October 2017: Achieving Results in Fragile States
As research and economic data on the world’s developing countries has begun to suggest in earnest in recent years, the future of foreign aid is in fragile states. Over the last decade, poverty rates have been declining steadily in countries that, while firmly entrenched in the OECD’s lowest income groupings, have been enjoying relative degrees of peace and reasonable governance. At the same time, more and more formerly lower middle income countries are graduating up the ladder to the point where they will no longer be eligible for Official Development Assistance in only a matter of years. But in those countries experiencing sustained internal conflict – facilitated by factors such as high degrees of corruption, inter-ethnic divisions exploited for political gain, domestic terrorism, inadequate political leadership, lack of own-source-revenues
or insufficient controls thereof, and interventionist neighbours, among others –the picture remains largely the same or worse than it was in decades past. And those trapped in poverty in these environments – the group defined as the “bottom billion” by Dr. Paul Collier in his seminal 2007 book – are more vulnerable than those living in poverty anywhere else in the world. For these reasons, donor countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada are now beginning to focus their aid dollars on the group of states around the world characterized as ‘fragile or conflict-affected.’ For instance, DFID has committed to spending 50% of its ODA on this category of countries, while in its new Feminist International Assistance Policy,
Canada has also signalled its intention to refocus its investments on “the poorest and most vulnerable and on fragile states.” According to the 2017 Fund for Peace Fragile States Index (FSI), the world’s most fragile state this year is South Sudan, characterized by its severe lack of basic infrastructure and services, and a history of on-again, off-again civil war affecting over a million citizens. The FSI uses a framework known as the
Conflict Assessment Tool (CAST) to “better understand and measure conflict drivers and dynamics” using thousands of data points for each country. Also ranking high on the 2017 FSI are the DR Congo (#7), Afghanistan (#9), Haiti (#11), Nigeria (#13), Pakistan (#18), Cameroon (#26), Mali (#31), Nepal (#33), and Mozambique (#40), all of which are locations in which CowaterSogema is currently or has recently been engaged. Complementing the FSI are other analyses, such as that offered by Dr. Collier, who argues that countries associated with the fragility label typically exhibit one or more ‘development traps’: conflictaffected; rich in natural resources; landlocked with bad neighbours; and bad governance.
In these environments, foreign aid interventions face their biggest challenges but also some of their greatest opportunities. On the bright side, while moving the dial on poverty levels in such circumstances is akin to the addressing the financial and logistical challenges in achieving ‘last mile’ broadband connections in Canada’s remote arctic communities, research suggests that such interventions can also yield some of the biggest returns on investment on offer. In economist speak, the marginal impact of any given investment in a fragile state lacking stable institutions and where most citizens live without reliable access to basic necessities is proving to be greater than in more stable environments where governance and service delivery standards can be said to have at least reached the “good enough” threshold, and which have been receiving foreign aid-funded technical assistance for decades. But as noted above, achieving this marginal impact comes at considerable expense and not without significant risk to those delivering both technical and humanitarian assistance.
To gain insight into how these challenges have affected our ability to deliver results on the ground and to better understand how these definitions of fragility applied to the countries in which we operate, we carried out a survey of our CowaterSogema’s project directors and team leaders working in the countries noted above. The survey revealed a number of common threads and approaches to mitigating common risks while also illustrating how much can still get done in the most challenging environments. Captured in these results were insights from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Haiti, Mali, Mozambique, Pakistan and South Sudan. Over half of these countries were said to exhibit at least three of the four ‘conflict traps’ explained by Collier and noted earlier.
“Canada has also signalled its
intention to refocus its investments
on the poorest and most vulnerable
and on fragile states.”
Other characteristics noted by respondents that apply to some or all of the countries surveyed included widespread corruption, ethnic divisions, either real or exploited for political gain, internal violence and/or terrorism, serious challenges regarding violence against women and limited participation by women in public life, very limited basic infrastructure, and extreme economic instability. One common thread is perhaps the most obvious: the country’s circumstances and needs influencing the project’s overall design and goals. In South Sudan, for instance, a country at the early stages of building a functioning public sector at all three levels of government, our project is explicitly focused on developing basic capabilities at the local government level in planning and budgeting, procurement and the development of critical civil works infrastructure in line with common national standards. In Pakistan, our efforts focused on empowering local groups of citizens at the community level, and women in particular, to engage in the management and governance of schools, health clinics and water points in rural environments where the government’s reach and capacity was limited and where women initially had little role in public life. And in Afghanistan, where corruption remains a significant challenge and specialized expertise in niche areas is not easily found within government, we have focused on strengthening internal and external controls and training a new cadre of civil servants as experts in water resources management. The unique circumstances of fragile states such as these also have a common impact on each and every project from a logistical and operational perspective. For projects operating in unstable locations such as Kabul, northern Mali and north-western Pakistan, recruiting North American or European staff is a major challenge and often not advisable. For projects in which required skillsets do not exist in country, this can delay the implementation of important activities or require alterations to the project’s design. But in many cases, and increasingly so over the last decade, skilled local or regional managers and specialists highly familiar with the local operational, cultural and security context can instead be identified to lead a large portion of field activities with much success. This has been the case for CowaterSogema’s project teams in Pakistan and South Sudan, to name only two examples. Similarly, security concerns for local, regional and international staff can also significantly impact project