Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Infinity and beyond: Governance in fragile states

Building State Capability
The eminent Building State Capability blog has a guest article by Paul von Chamier which re-appraises possibly the most important World Development Report in recent years on how change happens in conflict affected states, that of 2011. His take makes depressing reading, using as it does the basis of the game-changing WDR11 and applying an updated data-set from the last decade (quick re-cap: economic crisis, OECD downturn, Arab Spring, Syrian conflict and lots more) and re-testing the core conclusions against that data. You may recall WDR11 posited that change only happens in generational time frames for States emerging from conflict. Von Chamier’s findings echo this, but they go further. The below table applies the Bank’s World Governance Indicators and finds that in many categories of ‘positive governance’, while there are positive signs on political stability and voice/accountability for the rest FCAS are tagged as ‘infinity’: in other words at this rate they’ll never get there.


There will be lots of nodding among many of us at this, who have been pointing out for a long time that short-termist approaches to change manifested by three-year projects that seek to rapidly ‘transform’ factors that took generations in our own countries, let alone anyone else’s, will fail. However, I do also think this take on things suffers from a bit of log-frame thinking based on limited metrics, resulting in an unnecessarily bad prognosis. A counsel of despair is never the best starting point for anything. 

Von Chamier uses, in this blog, only the Bank’s governance indicators. Useful as they are, on corruption, rule of law, institutional effectiveness and so on they fail to capture what in my view is a nebulous and perhaps intangible factor but nevertheless critical, which is how human behaviour in the form of contestation and social movements (loosely defined) manifests. Note I said social movements, not civil society as such.

And while this article understandably uses data sets from the last ten years to augment the previous 20, perhaps it’s instructive to look at wider evidence stemming back centuries of human history and social change, which still has salience to contexts we see today. Struggles in England for the rights of citizens in the 15th century, parliament in the 17th, for the right of women to have the vote in the 19th and 20th, for equality on the part of many throughout that period and which still go on would suggest that our collective history, and thus our institutions, are shaped by how those groups pursue those agendas and how elites respond; in addition to other indicators that may portray a static picture. None of this is to dispute the core argument that change in societies scarred by conflict takes generations, nor is it to argue that things cannot go backward, but it is to say that there is an intangible human element that is often missed in this form of measurement and analysis.


So work from social scientists as far back as Charles Tilly’s on social movements in the 1970s through to more contemporary analysis by Douglas North and others, not forgetting scholars from some of the countries on our lists of FCAS in the Middle East or South Asia, would suggest that there is more to predicting rates of change; and that the answer of ‘infinity’ may therefore indicate that we haven't asked all of the right questions. 

For external actors this may have implications that also echo those reached in WDR11; the import of contributing to initial political stability, creating space for human security and over the long-term peacebuilding and statebuilding in parallel to build on the one indicator that does shine out in the governance dataset: voice and accountability; which in the story of human progress could possibly the most important metric of all.

To infinity or beyond? 

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