Building stable and peaceful states: a new framework for international action?

It is time to reframe the development discourse on conflict and fragility. A set of international objectives is needed that complements the MDGs to lead efforts to reduce conflict and fragility. But that is not enough. Making this happen will put the leadership, credibility and energies both of fragile countries and international actors to the test.
Erwin van Veen
7 July 2011

“Goodbye conflict, welcome development” was the slogan that the Timorese splashed all over Dili in 2010 to stimulate and celebrate the increasing stability, quality of governance and prospects of their country. It was not always so. The city saw waves of fighting and rioting as recently as 2006, which could only be resolved by another international intervention. This was four years after independence and seven years after the Timorese war for independence. It was once more made painfully clear that the citizens, leaders and international partners of countries emerging from conflict opr fragility, need to get fundamental issues such as inclusive politics and basic security sorted before they can have much hope of further development.

The global challenge

This experience is by no means unique to Timor-Leste. The country rather reflects the more ‘benign’ tip of a proverbial iceberg. Today, about 30-40 countries worldwide find themselves in a situation of fragility and conflict. For instance, over 70% of all countries considered fragile (according to various indices) have experienced conflict since 1989. What is worse, these countries tend to stay fragile. The damage lasts or can recur easily: once conflict has occurred, the chance of relapse is high (estimated around 40-50%). More than 1.5 billion people are caught in conflict and poverty traps. The global cost of violent conflicts in an interdependent world, must be measured not only in the form of human suffering and physical destruction, but also organized crime and illicit financial flows. Fragility and conflict are development in reverse.

The 2015 Milennium Development Goals (MDG) are the leading international policy response to underdevelopment. They embody our understanding of a more developed world with less hunger, more opportunities, better health and more knowledge. The trouble is that as a framework for focus and action, according to the World Bank, for instance, not a single Low Income Country that is fragile has realized any one of the MDGs so far. 

The leading international policy response to violent insecurity is a range of more or less intrusive interventions (spanning mediation, sanctions and peace enforcement). Although the dramatic increase in the number of peacekeeping and peacemaking initiatives after 1990 has played a major role in reducing conflicts, their success rates are modest while the international community seems much less skilled at peacebuilding and statebuilding efforts, as several recent contributions in this forum have highlighted (for instance: Carpenter on Sudan, Alaaldin on Afghanistan and Muggah on Haiti). 

In the light of this widening disparity in security, quality of governance and wealth, conflict and fragility continue to represent a serious problem – impacting on the lives of millions every day. Is it therefore time, as Vernon and Baskh have suggested,“to reframe the development discourse?”. 

It is. In fact, for conflict and fragility there are two frames that need to be put in place. One is a set of objectives that complements the MDGs to lead efforts to reduce conflict and fragility, the other is a set of commitments on what needs to change in the way international and national actors currently do business in such settings. Creating these frames will put the leadership, credibility and energies both of fragile countries and international actors to the test.

International peacebuilding objectives

The High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan (South-Korea), planned for November 2011, offers an opportunity to take a first step in establishing a set of peacebuilding and statebuilding objectives that can serve as a more effective and more relevant framework to guide (inter)national political focus, action and resources in addressing conflict and fragility. 

To realize this opportunity, about 150 leaders and representatives of donor organizations, multilaterals and around 15 fragile states (called the g7+, which includes e.g. Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal, Liberia and Timor-Leste), have recently taken a long and hard look at what matters most in these countries. In June they met in Monrovia to compare notes, at the second meeting of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding. On the basis of their combined experiences and evidence, they argue that there are five priorities: 

  • Legitimate politics: Foster inclusive political settlements and conflict resolution. For instance, the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) in Sudan and the national reconciliation accord (Taif agreement) in Lebanon once laid the hopeful foundations for a new political order. 
  • Security: Establish and strengthen citizen security. In places like Burundi and Liberia, ensuring security for citizens was a key factor in consolidating peace after years of war. Only with greater security do trade, farming and investment become worthwhile. 
  • Economic foundations: Generate employment and improve livelihoods. For instance, investment in economic growth helped Mozambique sustain peace after its conflict. 
  • Justice: Address injustices and support increasing citizen access to justice. Only because of a strong emphasis on addressing injustices and on reconciliation is Rwanda where it is today. 
  • Revenues and services: Manage revenues and build capacity for accountable and fair social service delivery. 

