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Why the Aid Community needs to step up on Fragile/Conflict States

February 16, 2018
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Everyone in the aid biz is talking fragile and conflict affected states these days (FCAS – I’ve given up on trying to get

The only way is up?

The only way is up?

everyone to adopt FRACAS….). That’s partly because that’s where poor people will predominantly be in a couple of decades time, as more stable places grow their way out of extreme poverty, and partly because of the link to the security agenda that so fixates many governments – the ‘hotbed of terrorism’ argument.

That could be a problem. I would go as far as saying FCAS could be the graveyard of the aid business, because they are the hardest places to work/get results in. Traditional cooperation with states is more likely to go wrong. The focus on ‘zero tolerance of corruption’ is more likely to blow up in our faces. Aid is often concentrated at the short term humanitarian end of the spectrum, when conflicts and fragility are often prolonged. Expat staff (especially the more experienced ones, who are more likely to have family commitments) often prefer posts in Paris or Delhi, not Kabul or Goma. And other traditional aid partners like the private sector or Civil Society Organizations are often also weaker in such places.

Anxieties over this direction of travel may be one reason for the injection of research funding. I’m involved in two projects – Action for Empowerment and Accountability is investigating how social and political action occur in FCAS, and the LSE’s Centre for Public Authority in International Development (CPAID) is trying to understand how power operates in such places.

The OECD's 5 axes of fragility

The OECD’s 5 axes of fragility

But where do you go if you want a broader overview of FCAS – eg how they vary; the historical accounts of ‘turnaround’ countries that have somehow escaped from fragility and conflict; the comparison of how different aid approaches do (or more often don’t, and sometimes even make things worse) work in such messy places; an understanding of who else wields power when states are either absent or predatory, and whether we can work with them?

The answer is not obvious. Research is driven by funding, and funding is generally for new research, rather than for providing a repository of wisdom, experience and advice. Those are often an almost accidental accompaniment of research – you get a bunch of researchers in a university or thinktank, and their body of knowledge and experience becomes a place others can tap into, but it is on top of their day jobs (churning out new papers).

It’s like a large scale version of the conversation I once had with our outgoing Afghanistan gender adviser. We met by accident in Dubai airport, and she told me that typically expats in Afghanistan work a couple of years, then leave, either through burn out or because they are on short term contracts. Then new arrivals start the learning process all over again (often including repeating the same approaches and discussions of the previous years – at worst, producing a Groundhog Day of ‘steep learning curves’, followed by loss of the accumulated knowledge. Then repeat.) Can’t we do better than that?

Looking more broadly, I see aspects of such an institution elsewhere – for example the International Growth Centre

may not be enough......

may not be enough……

pulls together different disciplines to look at markets and growth, or the GSDRC is a resource centre that responds to donor requests for literature and the like. But otherwise, wisdom and experience seem to be concentrated either within institutions, or in informal networks and individuals – I started thinking about this during a conversation with fellow aid greybeard Steve Commins, who mentioned that people at the World Bank, DFID and INGOs sometimes see him as the institutional memory, even though he doesn’t work for them any more – he’s become the guy who points out that the Bank actually ran projects and research on a given subject 15-20 years ago, which everyone’s forgotten as the staff with experience are rotated onwards again and again until the knowledge has evaporated, and the Bank/DFID/INGO is about to do it all over again.

If FCAS really are the future/cemetery of the aid business, surely it should step up its ideas on this? A FCAS Centre could:

  • Act as a convenor, bringing together what we know about how FCAS function, history, turnarounds etc, and the past and present of aid interventions there. It would draw on different disciplines and players, researchers and practitioners etc.
  • Balance the larger debate with practical support and exchanges on programme design and experimentation on shared problems like how to overcome the intractable divide between short term humanitarianism and long term development programming.
  • Support those FCAS governments seeking a better deal from the international system.
  • Plug into local sources of knowledge in different countries, to ameliorate the impact of staff turnover.
  • From Oxfam’s point of view, I’d hope it could include some of the vital issues such as gender rights or civil society space, which keep slipping off the FCAS agenda, and yet could offer new ideas and solutions.
  • A child holds up bullets collected from the ground in Rounyn, a village about 15 kilometres from Shangel Tubaya, North Darfur. Most of the village’s population has fled to camps for internally displaced because of heavy fighting between Government of Sudan and rebel forces.

    A child holds up bullets collected from the ground in Rounyn, a village about 15 kilometres from Shangel Tubaya, North Darfur. Most of the village’s population has fled to camps for internally displaced because of heavy fighting between Government of Sudan and rebel forces.

    It could also tackle some of the institutional problems that bedevil aid in fragile states – high levels of staff turnover, risk aversion, the unintended negative consequences of the results and value for money agenda (results tend to be even more unpredictable, slower, and aid more expensive than in more stable settings).

