from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

A “New Deal” for Fragile States? Promises and Pitfalls

February 1, 2012

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For the past decade, the challenge of weak and failing states has dominated the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Once dismissed as third tier strategic concerns, poorly governed and conflict-ridden states rose to unprecedented prominence after 9/11. Al-Qaeda’s ability to launch the most devastating attack on the United States in U.S. history from one of the most wretched countries on earth persuaded George W. Bush, in the words of the 2002 National Security Strategy, that the nation was “now threatened less by conquering states than we are by weak and failing ones.” Allied nations and international organizations from NATO to the United Nations drew the same conclusion, describing the world’s forty-odd fragile states as “weak links” in the chain of global collective security, generating risks ranging from jihadist terror to transnational crime, WMD proliferation to infectious disease.

Relief and development actors likewise seized on this chance to secure greater official attention and resources for fragile states, though for different reasons. As humanitarians rightly pointed out, such countries are the overwhelming source of the world’s refugees and internally displaced peoples, not to mention the location of the world’s gravest human rights abuses—including some that might merit intervention under the emerging norm of the “responsibility to protect.” Activists also observed that the inhabitants of fragile states remain the farthest from the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), home to the world’s “bottom billion.”

Despite this extraordinary attention, the United States and the world community have struggled mightily to develop effective strategies for improving the political legitimacy and institutional capacity of the world’s weakest states, so that they can deliver effective governance—including physical security, political representation, economic stability, and essential services—to their inhabitants.

Hope may be on the horizon, however. Late last autumn, a prominent group of actors gathered at the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (November 29-December 1, 2011, in Busan, South Korea)—including fragile states, major donor nations, and international organizations--announced a “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.” Significantly, the driving force behind this initiative was not the wealthy donor community, but a group of nineteen fragile and conflict-affected states themselves—including countries like East Timor, Liberia, and Burundi. This fact is critical. Too often, the donor community has only paid lip-service to the principle of “country leadership and ownership.”  Their initiative may demonstrate that rhetoric will be translated into action.

The “New Deal” has several path-breaking components. First, donor and fragile states alike endorse five core “Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals” (PSGs) that will guide their efforts. These include the promotion of legitimate politics, civilian security, impartial justice, employment, and efficient management. Indicators will be developed by September 2012 to help measure progress towards realizing these goals.

Second, the donor community has committed to support “inclusive country-led and country-owned transition out of fragility,” focused on a partnership not only with the ruling regime but—critically—other societal representatives. Donors will collaborate with national “stakeholders” to conduct baseline and follow-up “fragility assessments” and to better evaluate the sources of fragility and potential resilience. On the basis of these assessments, donors pledge to help national actors develop “one national vision and one plan out of fragility,” with the responsibilities of donors and national stakeholders spelled out in a formal “compact.”

Third, donors and fragile states commit to providing external aid and managing national resources more effectively, and to aligning these resources for results. They mutually agree to ensure greater timeliness and predictability in the delivery of aid, to improved transparency in its allocation and uses, and to use external aid to strengthen national institutions and systems (rather than leech capacity from them, as so often happens).

On paper, the New Deal has a lot going for it, promising better behavior from outside actors and fragile states alike. But there’s at least one huge stumbling bloc to bringing this new partnership to fruition: the ugly reality of fragile state governance. At its foundation, the New Deal presumes that governing regimes in fragile states are weak but well intentioned. In practice, of course, many such states are fragile because they are run by corrupt, even kleptocratic, elites who will go to great lengths to keep their grasp on power. Such regimes have little incentive to embrace truly open, participatory politics—much less transparent revenue management. One look at the list of nineteen fragile state partners—which includes Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and even Somalia—suggests how hard it may be to turn the document’s fine words into effective state-building partnerships.

This is not to call the New Deal useless, merely to suggest its immediate application may be limited to well-meaning governments whose leaders—Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, perhaps—are genuinely committed to good governance and willing to accommodate the political aspirations of a wide variety of domestic actors. Given these obstacles, the United States and other major donors have wisely decided to implement the “New Deal” on a pilot basis, which pairs particular donors with specific fragile states (Australia and East Timor, the United Kingdom and South Sudan, for example).

Over the longer term, however, the New Deal could begin to transform expectations—both within the donor community and among fragile state regimes—about the conditions under which fragile states will be eligible for significant development assistance. In embracing the “New Deal,” the donor community has raised the normative bar—suggesting that significant aid will depend on genuine internal processes of societal consultation, in the form of “credible and inclusive processes of political dialogue.”  For such implied conditionality to have an impact, of course, the donor community will need to display solidarity in its approach to engaging some of the world’s most dysfunctional countries—a tall order, given the rising influence of non-traditional donors like China, which has been less than circumspect about engaging authoritarian and corrupt regimes.

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