Fragile states: the easy answers won’t bring us further

Development Policy23 Feb 2011Frauke de Weijer

Tomorrow morning I will board a flight to Santa Fe in New Mexico. I am expecting to land in a Wild West-style landscape, which seems to me particularly well suited for a conference on US foreign policy on Afghanistan. ‘Foreign policy as a complex system’ is the topic of this exclusive working group meeting, with the purpose of informing the United States government on its foreign and development policy in Afghanistan. So one may rightfully wonder what I, as a Dutch citizen, am doing in this cowboys and indians film set?

It is exactly at this convergence of complexity science and fragile states that my interest lies. Having spent the better part of the last nine years working in Afghanistan, I have witnessed first-hand the unpredictability of institutional change, the resilience of the status quo and above all, the weakness of the international community to influence the speed and direction of change in the country.

Clearly, there are no easy answers for a country with such a profound history of struggle, wars and invasions: a country that holds so many contrasts that it almost bursts at the seams. Still, over the years I have come to realize that the efforts of the international community, both in development and in diplomacy, seem to assume that the answers are clear cut. It may take time, but at the end of the day the institutions that have brought welfare and stability to the countries in the west will ultimately do the same for Afghanistan. I am not so sure anymore. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.

But what I do know is that our linear models of change are not well suited for the kind of transformation Afghanistan will have to go through, one way or another. As long as we keep basing our policies on these simplified, reductionist models of change, we are likely to hinder progress rather than support it. We need to take a step back, and think again. Not about how many troops to send, but about how we, as the international community, are engaging with Afghanistan. What forces are we creating in the system, what rule systems are we strengthening or undermining, and ultimately how can our efforts support the Afghans to establish a system of governance that works for them, even if it doesn’t meet all our (inflated) expectations?

Having done some research on these issues and because of my practical experience on the ground, I found myself invited to this exciting Working Group. Exciting, because it brings together people from highly diverse backgrounds to think afresh. The group includes anthropologists, Afghan princes, national security and counter insurgency experts, development policy strategists, academics and the odd practitioner. Exciting also because it will use the lens of complexity theory, which may break open some of the ossified paradigms on aid and development and foster highly creative discussions.

I am looking forward to it, and will keep you posted!