Insights and Analysis

Development Realism: Why the World Bank’s World Development Report Should Lead to Changes in Aid to Fragile States

April 27, 2011

By Thomas Parks

Earlier this month, the World Bank released its 2011 World Development Report, “Conflict, Security and Development.” This highly ambitious report intends to challenge conventional wisdom and propose a new strategy for the international community to help countries emerge from war, long-running violent conflict, entrenched criminality, and fragility. In my view, the report has accomplished this goal, and in so doing, may change the way we work with fragile states and conflict-affected regions.

Destroyed Afghanistan school

International aid has focused on “form rather than function,” and on low-risk programs that have little impact on critical issues. These problems may in fact explain the disappointing results in Afghanistan, above, and other regions affected by long-running violence.

The WDR delivers a healthy dose of realism for the international community. For example, building effective and legitimate institutions in fragile states takes decades, or as the report states, it “takes a generation.”  Furthermore, the report’s findings indicate that international aid that seeks to replicate international models or best practices often leads to illegitimate and ineffective institutions. There are no template solutions for effective institutions, no matter how much expensive technical assistance is provided. Legitimate institutions must be based on locally accepted customs and beliefs, and build on local political networks. The report also notes that aid organizations are under intense political pressure to show results in fragile states in just two to three years, while avoiding partnerships that entail higher risk. Yet in fragile states, high levels of risk and slow, incremental improvement come with the territory. As a result, international aid has focused on “form rather than function,” and on low-risk programs that have little impact on critical issues. These problems may in fact explain the disappointing results in Afghanistan and other regions affected by long-running violence.

The Asia Foundation’s experience working in conflict-affected and fragile regions confirms many of the key findings in the WDR. For example, conflicts in Asia are often caught in long-running cycles of violence. In South and Southeast Asia, the average duration of subnational conflict is over 30 years, with some conflicts, such as in Myanmar, southern Thailand, and Mindanao, in repeating cycles of violence that date back more than a half century. Our experience also confirms that injustice and exclusion (what the report refers to as “social stresses”) are pervasive and enduring drivers of conflict. While the WDR puts equal emphasis on expanding jobs and economic opportunities, our experience shows that injustice and exclusion are in fact more powerful factors in Asia. Many resistance movements have been sustained by or have re-emerged as a result of a shared sense of injustice within the conflict-affected population (e.g., Nepal, southern Thailand, Aceh, and Mindanao). However, in line with the WDR findings, we have also seen a worrying trend as various forms of violence begin to blur and reinforce one another. For example, insurgents in the southern Philippines may be fighting for the cause one day, and involved in extortion and kidnapping the next. Drugs and conflict are closely intertwined in Afghanistan and Myanmar. Our analysis of conflict in the southern Philippines found that localized, clan conflicts were much more dangerous and common than state-insurgent violence. As the report notes, when inter-state conflict and civil wars were the norm (prior to the 1990s), conflicts had a clear beginning and end, were shorter in duration, and it was much easier to tell who the fighters were and why they were fighting. Today’s conflict environments in Asia are murky, with mixes of criminality and political violence, combatants mixed in with civilians, and no clear beginning or end.

But, the most striking and important take-away from the WDR requires a bit of reading between the lines. Many of the critical factors for reducing conflict are political, and the aid community’s general neglect of political dynamics and over-reliance on technocratic approaches has been the root of many failures in aid to fragile and conflict-affected places. This recognition, while not directly emphasized in the report, has widespread ramifications for statebuilding and peacebuilding. For example, our experience in Asia confirms that “inclusive-enough coalitions” are absolutely essential for countries to emerge from protracted cycles of violence. The forming of broad-based coalitions necessary to restore confidence in the state is a highly political process that must be driven by ongoing informal engagement and negotiations between influential elites, competing political factions, and excluded groups. As the report rightly argues, “the state cannot restore confidence alone.” Furthermore, the barriers to restoring confidence are usually political. In places affected by protracted conflict and fragility, such as Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, there are powerful coalitions that oppose the reforms or compromises necessary for restoring confidence in the state and forming more inclusive coalitions, even among elites. Furthermore, the report’s findings indicate that legitimacy depends on local political dynamics. If you live in a conflict zone, your perceptions of state legitimacy often depend on your ethnicity or your political network, rather than, for example, how clean an election is. By focusing on these deeply political issues, the report sends important signals to aid providers and recipient countries that addressing conflict requires an in-depth understanding of local politics and the need to engage on political issues in order to overcome the roadblocks to peace and stability.

Several of the WDR’s recommendations are directly relevant for Asia.  First, there is a critical need for greater support for policing. International actors must be better equipped to work directly with police. Similarly, security-related funding will need to shift away from the current focus on military assistance toward direct support for police. There is also an urgent need to expand support for justice programs, in many cases through locally legitimate, non-state actors. In many conflict-affected regions of Asia, the state does not have the capacity, or does not have the trust of the local population, to provide security and justice. In these regions, reducing conflict will require aid providers to work with traditional local institutions, in addition to support for government. Furthermore, since most of the protracted conflicts in Asia are subnational, affecting one region of the country but not threatening the central state, the process of transforming institutions may require strengthening the capacity of local, non-state, or quasi-state institutions that may be difficult to reach and may raise sensitivities with the host government.

There are some elements of the report that I find less persuasive. For example, while there is certainly a need for greater aid coordination, there is also a need to improve the performance of multi-donor trust funds that are often the vehicle for joined-up approaches. These are only as flexible and risk tolerant as the managing organizations’ internal procedures and governance structures will allow. As most funds are managed by the multi-lateral agencies, there is a clear need to reform their internal processes to allow the funds to be more effective in conflict environments. Second, while the report calls for U.N. leadership on many of the security-related issues, in Asia, it will more likely be bilateral donors that take the lead. In most conflict-affected areas of Asia, the U.N. has a very light presence compared to the major bilateral donors, and governments are very reluctant to have U.N. involvement in internal security challenges.

On the whole, however, the WDR report is a major contribution to the field, and should lead to significant changes in aid policy and practice. The challenge going forward will be to translate these findings into changes at the policy and operational level in the major donor organizations. Furthermore, it will be essential to persuade skeptical governments and political leaders – in donor and aid recipient countries – to accept some of the more controversial recommendations in this report, and give more space and time for development assistance to impact the most critical challenges to durable peace and stability.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s regional director for Conflict and Governance based in Thailand. He can be reached at [email protected]


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