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Improved negotiations between unequal partners

Volker Hauck | 05 November 2013

Given the lessons on how to escape from fragility and stated attempts to work differently, as set out in the New Deal, the predictions in  Seth Kaplan’s analysis that business will continue as usual appears too negative and one-sided. Donors want to see environments that destabilize international relations to disappear as much as the g7+ countries want to get out of fragility towards a path of more self-determination and independence. 

The donor-recipient discourse on fragility has been a long and tedious process leading fragile and conflict-affected states to call on the international community to do business differently. The process gained momentum after 9/11, and was framed during a series of high-level meetings facilitated by the OECD/DAC as of 2002. This resulted in the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, approved in Busan in 2011.

The New Deal sets out five peacebuilding and statebuilding goals, with five broad steps on how to escape fragility (the FOCUS elements) and concludes with five commitments to provide aid and manage reforms for better results (the TRUST principles). Most importantly, however, it has resulted in a shared donor-recipient framework that guides how international engagement in fragile and conflict-affected environments should be done differently.

While the framework sets out the right things to be done, doing the things right is not easy, as Seth Kaplan writes in his previous blogs. Relationships between aid providers and recipients remain unequal. Donor templates tend to follow similar approaches in very different environments and donor pressures emphasizing results over processes can dominate the cooperation. Often, local space and initiative to seek for endogenous approaches are cut off and solutions are overruled that may be found in gradually emerging bottom-up change to address the deeper conflicts and fragilities within societies. And finally, delivering on the commitments made by fragile and conflict-affected states might appear illusive due to the sheer number of problems, including severe governance issues back home. 

An element missing in the discussion is the widely spread notion that ‘things can be fixed’. The New Deal is currently being tested and has proven to be a useful policy umbrella that helps to focus political dialogue, as well as questions of peacebuilding and statebuilding between the international community and national governments. South Sudan is a noteworthy example that sends some initial positive signals. But the agreement has created expectations that need to be managed as the countries in question have very different levels of fragility, with some even still affected by civil war or violence. The diversity in fragility is startling and comprises countries of enormous variation in terms of size, political stability, duration of the conflicts and fragility, national resources, etc. Moreover, these countries have very different levels of internal human resource capacities with a majority of them having a comparatively small number of qualified professionals in place to lead and to set essential reforms in motion.

In these contexts, things cannot be simply fixed. Engagements need to be highly context-specific, based on careful analysis followed by flexible responses and the facilitation of change. Many donors have recognized this and are in a process of reforming their approaches and instruments, informed by the international discussion on how to address fragility. The EU and the Commission were fairly absent during the run-up to the formulation of the New Deal. They are now investing heavily in making this the guiding framework for working more comprehensively across different EU institutions, including DG DEVCO, DG ECHO, DG ECFIN and the EEAS. The New Deal for Somalia, is witness to this approach.   

The recently published, and highly critical European Court of Auditors (ECA) report  on the EU’s support to strengthen governance in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) shows how difficult it is to convert noble policy aims into effective support. The conclusions are debatable as they communicate the notion that things can be fixed technically in a highly complex political and unstable environment. But the report highlights the need to focus support more strategically on a limited number of areas and calls for better coordination and joint approaches between the EU and other international donors in addressing fragility.

This report also shows how important it is for both sides to effectively engage in a political dialogue to overcome existing dilemmas (that the assistance to conflict-ridden and fragile environments building their capacities brings about) and to reconcile these with a variety of interests and pressures impacting on such aid-based partnerships, in particular the value-for-money discourse. An honest contractual relationship that is embedded in a longer-term process approach and free of any paternalistic attitudes should become a guiding principle. 

Given the lessons on how to escape from fragility and stated attempts to work differently, as set out in the New Deal, the predictions in Seth Kaplan’s analysis that business will continue as usual appears too negative and one-sided. It will rather depend on the context and the ability of fragile partners to make their point, underline the need for accompaniment and facilitation and stress the recognition of specific country situations. As a general rule, the less leadership and guidance there is from a fragile environment, the greater is the risk of dominance and imposition – very much due to donors lost in the mists of uncertainties and chaos. The more the leadership of a fragile and conflict-affected country has a widely shared and accepted vision and clear determination to follow up on commitments made, the less risk there is of donors taking a ‘hands-on’ approach. Continuously negotiating this relationship between unequal partners at international level – in the context of the International Dialogue between donors and the g7+ – as well as at national level will be required. Such political, as well as operational, negotiations are particularly important, as instrumental approaches that follow standard templates and aim to fix problems (quickly) have abundantly shown their ineffectiveness. This needs to be accompanied by continuously nurturing the aims and underpinning notions of the New Deal, in particular as political leadership in aid-providing governments change and new leaders in g7+ countries stand up. 

Donors and aid-recipient fragile and conflict-ridden countries are not obvious ‘partners’, despite the rhetoric that generally accompanies international cooperation policy talk. Donors want to see environments that destabilize international relations to disappear as much as the g7+ countries want to get out of fragility towards a path of more self-determination and independence. This shapes a common ground for honest and sometimes possibly bumpy negotiations on how to deal with mutual interests, how to give shape to a contractual relationship and how to move forward. The New Deal provides a good point of departure in this regard, not more and not less. 

Photo credit main picture: World Bank Photo Collection