In The News

Fixing Aid to Fragile Places

April 21, 2010

There seems to be a growing consensus that aid to conflict-affected and fragile regions needs fixing. The worsening conditions in Afghanistan have had a sobering effect on the international community, particularly development donors and organizations. If we cannot prevent the slide back to conflict and continued poverty for Afghanistan’s war-weary population, despite our huge investments and commitments, then there must be something that isn’t working quite right.

Criticism of foreign aid is nothing new. Since the release of Graham Hancock’s book The Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business in 1989, there has been a vigorous debate over the effectiveness of international development assistance in the world’s poorest and most fragile regions. What has changed in recent years; however, is the increasing voice from aid recipient countries questioning the effectiveness of the current aid system, and the wisdom of standard aid approaches.

On April 9-10, a group of governments from fragile states, including Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, Nepal, and several African countries met with international donors in Dili, Timor-Leste, to talk about the future of aid to their countries. Many recipient government officials expressed a growing sense of disillusion with foreign aid. Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, in his opening speech, criticized foreign aid for the slow progress in donor alignment with recipient government priorities and an increasing “disconnection” between his government and the international community on development assistance goals. “We need to ask: who is responsible for questioning the efficiency of foreign aid to the least-developed countries? Is it the people of the poor receiving countries? Or the tax-payers from the rich countries?” Clearly these were the questions on peoples’ minds. The outcome of this meeting was the Dili Declaration: A New Vision for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding. According to this declaration, “delivering more effective support to peacebuilding and statebuilding will require a change in approach.”

This dialogue is clearly an important step, but it is only part of the picture. Some influential members of the development community are already in the process of making critical policy changes that are just starting to be introduced in conflict-affected environments. For example, the recently released “Practice Paper: Building Peaceful States and Societies” by the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) lays out a new integrated strategy for statebuilding and peacebuilding that builds on the difficult lessons from the past few years. These new policies have jettisoned the old statebuilding assumptions that focused on replication of western models in poor, post-conflict countries. There is broad agreement that country context must be the starting point for statebuilding and peacebuilding efforts, and that there is limited value in foreign technical assistance to solve the problems of conflict-affected places like Afghanistan and Nepal. Many of the critiques from the group of fragile and conflict-affected countries participating in the Dili Development Partners Meeting (the g7+ nations) shared the same concerns and frustrations as the development organizations.

One critical new development is the recognition that many of the obstacles to effective statebuilding and peacebuilding are political in nature, and not only a product of weak capacity or technical needs. In other words, development assistance has generally been much less effective (and often harmful) when programs are designed without an adequate understanding of the political context and its implications. In a fragile environment, aid programs can lead to winners and losers in political terms, and the allocation of aid benefits can be heavily influenced by political interests of those in power. By ignoring these problems, we contribute to the already overwhelming problems of corruption, impunity, and weak government legitimacy in countries affected by conflict and fragility. Even the Dili Declaration recognizes the need for “inclusive political settlements and processes” and the importance of government responsiveness to citizens, or “state-society relations.” This statement is new and absolutely essential to fixing the problems of aid in these countries.

The challenge now is to translate this new thinking and policy direction into practice. Conflict-affected and fragile places are some of the most challenging operational environments, and making aid more effective there is not easy. This new philosophy is pushing donors and development organizations to be much more politically-minded in their thinking and programs, which can raise legitimate concerns about donor intentions and recipient country sovereignty. How can we strike a balance between recognizing the political problems that undermine aid effectiveness while respecting the sovereignty and rights of recipient countries? Furthermore, how can we adapt the practices and modalities of aid to the challenging and dynamic environments of conflict-affected and fragile areas?

The Asia Foundation recently signed a partnership agreement with the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) to explore some of these critical questions in the Asia-Pacific region. The Foundation and AusAID have worked in conflict areas, post-conflict environments, and fragile regions from Afghanistan to the Solomon Islands. This partnership is intended to apply our collective experience to addressing some of the most critical problems facing the international community and governments of the g7+. New thinking and collaboration are clearly needed – and development organizations must find a way to break out of their traditional operational models to address these problems more effectively.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Conflict and Governance based in Thailand. He can be reached at tparks@asiafound.org.

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