts.  The OECD’s States of Fragility (2020) report elevates the visibility and affirms the value of these platforms. The 2011 World Development Report questions why such effective  international coordination in Liberia was not tried in other countries.

Despite extraordinary challenges, Somalia’s country platform has been vital in guiding, for over a decade, the country’s ongoing state-building project from fragility to resilience. The platform has mobilised development resource flows to different Somali clans and helped to underwrite the country’s still fragile political settlement. It has supported state-building processes, including new planning and security institutions, access to sizable World Bank loans, and payment of civil servants across the country. The platform has made resilience a major development priority in health, economic, food security and governance sectors, in partnership with a wide network of local and external partners.

Moving forward

The emerging shift within the aid community to a “fragility to resilience” paradigm holds the promise of bringing new momentum, approaches and country mechanisms to realize the OECD’s earlier vision to support resilient states. This is a critical moment for the OECD, major donors and broader development community to partner around a new approach for resilient state-building to better help those in the hardest places.

Photo By Sk Hasan Ali, Shutterstock. Flooded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh.