Fragile situations: Operational implications


Summary recommendations

Partner countries and donors need to invest in improving their understanding of capacity and capacity development

The evidence presented above indicates that there is considerable demand for more clarity on what capacity is and how it develops. The trend is to look at capacity development as more than a technical fix and to capture its non-technical elements such as human relations, trust and legitimacy not only at the level of individuals but also organizations and states. In addition, the context of statebuilding in fragile situations requires a sophisticated understanding of political processes, patterns of state-society relations and sources of legitimacy.

Such an approach to capacity development will put demands on both country partners and donors. It implies a higher level of contextual analysis, more direct monitoring and supervision for learning purposes, more experimentation, more attention to coordination and facilitation, more time for crafting strategies, and more focus on developing and managing a complex range of relationships. Bringing these skills up to reasonable levels will require significant donor investment in indirect support and involvement, such as coaching and mentoring.  

A broader definition of capacity development will also create pressure on donors to play a variety of different roles depending on the context, such as facilitator, protector, political analyst, technical adviser and implementer. Aspects of donor policy may need rethinking, for example, what kind of “results” – both tangible and intangible - should be expected from capacity development activities. Similarly, donor practice may need to change to ensure better analysis of the political economy including such issues as political control in fragile states and the identification of attempts at state capture. Not only will developing contextual knowledge be challenging but so will be keeping it up to date, as recommended by the Monitoring Survey (OECD/DAC 2010c p 35). Conventional aid tools and techniques may have to be adapted, such as approaches to planning, implementation and monitoring.  Both country partners and donors will have to find the right balance between support and direction and learn to make interventions at the appropriate moment.

Both country partners and donors need to invest in ways to better support capacity development in new and on-going programming

Capacity development in complex systems such as most fragile or post-conflict states can be guided and influenced by constant adaptation and communications but not “planned” in a conventional sense (Morgan 2010 p 38).  The Sierra Leone case cited above illustrates how emergent activities might evolve, without the usual planning mechanism. It is often best to start small and to build on national or regional solutions rather than to import solutions.  Experience suggests that many activities aim too high and can be the enemy of “good enough” approaches (Brinkerhoff 2009 p 1).

Building on the positive is likely to be a more empowering approach for country partners than simply assessing gaps and weaknesses.  Thus, identifying  the centres of excellence left in a fragile situation and building on their skills is often a better way of supporting capacity than trying to set up entirely new structures.

National capacity development plans are often seen as the way to provide coherence to activities.  However, because of the lack of common understanding of what is capacity and how to develop it, such plans tend to lack focus. An alternative is a unit for strategic direction which would include technical management, policy advocacy and a forum for aid coordination on capacity issues (Morgan 2010 p 66).  It could also act as a communication device and a way to keep a group of different actors moving in the same general direction. The key objective would be to develop the capability of the government to manage national processes of CD, including analysis of what has worked in the past in terms of capacity development, coaching TA and national management on appropriate roles, and  helping to develop project and program proposals based on national priorities and national experience with capacity development.

Use dilemma analyses to help understand the complexities  of capacity development in fragile situations

Because of the frequency of dilemmas and trade offs in fragile situations, developing a better understanding of what they are helps to create more realistic expectations of what can be achieved as well as the extent to which donors can effect significant change in any society.  Trade-offs are situations where lessening one problem inevitably diminishes a desirable quality or worsens an existing problem. A dilemma is a trade off where the situation remains negative whichever option is chosen, as the alternatives available are unsatisfactory (Pollitt and Bouckaert 2004 p 162).  The box below suggests one way of improving the understanding of dilemmas and tradeoffs.

Doing a Dilemma Analysis

A dilemma analysis done prior to and during an activity might consist of the following questions:

  • To what extent, and exactly how, might capacity development trade-offs or dilemmas manifest themselves in a given operation?
  • What are the particular features of the local context that make it more or less likely that certain trade-offs or dilemmas will become particularly problematic?
  • What are the underlying tensions or “drivers” of the anticipated trade-offs or dilemmas?
  • How might each interact with, or give rise to, others?
  • Which of the anticipated trade-offs or dilemmas has the potential to be most problematic, and why?

(Based on Paris and Sisk, pgs 310-311)

Taking Afghanistan as an example[1], an analysis would likely identify the tradeoff between the need for security to allow development activities to take place vs the need for economic activities such as employment creation to provide alternatives to militant activities for young men.  The growing instability in the Pakistan government and the withdrawal from Afghanistan of the security forces supplied by countries such as Canada may make this tradeoff more acute.  Growing concern among donors about corruption in the Afghan government serves as a driver to address the security-development dilemma but might also lead to further troop withdrawals, creating new dilemmas.

