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Opinion

Time to Lead on Improving Fragile States

January 11, 2012

JENNIFER ERIN SALAHUB

Embassy Magazine

As Afghanistan continues to teach Canadians, development is different in fragile states. War and other conflicts, coupled with weak health, education, and political institutions, exacerbate the typical challenges of creating economic growth, human security, and functioning government. Experience in Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, and other countries teaches us that interventions led by outsiders often do more harm than good.

Late last month, in Busan, South Korea, as part of the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, a group of 19 fragile states took on an unprecedented leadership role in reversing the trend of outsider-led development assistance and in so doing created a significant opportunity for Canada to reclaim a leadership role in global affairs.

The fragile states group, known as the g7+, and a number of supportive international aid donors—Canada among them—endorsed a set of principles to guide how they work together known as the New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States.

It aims to reframe political and financial structures with a focus on accountability, transparency, and results. The logic behind this new approach is that peace and development will be more sustainable if the people affected are leading the process.

Why should Canadians care about this?

First, Canada has an interest in creating and maintaining global peace and security. Creating more resilient states that can cope with political unrest, economic shocks, or natural disasters leads to a more stable and secure world for Canada and Canadians, including Canada’s increasingly connected business community.

Second, the way the fragile states’ new deal will be implemented creates an opportunity for Canada to translate its existing experience in aid effectiveness and risk management into a leadership role on the world stage.

Indeed, Canada’s 2009-12 Aid Effectiveness Action Plan commits Canada to delivering more aid through existing systems in fragile states, as well as improving aid predictability and transparency.

Canada is thus well placed to lead in implementing the new deal in one of three pilot countries that are priorities for Canadian development assistance and where Canada has an established relationship: Afghanistan, South Sudan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Third, focusing on fragile states—those countries that have made the least progress toward meeting the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals—presents an opportunity to do some good internationally. This initiative focuses on creating a better life for the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

Caution: work ahead

Of course, opportunities are often accompanied by challenges. If Canada is keen to maximize the potential of this moment it will need to overcome several obstacles.

Chief among them is the way government departments work—or, rather, don’t work—together.

Many donors have been working toward creating a cohesive “whole of government approach” to engaging with developing countries. The point of that is to create more effective and efficient interaction with developing countries to meet not only their development and humanitarian assistance needs but also provide political, security, and economic support—which are the responsibility of departments other than the aid agency.

However, more often than not, pressing political and security needs are prioritized over development in fragile states.

If Canada wants to successfully support the g7+ new deal and its focus on development, it will have to reconsider the way it has been engaging in countries like Afghanistan.

In order to make the new deal a success, Canada will need to be quicker about integrating into its processes the lessons it is learning from working in Afghanistan, Haiti, South Sudan, and other fragile states.

One key tenet of the initiative is to use compacts, mutually agreed obligations for the use of aid, as the primary means to implement plans to transition out of fragility. Afghanistan’s compact has had a rocky history and Canada would be wise to reflect on that experience before committing to future compacts.

Finally—and this is no simple task—Canada will need to find a way to reconcile the decades-long time horizon that fragile states require to establish even basic governance mechanisms with the political cycle of four to five years here at home.

One part of that equation is accepting that these countries will require predictable, sustained engagement for 10 to 20 years. The other part is developing a mechanism by which commitments made by one government will not be rejected by a subsequent one.

Failure to do so will only serve to undermine Canada’s contribution and risk plunging fragile states back towards fragility and the poverty and conflict that usually comes with it. However, if Canada is able to be innovative and strategically learn from its past experiences, then it just might become a shining example of how to help make investments in global peace and security yield results for both Canadians and those living much less comfortable lives in fragile states.

Jennifer Erin Salahub is the senior researcher and head of The North-South Institute’s Fragile and Conflict-affected States research program.