These “Monrovia peacebuilding and statebuilding objectives” can provide key markers on the road to the MDGs. The aim is to have them drive most of the international action and funding related to conflict and fragility. This is ambitious. However, as the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, pointed out, "the challenges are huge, but they're not bigger than the challenges we've faced in the past".

Changing how we do business 

Yet, a new set of international policy goals will not be enough. What is also in need of urgent change are the ways in which international and national partners do business to reduce conflict and fragility. A lot of work has been done recently (including by the World Bank, the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding and the OECD) to identify key factors in the success or failure of international and national initiatives helping countries emerge from conflict. A challenging set of messages is emerging for aid actors, bilaterals, multilaterals and governments of fragile states alike, pointing as they do to a continuing gap between (inter)national policy and practice. They call for five major changes: 

First, get to grips with the context. Understanding sources of fragility and conflict, how state and society interact and what interests and incentives look like, is critical. It helps define core challenges, priorities and what sort of change is feasible. Donors in particular often do not have the time, patience or resources to do this. The typical programme assessment on the basis of which amounts in the order of 20 million Euro can be spent, takes about 3 weeks. In Monrovia, leaders endorsed nationally-led assessments of the features and degrees of fragility as a basis for national strategies and plans. Such assessment would need to be endorsed by national and international partners so that sufficient inclusiveness and buy-in can be secured. 

Second, focus on what works. International actors need to stop transferring political and institutional models from rich to poor countries. Building a centralized state in Afghanistan after centuries of decentralized governance is, for instance, unlikely to work. National actors need to acknowledge and nurture local forms of governance and service provision where these are legitimate and effective. 

Third, prioritize. Objectives must focus on political settlements, security, justice, economic growth and revenue management – and be limited in number. Successful transitions are those that have focused on two or three strategic objectives at any given time. In particular national governments need to increase space, leadership and support for inclusive political dialogue to develop a national vision, manage conflict peacefully and build confidence. Country-level agreements (or compacts) between a government and its international partners can define joint priorities, targets, measures of progress and ways to manage risks 

Fourth, international engagement needs to be long-term to contribute meaningfully to results. The World Bank recently demonstrated that it can take a good 20-40 years to move from fragility to resilience. Support must be of equal duration on the basis of a political relationship of trust, negotiation and frank criticism. Donors must stop flicking the on/off switch of aid when the next corruption scandal emerges. A more nuanced approach, and response, are needed. Clearly, partners in fragile states need to help make this possible through the quality of their leadership, policies and implementation. 

Fifth, the global dimension of conflict and fragility must be better taken into account. Countries do not develop in isolation but face global opportunities and stresses. Competing objectives between international trade, development and security policies have a price that needs to be acknowledged. Fragile or ungoverned spaces can enable forces that operate with a global and violent agenda.


Implementing such responses will require leadership, rigour and courage. Three challenges stand out:

To start with, how can donors and multilaterals muster the resolve and leadership to gradually address this change agenda in the face of the current economic downturn and climate of populism in some countries? It will need courageous leaders with resolve to engage in domestic debate with parliaments and internationally with development partners. Fragile states must play their part as long-term commitments cannot come for free or without principles of partnership. 

Second, how can g7+ countries build the capacity and vision in their often fragmented societies with fractured institutions? International partners can help with programmes, funds and expertise, but the direction and the drive need to come from within. The challenge (and opportunity) for the g7+ is to demonstrate it can give a common international voice to fragile states, and also support action for implementation. 

Finally, practical implementation requires seasoned change agents, managers and leaders that want to work for feasible solutions. Details will matter more than rhetoric. Procurement and financial processes will need to change, new actors need to be involved and difficult, concrete discussions need to take place on risk, results and accountability. Implementation will also need a framework of joint accountability that is detailed, practical and that sets out the consequences of non-adherence.

In short, progress is being made to improve the international response to conflict and fragility. Yet it is only a promising beginning, as in Timor-Leste. With its increased security, stability and employment, it can cautiously start thinking about how to improve education, healthcare and how to further boost its economy and governance. If it is also bravely helping to lead the efforts of this international dialogue, this is to avoid others having to go through similar traumas. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData