COVID-19 makes the case for getting development in fragile states right

by Nelly Mecklenburg and Jessica Mackenzie

What does the COVID-19 response and commitments for more effective development in fragile states have in common? More than you might think.

Governments all over the world are suddenly faced with responding to a pandemic causing suffering and anxiety in every community and sector. In response to both the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19, governments are re-orienting their attention and resources. Concerns about effective development and principles outlined five, ten, twenty years ago may seem distant, yet these promises for more effective partnerships in fragile states are more relevant than ever. The commitment to resilient national systems, coherent plans with long-term views, transparency and clear lines of communication, and shared responsibility are not just effective development principles, but effective crisis management. Applying these principles will make the medium- and long-term responses by governments and their partners to COVID-19 more resilient, and lay a strong foundation to manage future crises in fragile contexts. And as the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, no country is immune to fragility in a crisis.

A new report by the Institute for State Effectiveness (ISE), released just before the COVID-19 pandemic and entitled “Re-Examining the Terms of Aid”, explores the incentives that drive development actors and outcomes towards fulfilling these promises. Getting these right is critical to help countries transition out of fragility, and for both the immediate response and long-term global recovery from this pandemic.

For more than 15 years, development partners, donors and governments have repeatedly committed to improve their engagement in fragile states. The goal is well established:  development partnerships aim to help countries move out of conflict and fragility, and towards becoming inclusive, resilient, and self-reliant states that provide for their citizens and contribute to the global economy and community. The principles on how to achieve this have been reiterated in a range of international agreements (see here, here, here and here), and are widely agreed on:

  • Agendas should be led by countries, not donors;
  • Success should be measured by medium- and long-term outcomes, rather than short-term outputs;
  • Support and resources should go through national systems as much as possible to strengthen them by using them;
  • Governments and development partners need to be mutually accountable and transparent;
  • Aid should be appropriate to the context, rather than simply ‘global best practice’.

During the past decade in particular, there have been reports, new tools, convening bodies and funding mechanisms that have led to advances on the ground, such as the World Bank’s seminal 2011 World Development Report’s examination of fragility, the EU’s statebuilding contracts to provide budget support in fragile states, bodies such as the g7+ group of self-identified fragile states, and the World Bank’s IDA18 replenishment of funding for the world’s poorest countries with a record commitment to fragile states. Important lessons have been learned. This includes acknowledging that although political reform leaders and elite agreements are important, it is not sufficient, and that how services are delivered matters as well as what services are delivered. But there is still further to go. There remain challenges on both sides of the development handshake, including burdensome reporting requirements, insufficient progress on anti-corruption, and issues of duplication, coordination, and prioritization. Short-term projects continue to proliferate with little oversight, ownership, or connection to host governments and their national strategies. These challenges are all too familiar to those working in development, and increasingly, to governments during a pandemic.

In Re-examining the Terms of Aid, we find that the failure to deliver on the promise of effective development partnerships can be a seen as a failure to address incentives. Historically, work has focused on solving the symptoms of ineffective development assistance rather than focusing on the underlying incentives that drive actors to reform their behavior. Building on decades of experience of ISE and our partners in fragile-state development assistance reform, as well as extensive consultation and document review, we conducted four country case studies (Afghanistan, Colombia, Rwanda, and Somalia) looking at what had in practice enabled or obstructed behavior change. Five areas emerged as particularly significant for driving incentives and behavior:

  1. Coherent national strategies;
  2. Aligning donor incentives to the goals of fragile state development;
  3. Investing in human capital and leadership throughout the system;
  4. Following through on implementation and accountability; and
  5. Whole of society approaches that support broad-based buy-in.

Our research shows that in some of the most fragile countries in the world, there are ways that actors on both sides of the development handshake have moved towards more country-driven, transparent, holistic, and long-term practice. As governments move to quickly put in place COVID-19 response and recovery policies and packages, making use of smart development practices is acutely important. Recommendations for fulfilling promises for effective development (the report outlines 29 examples) are pertinent to governments working to manage crises like this one. Some can be applied now to strengthen efforts in the current crisis, while others will help mitigate the next:

Framing the agenda in terms of mutual interest – In both policy and rhetoric, donor governments have been pulling back from international development support. However, this crisis shows just how interlinked the health, institutional resiliency, stability, and development of countries are to one another. Language and arguments that clarify for the public, the media, and political actors how international assistance is mutually beneficial can help build the patience and confidence needed to support the long partnership required to transition out of fragility. Supporting the development of sustainable national institutions that can provide for their citizens, deliver economic development, sustain peace, and prevent the spread of disease is not charity, it’s for our collective health and interests. These are messages both donors and governments can more strategically deploy now.

Enable national programmes that collaborate with communities and can scale delivery – As this pandemic has reminded us, communities are the first responders in any crisis. Governments all over the world, not just fragile countries, are struggling to resource the immediate response and the longer-term socio-economic recovery. Community-driven development (CDD)­­­ programs provide governments an immediate link to communities to disperse information, supplies, and relief, and empower communities to work together to identify and respond to critical development and health priorities, in efficient, country-led ways. CDD programs are responding to COVID-19 in rural communities, in countries from Bangladesh to Sierra Leone, by setting up hand-washing stations, making masks, promoting preventative measures, pooling funds for food stocks, and more. Indeed, ISE is working with the Movement for Community Led Development to collect data on how CDD programs are responding to COVID-19. Governments can work with existing CDD networks and facilitation processes to expedite and expand COVID-19 response efforts, as well as test and build citizen buy-in to response measures.

Invest in the education and training of cadres of leaders and managers – Development assistance often relies on the presence of effective leadership at the very top, and technical assistance for specific sectoral and program outputs. However, effective development and governance requires dispersed leadership to manage the teams of people who implement policies and programs, encourage sustained effort in the face of huge odds, find quick solutions to emerging problems, and support one another in their responsibilities despite changing politics or conditions. Assistance that recognizes and invests in the roles and skills of these managers and mid-level leaders is key to implementing a long-term development agenda, and to responding to a pandemic. Making this kind of investment will help better position governments for future crises.

As these examples demonstrate, fragile state development – and fulfilling stalled commitments for more effective development practice and partnership – should not be a distant thought during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the report on Re-Examining the Terms of Aid reveals, it is deeply relevant, to our response to the current global crisis, and to preventing the next. Finally addressing incentives, changing behavior, and living up to these promises was critical before, but the need – and the opportunity – to make this real change is ever more pressing now.

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