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.

62 thoughts on “How aid agencies can find their path in fragile states

  1. Great stuff Chris and very much in keeping with Tim Harford’s work in Adapt, PDIA stuff by Matt, Michael & Lant and my own arguments in Aid on the Edge of Chaos.

    But how do you ensure systematic experiments in such contexts? Some argue that what you need is complete freedom from usual aid bureaucratic constraints, let a thousand flowers bloom, and then fail fast / learn quickly. But others suggest that you need a decent map of the problem first so you can identify possible ‘points of leverage’ and experiment with some structure. It shouldn’t be an either / or, of course, but this is exactly how some are framing it.

    By the way, I was involved in the design of a new £100m DFID programme in DRC on taking exactly this kind of experimental approach to private sector development. Happy to share details via email if you are interested.

  2. Interesting opening sentence. I think the Latin Americans, apart from Chile and Uruguay and maybe Columbia, will all be in total disarray by then having had a military coup, civil war and general economic catastrophe over the period. Africa will be more or less as it is today; Big manism will always prevail. So I wonder where that leaves the opening sentence.
    I think a reduction of bilateral aid and an increase of aid direct to the people will help. How to achieve? Don’t know.

  3. Agreed on process over programme, and on being cautious about what we know about fragile contexts. However, I think this may be over-stating it: “The drivers of conflict, the constraints to prosperity, and what states and aid can do about it—these are largely unknown.” The New Deal, the IDPS, and the 2011 WDR represent a fairly overwhelming and uncontested consensus on conflict drivers and what can be done about them. These frameworks all agree on the primacy of good local context analysis, even if donors in practice largely ignore their own advice on how to do it. These frameworks also more or less converge on governance, sustainable and equitable livelihoods, peace capacities, and civic empowerment as the ‘big ticket items’, even if they lack proven programmatic approaches to achieving those ends. But thanks Chris for providing this clarion call for a little epistemic humility; Severine Autesserre’s “Peaceland” makes a similar point though narrowly from within the “peace industry”.