Look for ways to minimize the numbers of foreign technical assistance personnel but, where they are necessary, provide them clear direction on expectations in reference to capacity development

Foreign technical assistance has its place, but it needs to be used sparingly and in such a way that phasing it out will not create major disruptions, as are anticipated in Sierra Leone.  It needs a more strategic focus so that the personnel involved can better contribute to capacity goals. All TA, both international and national, need guidance on how the country partner and the donors conceptualize capacity and capacity development and the role that the TA are expected to play. It is also important to provide coaching to TA personnel on processes, especially those with little background in facilitation, coaching and related skills.

TAs are often provided because they can be hired more easily than additional qualified national staff. Improved administrative processes to allow flexible reallocation of resources, restructuring and re-staffing as recommended by the Monitoring of the Principles Survey (OECD/DAC 2010c p 35)would help to avoid using donor-funded programs as a way of bypassing cumbersome government processes.

The rise in the use of African regional TA is an encouraging innovation which reduces costs although donors need to avoid sucking existing capacity out of government organizations. The extreme shortage of trained people in many fragile and post-conflict states may in the medium term require saturation training - special efforts to train large numbers.  The return on training, although long-term, can be significant as a recent report on leadership in the Pacific demonstrates.  Of the leaders interviewed, the vast majority were university educated, largely outside their home countries. About half had benefitted from a scholarship.  Views of the countries supplying the scholarships tended to be favourable (Hanson 2010 pp 6 -7).

Find better and more effective methods to coordinate

It is critical to reduce overlap and fragmentation among development activities in fragile situations such as Haiti where there are 20,000 organizations involved in the rehabilitation post-earthquake.  Multi-donor approaches are an important mechanism for addressing such fragmentation.  Donors intending to support large capacity development activities should normally channel these through the sector working group or thematic group on capacity development in the country as a means of assessing the relevance, feasibility and effectiveness of the activity.  In the absence of such a group, donors should take steps to put one in place and to designate one agency as the lead.  Such a group can provide a forum to exchange among donors and to get feed-back from stakeholders.  The bulk of funding should go through multi-donor financing mechanisms, which require donors and country partners to develop a common vision.  

Alignment and harmonization are difficult when the country does not offer a clear vision of where it wants to go, as is often the case in fragile and post-conflict countries.  In the short run, the alternative may have to be to develop a joint understanding among donors of the opportunities and constraints in the current situation (EuropeAid 2010 p 13)and to work over time to develop a common understanding with key leaders within the partner country.

Develop better approaches to monitoring and evaluation of capacity

The text above suggests the need for flexibility in capacity development programs. This in turn implies the need for real time information on what is happening, whether the right results are being achieved, what is unexpected and what are the patterns. Open and rapid feedback loops allow this information to feed into organizations that can then adapt their strategies to changing conditions.  To make this work in the field, there also needs to be flexible financing, perhaps through two levels of funding: an overall funding envelope for activities within a generally defined framework and second pot that funds a series of short-term efforts adapted to the changing context.

The difficulty of monitoring and evaluating the results of their efforts to develop capacity, in large part because of the vagueness of the concept, is encouraging some international partners to turn their attention away from capacity issues. In addition to developing clarity about what capacity is as discussed above, it is urgent to develop better M&E methods. Most current systems are based on results chains of inputs, outputs, outcomes and impact and emphasize performance metrics. They are not adapted to capturing emergent change in complex systems and especially the more strategic and intangible aspects of capacity such as legitimacy, sustainability, coherence, and management of change. They also do not put much emphasis on what happens within the population of the partner country, versus what happens in the workplan. There are some existing methods of M&E which allow these issues to be addressed. Approaches such as developmental evaluation which combines monitoring and evaluation to provide participants with a rolling story over the course of program implementation deserve more attention. The different nature of this kind of evaluation compared to more traditional approaches is demonstrated by the timelines for activities shown in the charts below (Gamble 2008 p 31).

Traditional evaluation:  
Plan >>>>>>>>>>>>   Act >>>>>>>>>>>>   Evaluate >>>>>>>>>>>>

Development evaluation:
Plan  >>>>>>>>>>>>
Act  >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
Evaluate >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Much reporting as it is currently conceived is focused on accountability which is important but does not necessarily serve the purpose of providing information for immediate management decisions. Because systems focusing on complex change use different parameters than the current results-based management approaches, it may be advisable to have two parallel systems - one focusing on accountability using a higher level of external participation and another on learning, using more local staff.

