LONDON, 1 July 2011 (IRIN) – “When we call a state fragile, we have to think of it as a metaphor,” says Dan Smith, Secretary-General of International Alert. “It means handle with care, it’s easy to break. Pour a whole lot of money on the problem, and you could do as much harm as good.”
Smith is just one of the community of aid professionals, academics and politicians still trying to tease out the implications of Britain’s aid policy review, which declared that the government would keep its promise to protect international humanitarian aid from budget cuts, but that it would be refocused. By 2014, a planned 30 percent of aid will go to war-torn and unstable states.
This policy has cross-party support. At a public meeting in the House of Commons on 28 June, politicians endorsed the decision, each from their own, distinct perspective.
The Conservative MP Mark Pritchard put the practical case for a focus on conflict-affected states, reflecting the fear that these states generated refugees and were a breeding ground for terrorism. “What happens over there affects us over here. We have seen the consequences of fragile states becoming broken states.” Instability is also bad for business, Pritchard pointed out, citing Kenya, where tourism had dropped by 23 percent in the past year: “We need to focus on post-conflict resolution because the private sector is wary of going in.”
Labour’s Jack McConnell, who chairs his party’s Conflict and Development Task Force, pointed out that a third of people living below the poverty line and half the children who die before the age of five are in fragile and conflict-affected states. “We should be doing more,” he said. “It’s important for global security, but it’s also crucial for global justice.”
McConnell warned that simply giving these governments money did not necessarily mean they rose to the challenge. “I think this assumption that budget support would, with a bit of encouragement, lead to the creation of mechanisms for the management of public finance… has been shown in the majority of a cases to be not true,” he said. “While it is more sexy for politicians to allocate money to major health programmes or major educational programmes… and that can create good headlines… I think that the major donors have to start insisting, as a prerequisite for budget support, that money is spent on the creation of proper public finance management systems, proper revenue raising systems, transparent finance and civil service systems and so on.”
Joanna Wheeler, of the Institute of Development Studies, argued that there was too much focus on state building and institutions, and not enough on strengthening the kind of citizen engagement that can create legitimacy. Without the state institutions capable of distributing aid effectively, she said, “there is a real risk that you are just going to endorse corruption. And that’s precisely why we have to look at the ability of citizens to hold those states to account, because that’s going to be the antidote to the corruption in those countries.”
Smith agreed: “We looked at countries which had been able to haul themselves out of deep instability… and the thing they had in common was that they had managed to build legitimate institutions, and the way of building these legitimate institutions is primarily through participation.”
He talked about the problem of lack of trust in governments, illustrated by a story of villagers in Mozambique who refused to believe official flood warnings because the ants that traditionally warned of flooding had not started to move. “The point is that when they were given the choice between trusting the government and trusting the ants, they chose the insects. All that we ask, and all that we are working for, is that people have governments they trust more than the insects.”
Added McConnell: “There [are] going to be politicians in developing countries who get it wrong, not just for corruption reasons, but sometimes they just get it wrong… So I think we need to find a way of communicating the complexity of that, and have an awareness that people are not going to get it right all the time. But that shouldn’t stop us trying to help.”