A recent report published by the UK-based LSE-Oxford Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development headed by former British Prime Minister David Cameron has called for paying greater attention to delivering basic security and jobs in states affected by conflicts and instability. Titled 'Escaping the fragility trap', it argues that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be reached unless international donors stop asserting their own unrealistic priorities and instead take a more pragmatic and patient approach towards addressing the syndrome of fragility observed in countries like Bangladesh.
The report claims that despite huge strides in reducing extreme poverty by half over the previous three decades as well as improving indicators like child mortality, school enrolment, access to clean drinking water and vaccinations, almost 900 million people still live on less than 2.0 dollars a day and progress remains stuck in many of the world's poorest countries. Against this backdrop, state fragility propels some of the biggest maladies in the present-day world including extreme poverty, mass migration, terrorism, and trafficking.
According to the report, increasing numbers of people are living in fragile states today, which would account for half of the world's poor by 2030. These states are blighted by conflicts and corruption, where the governments lack the legitimacy and capacity to deliver jobs, public services and opportunities the people need. The characteristics of fragility, as highlighted by this report, include the absence of basic security, inadequate government capacity, dearth of a properly functioning private sector, and the existence of divided communities. The wider consequences of fragility have been explored by the report, as state fragility not only condemns people to poverty but also impacts on the wider world by driving mass migration, safe havens for piracy and trafficking, as well as proliferation of terrorist training camps. The report opines that if international assistance and economic growth are to succeed in making the world safer and prosperous, the fragility syndrome must be addressed first in the vulnerable countries.
The report supports mainly domestic solutions to such fragility, which may be slow and strong, but more likely to last longer. "Home-grown solutions and locally negotiated coalitions of governments, businesses, and civil society are the things that will make well-designed international support more likely to be effective", it asserts. Therefore, international actors like the donor countries, aid agencies, the United Nations, development finance institutions as well as security forces and non-government organisations (NGOs) need to do things differently by learning from past mistakes based on evidences collected over the years. On top of everything, long lists of unachievable objectives and unrealistic timetables should be shunned, and the international actors should work with the governments instead of around them.
The domestic actors, including governments, political parties, the mass media, and civil society, should also do things differently with emphasis on greater respect and responsibility. This will bear fruit only if the national priorities on where they are going as a country and who or what they aim to be are clearly spelt out. Ownership of these priorities by the actors concerned, undertaking remedial measures by learning from mistakes, combating corruption and other unethical practices, and remaining accountable to the citizenry are all vital ingredients in this endeavour.
The report recommends a new approach for addressing state fragility and providing international aid. Simple steps that bring jobs and security are considered to be more important than, for example, setting national targets for tackling inequality and climate change. It calls for international assistance to help fragile states build legitimate and capable institutions. It also dwells on how the rush to elections before genuine reconciliation and consensus building impacts on the fragile states, and ponders whether there are moments of potential change when international assistance can make significant differences.
Although the report acknowledges the importance of genuinely inclusive and participatory democracy, it asserts that the rule of law, checks and balances, gender equality, protection of minorities etc., that are considered to be building blocks of democracy, matter as much as the holding of elections. These building blocks may be even more important for states trying to find a way out of fragility. The SDGs, including the crucial coalescing of environmental and economic objectives, have also been supported by the report. Developed countries have a critical role to play in this work, and the agenda spelt out by the 2013 Group of Eight (G8) Summit - greater transparency, establishing registers of beneficial ownership, sharing tax information, returning stolen assets, and combating corruption in all its forms - is considered to be indispensable by it.
The types of actions that are required to transform fragile states, such as mending fractured societies, building effective institutions, or increasing the quality of governance in places where the basic contract between the state and the individual is often absent cannot be carried forward in straightforward manner. But the risks of failure are higher in fragile states compared to other countries. It is however imperative that such attempts are made, because the consequences of failure may be graver for the wider world, the report cautions.
Citing the example of Singapore, the report says that the country looked extremely fragile when it seceded from the Malaya Federation. But today, it is one of the richest countries in the world. Similarly, over two decades ago, up to a million Rwandan citizens were butchered in 100 days; but today it is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Colombia was racked by drugs, death squads, and guerrilla war even a decade ago. Now, it has become a model for reconciliation. The reality is, wealth is being stolen from the poor countries and hidden in the West in many instances. The developed countries therefore have a moral obligation to play a critical role in this onerous task of transforming the fragile states.
One vital point missed by the LSE-Oxford Commission on State Fragility has been the tendency of powerful countries to promote regimes of their choice at the expense of denying the right of common citizens to choose their own leaders. But reflection of the people's will is a sine-qua-non for any democracy. If that is violated through various mechanisms as observed in fragile states, the governments in power do not feel accountable to the people; rather their accountability shifts to their external patrons. This short-term ad-hoc mentality of the powerful nations cannot augur well for flourishing of democracy and accountability in the developing world. It is more likely to fuel further unrest and fragility in these nations as well as breed long-term hostility towards the external patrons of unpopular regimes.