Support leadership for capacity development

It is usually leaders, elites and coalitions who shape change. The question then is how to identify the conditions, factors and incentives that could help to induce elite groups to focus on developmental goals rather than predatory ones. International actors need more familiarity with the agendas that drive these groups to understand the various sources of authority that leaders bring to the process of change and particularly to capacity development.

Leadership can be found elsewhere than in the top level of the formal systems of government and civil society. Informal leaders can play an important role as can leadership in the middle levels of public sector organizations. The analysis of the roles of leaders at all levels should be a part of the assessment of country context and particularly the relations between state and society.

Informal networks are critical in fragile situations. The quality of relationships among key people are often the key to whether or not their efforts to support or develop capacity succeed.  Donors can usefully help convene and strengthen such networks.

Ensure that activities undertaken reinforce rather than undermine the legitimacy of the state

Many capacity interventions in fragile situations give little attention to ensuring that they have legitimacy or that efforts are made to maintain legitimacy over the course of the program. Unless stakeholders see activities and the organizations supporting them as legitimate, these interventions are unlikely to thrive and may have adverse effects. In keeping with the adage of “do no harm”, international actors must be careful to neither ‘de-legitimize’ groups and individuals with whom they work nor legitimize people with unhelpful agendas. This means avoiding having the “wrong” people, such as criminal groups, take ownership and control for their own purposes such as rent seeking.  A good knowledge of the context and an understanding of the political situation can be helpful in avoiding such pitfalls.   

It is also important to design programs with governments in a way that citizens see the activities as government services, thus reinforcing both ownership and state legitimacy (Gamble 2008 p 31). International actors also need to be conscious of the degree to which their own struggles for legitimacy with domestic audiences can undermine efforts at legitimacy at the country end, for example, by branding activities in the name of the donor.

In conflict-affected states like Iraq and Afghanistan, the struggle to establish the legitimacy of the state is at least a big a challenge for both military and civilians in the country as the actual war effort.  Military and civilian efforts to strengthen the state overlap and they need to be mutually reinforcing (Andy Tamas, personal communication).

Operational implications for general AAA objectives

AAA Challenge - Importance of country ownership (para 8)

Determining where there is country ownership and how long it is likely to last is more difficult in fragile situations than in other developing countries because of the fluidity of the context. The Multi-Stakeholder Consultations on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding identified, for example, a lack of shared vision for change that is based on consultations with citizens and civil society in the countries involved. Combined with this, the countries concerned had many overlapping plans and the alignment of donors behind one unified national plan was weak (OECD/DAC 2010i p 8).  This kind of context makes for more transient ownership and emphasizes the importance of asking questions such as: Whose ownership is at play? Why does this person or group exhibit ownership? How long is it likely to last? Is the existing level of ownership adequate to allow the organization or country to commit to change?

Ownership requires tapping into local energy and initiatives, working with national goals and within national systems and helping country partners develop political bargains with some level of inclusive power-sharing. This will involve compromises between different economic and political interests to create stabilizing bargains which do not prejudice longer term further statebuilding. “It is neither realistic nor effective to develop lists of what the donors want imposed on unwilling or non-receptive organizations” (OECD/DAC 2010p p 7)but where there is political commitment and a willingness to move ahead, progress can be fast.  Within two years, for example, the principal governance structures were in place in Southern Sudan including government ministries, the civil service and 10 state governments and county administrations. Basic planning, budgeting and financial management systems were also established.

AAA Challenge  - Building more effective and inclusive partnerships (para 9)

Building relationships with country partners and developing an in-depth understanding of the context take time. Field operations may have to be structured and incentives put in place to allow international partners to take on these functions.  A good example of partnership is the security sector reform in Sierra Leone which benefitted from considerable continuity of knowledgeable UK expatriate staff who were able to develop a trusting partnership and hence play a role as external catalysts for change (Jackson and Albrecht p 9).

In any situation, there is always something to build on rather than looking primarily for the gaps and weaknesses.  Finding strengths empowers country partners and encourages engagement and partnerships.  Strength-based approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry are useful here.

AAA Challenge - Achieving development results and openly accounting for them (para 10)

In fragile states, working where there are opportunities for feasible interventions generally  has the most chance of success. This may mean, at least initially, identifying what is feasible and what has partner support rather than what may be the first priority in the eyes of donors.  Success and the resulting trust established will hopefully open up windows of opportunity for addressing other issues later on. 

Such an approach may mean doing visible things like installing power lines, getting water supplies up and running, rehabilitating school buildings, and supplying medications. In the background, it is  also critical to support the less obvious, long term process of helping to create sustainable and credible institutions, without which power lines, water supplies and schools are unlikely to be built or maintained.  As discussed above, different approaches to M&E may be required to adequately capture these kinds of results.

