Revisiting Statebuilding in the Hardest Places

Jonathan Papoulidis
January 19, 2022

Over a decade ago, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) declared that statebuilding was the central objective of international engagement in fragile contexts. Statebuilding was defined, not as a technocratic exercise to strengthen formal institutions and bureaucracies based on Western blueprints, but as “an endogenous process to strengthen state institutions, capacities and legitimacy driven by state-society relations.”

With an emphasis on state-society relations, statebuilding was meant to promote more inclusive and peaceful political settlements and ensure the state was responsive to societal needs and expectations, including for the most vulnerable populations.

Despite the central importance of this objective, the OECD and its group of major donors––the Development Assistance Committee (DAC)—struggled to chart a way forward owing in part to the lack of a “convincing” theory of change to guide these efforts.

This piece argues that the aid community’s recent turn to a “fragility to resilience” paradigm can provide a new direction for statebuilding in the hardest places.

Seizing this moment is key. Even before COVID-19, a staggering 80% of the world’s extreme poor were estimated to live in fragile contexts by 2030—the endpoint of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With the onset of the global pandemic, increasing conflicts and deepening climate change, fragile countries are at the center of the global development crisis.

The aid community often delivers assistance through short-term community projects, humanitarian relief and scattered technical assistance to ministries. However, there is simply no alternative than to support the role of states in contributing to the resilience of their societies, markets, institutions, and political settlements over time.

Moving these efforts forward will require a new “multilateralism in action” to reenergize the statebuilding agenda within the broader aid community.

Statebuilding and the Problem of Sequencing

Earlier debates on how international partners could best support statebuilding in fragile contexts were concerned with identifying the right priorities and sequences to support critical state functions. Some experts called for linear sequencing approaches. These started with political settlements and state “survival functions” like security, the rule of law, taxation and basic administrative capacity. They were followed by socially “expected functions” like basic services, social protection and management of the economy.

Partners argued over the merits of a linear approach to statebuilding in dynamic contexts. Instead of sequencing, some proposed the need to tackle mutually reinforcing priorities at the same time, like political settlements, economic management and basic services through a gradualist approach. Others embraced sequencing but argued that conflict factors required a security first approach versus starting with support for a viable political settlement. Still others countered that without promoting a basic political settlement, aid resources for security reform could be misappropriated by ruling elites and fuel further conflict.

Concerns over conflict factors demonstrated that a predetermined sequence of statebuilding reforms could not settle questions in a contextual vacuum on whether security or political settlements reform offered the most promising entry point for partners in a fragile context.

Complicating matters was the fact that fragility presents multiple, overlapping risks that statebuilding approaches must manage or overcome. These include conflict but also disasters, extreme poverty, price shocks, rapid urbanization, and disease outbreaks.

The OECD helped to draw attention to risks as a major focus area for statebuilding in its definition of fragility––as a combination of higher risks and insufficient coping capacities of states, systems and communities to address these risks across political, economic, societal, environmental and security dimensions.

Toward a Concept of Resilient Statebuilding

Since fragile contexts have imbalances of higher risks and lower coping capacities, statebuilding approaches, to be effective, need to be guided by a close understanding of context-specific risks and how they combine to disrupt state functions and the broader development agenda.

From there, statebuilding needs to prioritize and strengthen those state institutions and capacities that could help societies and markets to cope with looming risks and crises, including through state-led social safety nets, as well as promote more resilient and inclusive political settlements.

Although international partners have focused on poverty reduction, peace operations, good governance, and economic growth as pathways for supporting fragile states out of their predicament, there is increasing justification for why resilience should guide statebuilding approaches. Despite common assumptions, today’s most advanced economies and peaceful societies—which “where fragile states for most of their historical trajectories”—were not the result of accelerated growth periods, but of greater resilience to major crises and setbacks. At the same time, many low-income fragile states have had surprisingly high growth episodes only to be undone by low resilience to conflicts and disasters. Resilience has also been highlighted as the best means of conflict prevention.

This resilience lens is precisely what was lacking from earlier aid debates on statebuilding. Both the OECD and DAC donors had envisioned processes to support “resilient states” that could ultimately “manage and adapt to changing social needs and expectations, shifts in elite and other political agreements, and growing institutional complexity.” However, resilient assessments and frameworks were not prominent in aid discourse at the time and did not figure into policy guidance for statebuilding beyond considering resilient states as a normative goal.

The Emerging Fragility to Resilience Paradigm and Call for Multilateral Action

With the emerging shift to “fragility to resilience” paradigm in the aid community, there is a key opportunity to advance the concept of resilient statebuilding. The OECD, World Bank, United Nations, International Monetary Fund, as well as the African and Asian Development Banks have variously developed resilient assessments, strategies, frameworks and dedicated resources to support fragility to resilience transitions. These outputs can help to revisit earlier statebuilding guidance and approaches through a resilience lens and forge new partnerships for collective action and financing on this front.

A high-level multilateral convening through the OECD DAC, the UN High-level Political Forum or the World Bank’s Fragility Forum or Annual Meetings could help rally donors, multilateral institutions, experts, implementing partners, civil society, and host governments around an agenda for moving forward. The UN Security Council’s recent debate on statebuilding made several references to resilience and could help galvanize UN entities to the table, building on previous work by UNDP and others in this space.

The OECD’s International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding has an existing constituency of g7+ fragile states, civil society and donors that could be brought to the table. The New Deal between the 7+ and donors itself calls for greater use of country systems alongside assessments of fragility features and resources for resilience, which together lend to a focus on resilient statebuilding.

With the shift to a resilience approach to fragile contexts amongst multilateral and major donors, there is an opportunity to bring new insights, lessons, and approaches to the earlier vision of resilient statebuilding to help those in the hardest places. The time to act is now.

About the Author

Jonathan Papoulidis is a Columbia World Projects Fellow and he serves as Global Director for Fragility and Resilience at Food for the Hungry. He previously served with the United Nations, including as UN Coordinator for Aceh and UN Security Coordinator for Sumatra, Indonesia, with UN Peacekeeping in Liberia, as OCHA representative in Turkey and with the UN at headquarters. He has a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge. Connect with him on Twitter @jpapoulidis or LinkedIn jonathan.papoulidis.

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.