plans, schedules and timelines. Government offices even within the same city may be inaccessible due to threats against them by local insurgents, and training participants may be unable to travel to training venues due to insecurity on the roads. Similarly, in many cases, public servants – often key beneficiaries of our project interventions – may go unpaid for long periods of time due to serious economic challenges facing their country, leading to fewer numbers than planned being able to participate in capacity building events, or requests for supplementary financial support in order to do so. In one particular case, the local employees of our partner training institution had gone without pay for a full year. Given that these individuals were co-responsible for the delivery of training initiatives – an important mechanism to further a project’s sustainability – this led to an unplanned pause in training delivery and fewer individuals completing the professional development program than planned. In another case, the rapid devaluation of the local currency led to a significant delay in the completion of infrastructure projects at the local level being overseen by CowaterSogema’s project team as hyper-inflation quickly made original construction contracts in local currency unworkable. Examples such as this also illustrate the influence of fragile state characteristics on project budgets. While the challenges of operating in local currency are one important factor, which can typically be managed through denominating contracts in US dollars wherever possible, an additional challenge is simply the high costs of operating in contexts where security risks are high and basic infrastructure such as roads is severely limited or non-existent. These factors, and the priority that needs to be placed on personnel duty of care by managing contractors such as us, place upward pressures on budgets for costs such as vehicle operations, fuel, air travel (required frequently to avoid passing through insecure areas on the ground), and compound security that must be planned carefully in project financial projects from the very beginning. A third common thread stemming from our survey is a summation of those noted above: reaching and engaging any given project’s intended beneficiaries is many times for difficult in fragile state environments than in others enjoying the dividends of peace. For instance, potential beneficiaries – be they local residents or government officials – living in communities considered too unstable or outside of central government control are often impossible to reach, further compounding the impact of the conflict on their personal wellbeing and future prospects. In other cases, while working directly alongside with beneficiary government counterparts in an advisory and coaching capacity is typically the ideal way to transfer knowledge and skills, in some cases achieving desired contact hours is difficult when project teams are restricted to their hotels or compounds due to periodic spikes in security risks threatening government infrastructure.
“It is crucial if the international
community is to make
significant strides towards
reducing poverty among the
world’s bottom billion.”
It is therefore clear that achieving sustainable impact in fragile state environments is neither easy nor cheap. But experience shows it is possible, and development partners know it is crucial if the international community is to make significant strides towards reducing poverty among the world’s bottom billion. In our case, a wide variety of measures and approaches have been employed to enable our teams to work as securely as possible and to maximum effect in such contexts. Relying heavily on local expertise and situational awareness; adopting a low profile philosophy to guide decisions and approaches to office locations, field travel and staff accommodations; delivering certain training events outside the country; making maximum use of appropriate information and communications technology to minimize field travel; engaging robust security specialists and taking out appropriate insurance policies; working closely with local community and religious leaders to both gain trust and stay informed; and maintaining and adaptive and flexible approach to project planning and implementation are all heavily and repeatedly utilized across our projects and countries of operation in this regard.
And by adopting such approaches, results begin to speak for themselves. In Mozambique, for instance, despite significant tensions in the country’s interior dating back to the country’s civil war being the source of significant security concerns, CowaterSogema’s ongoing World Bank-financed Cities and Climate Change – Institutional Strengthening Project is considered a success by all stakeholders: in the 20 municipalities that received support from the project over a two and a half year period, average properties registered increased by 102%, municipal income from property taxes increased by 541%, and own-source revenues increased on average by 53%. In Afghanistan, through the ADB-financed Western Basins Water Resource Management Project, 36 young public servants, including six women, achieved their master’s degrees through project-supported studies at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand, a result that will add substantial internal capacity to the ranks of Afghanistan’s Ministry
of Energy and Water. In Haiti, despite ongoing fallout from the devastating 2010 earthquake and a government that is still finding its feet, over 250 police personnel completed CowaterSogema’s FIPCA project training program, and participating Haitian officials now have the skills required to manage the country’s National Police Academy on their own.
In South Sudan, through the World Bank-financed Local Governance and Service Delivery Project (LOGOSEED), more and more county governments across the project’s current six participating states are becoming capable of meeting new national local government performance measures and minimum conditions. And in Pakistan, CowaterSogema’s Citizen Engagement for Social Service Delivery project financed by both Canada and Australia delivered tangible enhancements to social services across 11 districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province; in the water sector alone, only one of three areas targeted by the project, 690 Water User Committees were made capable of managing their water supply schemes jointly with the local government and with strong female representation; the rehabilitation or improvement management of water schemes benefitted over 1.2 million people; over 4000 women and 6000 men received training in social service management; and much stronger relations were established between government and citizens groups, leading to further improvements in service delivery.
If the purpose of foreign aid over the next 20 years is to continue to reduce poverty at the same rates that we have seen over the last 20 years, it is crucial that development actors, both local and international, find increasingly creative ways of achieving results in fragile states while working ever more closely together. The practices mentioned in this paper offer only a few examples of how this can be achieved for the benefit of the world’s bottom billion.