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Public Administration in Fragile States

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
April 16, 2018

David Cameron, former Prime Minister of the U.K, recently testified before the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate on the subject of aid to fragile states.

For the past year, Cameron has chaired the U.K.’s Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development. The Commission’s website includes this information:

“Currently, 65 million people have fled their homes, becoming either internally displaced or refugees – the highest number since 1945. This is not due to one particular crisis, but reflects a widespread and persistent phenomenon: many states are fragile, and periodically some melt down into violent disorder.”

Here are some of the main points in Cameron’s testimony:

*Overview: There is a set of countries with weak governments, high levels of conflict and very severe poverty.

*Why it matters: Well off, developed countries cannot escape the byproducts of fragile states such as mass migration, pandemics and the export of terrorism. Cameron also sees aid to fragile states as a moral issue for well-off countries.

*Distribution of fragile states: Fragile states exist on every continent. Many are in Africa but Haiti and Venezuela are considered fragile states. Fragile states are often geographically close to successful states. Botswana, for example, is doing well but Zimbabwe is not. Columbia is doing well but Venezuela is not. Although some countries like Rwanda have moved off the fragile list, the number of fragile states is increasing.

*Underlying cause: There is no single cause of fragility. The causes are interrelated. Lack of security causes a poor market economy. A poor market economy causes lack of tax revenue. Lack of tax revenue causes a lack of government capability. Lack of government capability leads to conflict. Conflict leads to lack of security and lack of government legitimacy for half the population. Cameron also mentions that corruption and poor decisionmaking by leaders in fragile states contributes to the problem.

*Fragility and extreme poverty: These are separate issues. India and China still have large numbers of people living in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than two dollars per day) but these countries are making good progress against extreme poverty and are not fragile states. Soon, fragile states will have 50 percent of the world’s extreme poverty.

*Conflict/Constitutions/Elections: Cameron argues that rushing to write constitutions and conduct elections can be counterproductive in fragile states. Sometimes, an election is held and it is the only election. Democracy does not take hold because the underlying conflicts are not resolved. He is not saying we should be anti-elections, but we must recognize you can’t go from Afghanistan to Demark at 100 miles an hour.

*Corruption: Corruption in a huge problem in fragile states – especially those with substantial mineral wealth. In many cases, the leaders of fragile states steal money and hide the money in advanced states. Cameron wants greater transparency. Each country needs an asset registry so people can trace money flows. There is a need to return assets to some countries. Billions have been stolen. The amounts stolen materially affect the well being of people in fragile states.

*Need to work with individual states: We must work with individual states – not regions. Some regions such as the Sahel in Africa do have multiple, fragile states. But we must help individual countries such as Mali and Niger to become more capable and legitimate. Trying to go around governing authorities is not an effective approach. These governments need to be able to collect taxes, have a functioning court system, provide services such as security, education, infrastructure, health care, licensing departments, etc. Legitimacy can be only be achieved if the government can provide basic services that people expect.

*Investment Philosophy: If you define aid success by potential return on investment for big projects, you will not select fragile states for investment. The small, fragile states are the ones that need help the most. Cameron especially favors investment in small and medium-size enterprises. Fragile states are very lacking in this area.

*Progress: Some states have made progress and are no longer fragile states. Rwanda and Botswana are examples. Countries do better if they have a plan and execute that plan rather than have a plan imposed on them from the outside. Those that have a “national story” do better than those that try to carve up assets for various internal groups.

*Policy conditionality vs. governance conditionality: Cameron believes it is futile to tie too many policy requirements to international aid. It is unrealistic to think a fragile state can transform itself into a country like Denmark – a country considered a model of stability. He recommends instead that donors insist on governance conditionality – that the aid not be wasted or stolen. If governance is really bad and a country misuses the money year after year, Cameron suggests we should not help such countries.

It seems like those of us in the well-off countries are sometimes too preoccupied with public administration issues that occur in well-off countries. We forget the true range of public administration. Public administration is going on in fragile and failed states just as much as it is in successful, high-income states.


Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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