Engaging with fragile states

Development Policy05 Feb 2008Han van Dijk

The summary of the IOB report offers a set of familiar considerations, criticisms and conclusions. There are hardly any surprises. Maybe the full report will be more interesting. It is also rather disappointing that the conclusions remain limited to Dutch Africa policy and Dutch Africa aid alone. One should not forget that the Dutch government was one of the front runners in the development and implementation of what has been labelled the international new aid architecture, and has followed rather closely the policies of the international financial institutions and organizations like the OECD. In that sense, the IOB did not evaluate only Dutch policy. It is a pity that Dutch aid money spent through multilateral institutions in Africa is not included in the evaluation. The argument is of course that this is no longer Dutch aid, but it would be good to have a clearer picture to what extent ‘we’ are different from these multilateral development elephants.

Of course it was a good thing to reorganize Dutch aid, and to weed out the many ‘hobby’ projects of ministers and embassies. However, I believe that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. It is a shame that the decades-long Dutch expertise on rural development has been destroyed by the new priority focus on sector programmes. The emphasis on education, healthcare and reproductive health can be defended on all grounds, but it can also be regarded as a risk avoidance strategy. Activities can be evaluated quite simply by counting the number of schools or clinics built, the number of children attending school, the number of children saved from starvation and early death, etc. It could be argued that investments in education and healthcare are also investments in rural areas and rural development, but this argument is flawed. First, most of the money is spent in cities and not in rural areas. Dutch sector programmes have not escaped this logic. In the remotest parts of Africa, child mortality rates are still 30–35%, and life expectancy is declining as the impact of the AIDS pandemic begins to be felt. Second, investments in education and health are not sufficient for development to take off, especially when the quality of what is offered in schools is doubtful, and healthcare personnel are not up to their task.

Then of course there is the question of whether Dutch aid addresses the most pressing problems in Africa. In my view, these problems are the growing political instability and deteriorating security situation due to the breakdown of governance systems in large regions, notably the Great Lakes region, the Sahara, the Sudan–Chad–Central African Republic (CAR) triangle, and urban slums (although many would argue that because there are fewer wars Africa is becoming more secure). This is closely related to the failure of both governments and donors to address the problems of rural and urban poverty. In view of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) it is unbelievable that there have been no concerted investments in marginal rural areas, where the core of the poverty problem is located.

In this, however, Dutch aid also followed closely international trends. Rural development has become increasingly unpopular among donors (although it is now making a comeback). The sad result is that many of these regions have become the stage of rampant insecurity, protracted warfare and a stunning lack of progress in the basic indicators of human welfare. There is no hard evidence that there is a one-to-one correlation between the neglect of donors and governments of these areas, and the current emergency situations. However, emergency aid and post-conflict reconstruction has become one of the most important activities due to the collapsing governance structures and deteriorating security in most of Africa, and there is not a sign of a concerted donor policy to counter these trends.

Sector programmes in rural development are much more complicated and are therefore risky and difficult to manage. They require a multi-sector approach, but I believe that it can be done. Rural development programmes may also play a crucial role in stabilizing former conflict areas, and may help to reconstruct local governance capacity. But the problem is not only one of investing money. Most of Africa has very poor soils and marginal rainfall for agricultural production, which is also very variable. Research has neglected this type of agriculture, as the gains in productivity are hard to achieve, and yields are lower than in better-endowed regions. In these rural areas we cannot expect that lives will improve simply because of education and better health care alone. As a result, we must prepare for a large influx of half-educated youth to many African cities that are already facing enormous problems accommodating the current influx. Unless a strategy is devised to develop productive activities in these marginal rural areas, no significant gains will be made in the battle against poverty, and in halting the deterioration of the political situation in both rural and urban areas. This requires investments in a rather different type of agricultural research and rural development that is geared to marginal conditions, and aims to enhance the potential of marginal rural areas.

There is indeed no sensible argument for excluding the most problematic countries from Dutch aid. From both a human suffering and a cost effectiveness perspective it is wrong. The soft stance of the international community (Dutch government included) has given the government of Sudan a free hand in Darfur (with the sad result that they too no longer have control over the situation), which contributed to the deterioration of the situation in eastern Chad and Central African Republic, notorious countries that were also neglected by the international community. The orientation on so-called well governed countries also seems very arbitrary, when the actions and policies of these countries outside their national territory are not taken into account. The havoc created by Rwanda and Uganda in eastern DR Congo should have been stopped much earlier. Instead, these countries were rewarded for economic growth and adherence to international macro-economic conditionalities (despite rather doubtful human rights records at home as well). It is also hard to imagine that countries like Chad, the CAR and the DR Congo will stabilize on their own, without assistance from outside. There are some good examples, such as Mozambique and Sierra Leone, where concerted international policies have contributed to political stability. However, such a strategy is risky, requires huge investments, and is hard to explain to public opinion, because inevitably, resources are leaking away, and failures cannot be prevented. However, neglecting these problem areas will lead to more emergencies, and require even larger investments in humanitarian aid and peacekeeping operations.

Indeed, Dutch policy had too many priorities. The first priority should be to create political stability and security – without these conditions, no development strategy is feasible. The second priority should be those areas that are most problematic, i.e. where poverty is highest and security is most at risk (have a look at rural areas in Ethiopia, for example). This means that urban areas should also be included – urban poverty is on the rise, and security is increasingly at risk.