Approaching fragile states from a complexity perspective

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      Fragility, as a concept that refers to weak institutional capacity, poor governance, political instability, and frequently conflict, has moved up the international agenda in recent years. As none of the ‘fragile states’ have reached any of the MDGs, these are typically the countries where developmental progress has shown persistent weakness or failure.

      In an interesting article on his aid on the edge of chaos blog, Ben Ramalingam refers to state fragility as a “wicked problem”, and explores how ideas from complexity theory can help identify new ways of approaching this difficult issue. To me, having worked in fragile environments for ten years and having spent years of my life thinking and writing about it, ideas stemming from complexity theory can indeed change the fundamental model with which we approach fragile states.

      A conference at the Santa Fe institute for Complexity science, in which I participated, explored this issue in detail. As follow up, Ben, in collaboration with Bill Frej, distilled the following principles for addressing fragility from a complexity perspective:

      1. Work to understand the systemic nature of the problems faced in foreign policy and how these problems evolve over time.
      2. Involve those people who matter the most in the decisions that matter the most.
      3. Avoid ‘silver bullet’ strategies and instead attempt multiple parallel experiments.
      4. Establish real-time strategic analysis & learning as a key form of operational feedback.
      5. Be open to the fundamental adaptation of efforts, along with changes in local contexts and conditions.
      6. Reframe the overall foreign policy efforts as dynamic networks of multiple systems and actors.

      This is not to say that applying a different approach, i.e. a complexity theory approach, will fix the problem. Wicked problems are not particularly ‘fixable’, which is exactly why they are wicked in the first place. What it means is that we have to start from the premise that we do not know the solutions and that we have to discover those as we go along.

      How can these ideas be applied in practice? What implications do these ideas have for how the international community engages with fragile states? Here I describe some of the main ways in which I can see these principles being translated into development policy.

      1. We have to start from the premise that we do not understand the complexity and interconnectedness within a social system and that we do not know what the solutions are to address a particular manifestation of fragility. Technocratic, best-practice, solutions do not consider the interconnectedness of the issues and the underlying social complexities. New ways forward need to emerge.

      2. New ways forward need to be found through ‘wrestling the problems to the ground’; i.e. by enabling local actors to identify potential solutions, test these, and learn from these. International actors can at best help create the conditions in which constructive endogenous processes can emerge. This may require political dialogue with the partner government to carve out the political and socio-cultural space for different types of solution seeking, and for a mutual understanding that more than one model may work.

      3. Yet, endogenous processes of change can be disruptive as fragile states are often conflict-prone and its society polarized. A variety of different narratives have been created in society and these are often at odds with each other. Pressure can rise rapidly when battles between these visions take place, which can lead to rapid change or a further descent into violence. Societal change is painful, takes time, is unpredictable and does not follow well-established paths. For external actors engaging in such settings, conflict-sensitivity is key, but the principle of doing no harm is naïve. It is a matter of mitigating these risks to the best of our ability.

      4. National development strategies are an important means to unite people and institutions behind a single vision for the future. In practice however, national development strategies in fragile states are often a reflection of what donors like to see, and what finance ministers view as the way forward. In rare cases does the national development strategy reflect a genuine consensus of the people, and ownership is often limited to a small group. This raises questions on whether the principle of alignment with national government strategies can be maintained as a self-evident choice, if in practice the national strategies are not sufficiently wholly owned.  The New Deal further underlines the importance of alignment, but insufficiently addresses these problems with ownership.

      5. Long-term engagement and having an over-the-horizon strategic vision is essential in fragile states. Further coordination, coherence and complementarity, as per the Paris, Accra and Busan declarations, is important as game-changing progress is still needed. However, as long as international development continues to work on the basis of current management models, its impact on fragile states will remain limited. Its rigid strategic planning and management processes offer little flexibility, its implementation processes are based on a linear roll-out of a strategic plan with no deliberate scanning for unintended consequences, its policy making architecture places too much decision-making control in donor capitals rather than on the ground, and its strict accountability mechanisms place disincentives on learning.

      6. For a new approach to fragility to emerge, the policy making and operational systems in use in development cooperation need to undergo fundamental change. This goes beyond using the language of complexity theory in policy documents, which has become increasingly fashionable, but has not yet managed to change the underlying mental model. It means going beyond a mentality in which experts know the solutions. It means humility. And, most importantly, it means putting ‘learning systems’ at the center of development policy.

      The time may be ripe for these ideas to start taking hold. This would mean overcoming the usual tendency of the development policy arena to adopt new concepts without changing the mental models underlying it, nor the institutional incentives that impede their application. However, I can see the beginnings of a momentum around it, so I hope we can sustain it.

      Frauke de Weijer is Policy Officer Development Policy & International Relations at ECDPM.


      This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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