It might not work of course – it could become some opaque institution of little tangible benefit, a creature that is not unknown in the aid business. But given what is at stake, isn’t it worth a try? And if aid organizations can get more savvy at working in these messy places, there’s likely to be useful lessons for working in the more stable Zambia/Malawi type places too.


  1. Duncan,

    Kudos for raising the seriousness of dealing with the realities of fragile and conflict states for aid advocates and practitioners. While I think that the aid industry, for better and worse, is too resilient to allow this challenge to cause its demise, the continued and expanded conflation of security and development concerns deserves both extended policy reflection and solid research. Doing so, however, requires the aid community to reach beyond the usual suspects and engage in a serious manner with those who approach the issues of fragility and conflict from a traditional security perspective. If the proposed FCAS Centre could serve as a meeting place for these two communities to share not only experiences from the field, but to educate each other regarding respective lines of research inquiries then it could make an important contribution to ensuring more realistic and constructive responses to the FCAS phenomenon.

  2. Rory Stewart seemed to think experience was important, before he was moved on I wondered if he might try to do something about institutional memory within DFID (I don’t understand why the UK civil service likes people to change jobs so often). I also wonder whether this is a researchable topic: if you were looking for evidence on whether experienced staff are more effective (or not), where might you find it?

    1. Paddy,

      You can start by looking at a a couple of papers that use WB administrative data to look at the correlates of project quality, including management:
      The first finds that project manager quality matters for project outcomes, but doesn’t identify which characteristics of project managers matter.
      The second finds that project manager quality matters less in fragile states for project outcomes, and that the experience of project-level staff doesn’t seem to matter at all.

  3. One of the areas no one wants to talk about is taking an organisational rather than project approach to working in such areas. Organisations outlive projects, retain staff and institutional memory, understand the context and are in the long run able to leverage resources based on the knowledge, competencies and expertise they possess. There are some good example of how brave individuals within the aid industry were willing to invest in these un chartered waters and winning success in Pakistan’s conflict and fragile zones

    1. couldn’t agree more – organizations and individuals are the enduring factors in change processes; projects are ephemeral

  4. I’m not sure the world needs another centre, especially as there are tons of centres already working on FCAS/conflict/security, as well as groupings like the OECD’s INCAF. But you’re absolutely right to flag that there is something unique about trying to deliver aid projects in FCAS. There’s are substantive issues: the need to think seriously about staffing; whether or not the project model is fit for purpose; how better to engage with security/international relations experts (as Larry suggests); how to engage effectively with ministers to get the necessary changes; and so on. Then there’s the presentational issue: how to explain the much higher risk of working in FCAS to the public.
    There was a really interesting event last year at Wilton Park on ‘rethinking state-building’ that started to scratch the surface of some of these discussions – Maybe I’ll talk to folks about a follow up…

    1. Thanks Heather, But aren’t most of the existing centres either just vehicles for research funding, and thus unable to act as repositories as outlined in the post, or internal networks?

      1. This is true for some, but there’s nothing to stop them attracting core funding/other funding to continue. The GSDRC, which has been around for almost 20 years, works on a rolling funding basis, but it started out as a project. I think a bigger issue is getting out of the development ‘ghetto’ and engaging productively with security/IR groups and centres. But there’s often a bigger gulf than you’d think between these two groups.

  5. Not a perfect fit, but you’ve come pretty close to describing the secretariat of the “New Deal” on peacebuilding and statebuilding. But that’s pretty moribund at this point. Would second the above commenters mention of INCAF as a potential vehicle. I was hoping SDG16 might create a bit more of a center of gravity around FCAS issues, but that hasn’t happened. USG was trying to push forward a more coherent FCAS agenda, but that’s stalled as well. Not sure what it will take to drive forward a more coherent, informed approach.

  6. Fragile states and peace- and state-building have been at the forefront of the international agenda for 15+ years. What strikes me is that, in that time, there have been endless promising research and policy-oriented initiatives which have sought to do at least some of the things you suggest above Duncan (eg the Crisis States Centre at the LSE, INCAF which Heather mentioned, as well as the g7+ and the PB SB Dialogue mentioned above, the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (which was one of the orgaisers of the Wilton Park event), the Institute for Inclusive Transitions, which has an “Inclusive Transitions Practice Group”, of which I am a membe, the Political Settlements Research Centre, etc etc), but somehow building synergies across these different efforts and bringing together accumulated learning and knowledge has been much more difficult. Inititaives come and go with funding cycles, and there are new fads to chase, and it becomes very challenging to build something that is greater than the sum of all of these parts. Is this something that a new centre clearing house on FCAS could help with and make a meaningful difference and contribution to ongoing debates on research, policy, and practice? I am not convinced, unless somehow a new kind of hub can genuinely and seriously take to heart the kinds of lessons that have emerged from previous such centres and their limitations — and shifts its focus from FCAS to FRACAS …!

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