How can INGOs improve their work in fragile and conflict states?

July 19, 2012 6 By admin

There’s nothing like the impending threat of giving a talk to make you mug up on an issue, usually the morning before. Today’s exercise in skating on thin ice (the secret? Keep moving. Fast as possible) was a recent talk to some Indiana University students studying the developmental role of the state while enjoying our splendid British summer (ahem).

I gave them the standard FP2P spiel on Active Citizens and Effective States (powerpoint here – just keep clicking), but then got into the different roles INGOs play in countries with different types of state. The big distinction is between stable and unstable states, but there are lots of subcategories (middle v low income; democratic v autocratic; willing (nice) v unwilling (nasty); centralized v decentralized; conflict-cooperation-cycleaid dependent or not). But my recent crash-and-burn experience of trying to come up with a typology was salutary, and I won’t try and repeat the exercise.

Stable states are in many ways the easy ones: we can help with civil society strengthening, some state-building at local level (especially in decentralized states), or play a convening role to help bring state, civil society and other non-state actors together to find solutions. Even in stable states, change is often a cycle of conflict and cooperation (see diagram), something we struggle to navigate. See this post for more findings from some interesting research on what works by John Gaventa and Rosemary McGee.

But the more substantial bit of my talk was on Fragile and Conflict Affected States (FRACAS – my best acronym in ages). These, if you believe the new numbers from the ODI, are where the majority of poor people will live in 15 years time and that’s a real headache for aid agencies and NGOs: without a well-functioning state, everything gets more difficult. For starters, you need to send your best, most politically astute staff there, but FRACAS are not always the most desirable place to live, raise a family etc, so recruitment can be a ‘challenge’.

As prep for my session, I read two recent Oxfam papers: Programming in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries: A Learning Companion (June 2011) and Within and Without the State (Research Report, February 2012). According to these, some of the key features of working in FRACAS are:

With a weak/absent state, more power lies in the hands of multiple non-state actors, including faith-based organizations, private sector (think money lenders in Somalia), traditional authorities, and (increasingly) well organized, educated and funded Diaspora networks. INGOs have to learn how to engage with all of these in rapidly mutating coalitions.

With the state not delivering, there is always a temptation to start building parallel systems to provide health, education etc. But in the long term these can actually get in the way of building a viable state (see my critique of Paul Collier’s Independent Service Authorities). The trick is to ensure that service delivery work also builds long-term state capacity.

Even in apparently dysfunctional states, there may be ‘pockets of functionality’ with which INGOs can engage, (the papers point to education in the DRC). This both delivers services now, and can act as a nucleus for longer term state-building.

In FRACAS, the situation is always likely to be complex, unpredictable and messy. As aid agencies increasingly concentrate their operations there, there is going to be a fascinating conflict with the rising demand for tangible, measurable and attributable impact.

And what of future directions for INGOs in FRACAS? Within and Without the State makes some tantalisingly general, but interesting suggestions. Some should be familiar to regular readers of this blog, e.g. learn to work better with non state actors such as faith groups, and to respond better to shocks. Others are less familiar:

12_fragilestatesFocus on building legitimacy/trust/social contract between citizens and state (accountability comes later). In FRACAS, the standard INGO repertoire of supporting demands for greater accountability may be premature: the state may simply lack the capacity to deliver, rather than the will, while citizens may have had such a negative previous experience of the state that all they want is to be left alone. So the first priority is to help build the social contract in terms of trust and supply (capacity), before moving on to demand.

Civil society organizations are often atomised and inexperienced in engaging outside their sector or locality. Helping to convene ‘local to national’ conversations for them with national players (both state and non state) is one possible niche for INGOs.

Promote ‘community conversations’: in the chaotic unpredictability of FRACAS, the usual pieties about not trying to impose blueprints are even truer than ever. There is no substitute for having ‘embedded’ conversations, without a prior agenda, with as many people as possible. Only that way will you detect new currents of power and thinking, and react promptly to such changes.

Any other advice to INGOers working in FRACAS?