How aid agencies can find their path in fragile states

In 20 or 30 years, most of the still poor countries will be today’s fragile states. Everywhere else will probably have reached middle income levels. Development economics will become, in part, the study of political stability. Aid programs will face greater than ever challenges. So what could civil society, aid agencies start doing now?

Fragile states are tough places to plan and program. We have little data, and arguably each fragile situation is unique. The drivers of conflict, the constraints to prosperity, and what states and aid can do about it—these are largely unknown.

So, the big question I want to pose is how one plans and programs in this environment. How can a big bureaucracy—be it a government or the World Bank or the UNDP—develop systems for learning and scaling what works in fragile, uncertain environments, and changing course as new information comes in? To me the question, “what process?” comes before “what program?”. Or at least it should.

The answer, I think, is to be a little of what Karl Popper called the piecemeal social engineer. Tinkering at small scale with many things. Crossing a river by feeling each stone.

An excerpt from my speaking notes to a recent World Bank, UNDP and ILO conference about what to do about employment and violence in fragile states.

I also talked recently about what we know about poverty and violence, not just how to program and learn. See the speaking notes here. Comments are welcome, since I’m pondering a book.

What you don’t know is that I think all of this advice is bunk if governments don’t get a few things right at the global level. If I have time, I’ll post some informal thoughts on this later this week.