In some post-conflict situations, the society may want to address serious issues which could not be addressed in normal times. The window to do this is often quite short and donors and country partners need flexibility to be able to take action quickly.  It may not be feasible to expect that interventions at these times will follow the multi-donor approach. Small activities financed by individual donors can be useful as pilots to be expanded later by a larger group of donors.

Operational implications for steps proposed in the AAA to improve aid effectiveness (para 21)

Action agreed in the AAA - Do joint donor-country assessments of governance and capacity

Assessments need to go beyond looking at the gap between present capacity and what is desirable to what is feasible in the context, including a realistic assessment of the time required. The level of ambition should take into account the trauma of war which increases uncertainty and risks and makes people look for quick returns, including rents.

Action agreed in the AAA - Agree to a set of realistic peace- and statebuilding objectives

The Southern Sudan exercise cited above underlines the importance of focusing on a few main activities so as not to overwhelm the limited capacity of the system.  Each donor needs to consider the sum total of on-going and foreseen interventions compared to the capacity of the state and non-state actors to absorb the assistance.  Too much aid can create disincentives for countries to address their own problems and to increase revenues through better tax collection.  In addition, when there are many large activities being planned, there is a greater tendency to use parallel implementation structures (EuropeAid 2010 p 6)such as project implementation units.

PIUs have serious disadvantages such as their tendency to marginalize and disempower government ministries, reduce ownership, and even block the transfer of authorities to decentralized field units of line ministries.  They reinforce salary differentials with government, create delivery structures that are unsustainable and tend to self-perpetuate themselves. The basic design and behavior of a PIU does not encourage capacity development. That said, decision makers often are not interested in reducing PIUs for fear such a move would damage or weaken delivery (Morgan 2009b pp 9, 13, 14).  This implies that the large number of PIUs is not likely to diminish soon unless the incentives for development projects change away from emphasis on short-term results to longer-term development of capacity.

It is easier to transition from one phase of activities to another if there is some understanding of the sequencing of activities required. During the phase of humanitarian aid and peacebuilding, it is, for example, important to prepare for the development assistance to follow.  This is when country leaders and experts should be identified able to take over from the international community and lead the transition process.  These could be either inside the country or in the diaspora.

In many fragile contexts, capacity is addressed primarily through the lens of government instead of society as a whole.   Although civil society can be politicized and suffer from lack of resources, it has potential to contribute to the development of capacity, especially in areas where it has had a long-standing role.

Although South-South solutions can be appropriate, many of the lessons from the experience over the last 4 decades with technical assistance from the North to the South are worth taking into account –minimize the numbers of TA, avoid bypassing national structures, and ensure that TAs focus as much as possible on building local capacity. 

Action agreed in the AAA - Provide demand-driven, tailored and co-ordinated capacity development support

The demand side is often much less developed in fragile states because of the vulnerable position of many demanders – individuals, civil society organizations, market –based institutions and community groups.  Country partners may require more help in articulating their needs than in many developing countries.

Tailored or customized solutions require more involvement by international partners and hence more emphasis by staff in the field on understanding the culture and context. Scenario planning is useful for exploring different possible responses to evolving problems.

Action agreed in the AAA - Work on flexible, rapid and long-term funding modalities

As noted, both partner countries and donors need the flexibility and imagination to respond to the variety of needs and opportunities that fragile and post-conflict states present. This requires new roles and new mechanisms to support them such as outlined in the INCAF document on Transition Financing (OECD 2010q). Multi-donor trust funds such as in Afghanistan, Liberia, DRC, South Sudan and Timor Leste, have resulted in better coordinated aid. MDTFs specifically for capacity development could be useful.

A word of caution is needed here.  All organizations have limited staff time and trade-offs among activities are required. The aid coordination time required to set up and manage MDTFs is considerable and competes with other activities, such as building the relationships between donors and country partners required to ensure successful identification and implementation of other programs. The capacity of stakeholder organizations to perform essential tasks like relationship building should be considered before deciding on the most appropriate funding mechanisms.  Otherwise there is a real risk that activities will founder during the implementation phase. 

Action agreed in the AAA - Monitor implementation of the Principles

The Fragile States Principles Monitoring Surveyof 2010 suggest that many changes are required to improve the impact of capacity development activities in fragile situations. Excessive focus on central governments has, for example, resulted in relative neglect of legislatures, the judiciary and local governments, thus creating asymmetric development. International interventions including expatriate technical assistance and salary top ups have often encouraged brain drain from government departments. Donors have also made undue demands on limited local capacity (OECD/DAC 2010a pp 23-24).