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What role for development assistance in the face of violence?

Posted by Jean-Michel Severino on 10 February 2010

Development organizations such as AFD work in societies that undergo abrupt change. Economic and demographic growth, rapid urbanisation or the changes in identity that it precipitates change societies and their modes of organisations. Dynamics of violence can emerge in the absence of formal or informal mechanisms to manage these accelerated changes. What can be the role of development organisations in the face of states and societies considered as “fragile”? I would like in this post to trace the long learning process of development institutions in the quest for responses to such situations of violence.

The 1990s: failed state to rebuild

A wave of particularly murderous conflicts followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Civil wars that bloodied the 1990s called on an “international community” that was increasingly aware of its limits. A decade after the start of structural adjustment programs, the weakness of State structures risked eroding governance structures, as exemplified in the conflicts in the Gulf of Guinea, around the Horn of Africa and in Central Africa. This erosion of governance caused a loss of control over many territories and the piracy, drug trafficking and terrorism that we have seen in the aftermath. Hence, the issue of “fragile states,” low-income countries that are characterized by weak state capacity and/or weak state legitimacy, emerged in the space of a few years as one of the major challenges to our collective security. International development organizations worked urgently (and somewhat clumsily at times) to build or rebuild states’ capacities. These interventions aimed to “cure”: managing failures left little time to reflect on preventative action that could be taken in states that risked following a similar trajectory.

This decades’s turning point: analyzing situations of fragility

Susceptible of causing violence

The acceptance of the term “fragile state” that progressively came into use at the turn of the twenty-first century marks a change in the analysis of failing nations-states and the strategies used to help them. The change in terminology initially met an institutional requirement: providing aid to states that did not perform according to standard economic recommendations. Yet it also allowed the international community to think beyond “failed states” to consider the political, economic and social signs of impending failure – the stresses or situations of “fragility.” In the European Union’s definition, fragility refers to weak or failing structures and situations where the social contract is broken due to the state’s incapacity or unwillingness to deal with its basic functions and meet its obligations and responsibilities regarding service delivery, management of resources, rule of law, equitable access to power, security and safety or the protection and promotion of citizens’ rights and freedoms. Development professionals must be alert to many warning signs and think about what triggers conflict, such as the unemployed urban youth who took up arms during recent violence in Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya. Or the difficulty of managing precious natural resources – such as acute pressures on land use – that contributed to unleashing violence in Rwanda in 1994. Or access to water and grazing lands, which poisons relations between communities in Eastern Chad and Darfur. Or prolonged social and economic inequalities that create frustrations that engender violence.

Reducing ‘fragility’: a first step toward preventing conflict?

Lessons learned from two decades of experience dealing with fragile states and societies shows that there is a first fundamental requirement for any development operation: ‘do no harm’ (as famously recommended by Mary B. Anderson). That means not exacerbating stress and fragility inadvertently. It is both a fundamental goal and a permanent challenge. But can we go further than “doing no harm” today? At AFD, we have decided to create a specific strategy for action in fragile states that aims to identify the development operations that will treat some of the stresses that provide fertile ground for violence. This strategy requires an ongoing investment of resources to gain knowledge about the societies in which we intervene. AFD is pursuing this effort with its partner network. For example, AFD worked with non-governmental organizations on the preservation and reconstruction of social ties that are broken or weakened by certain social and economic upheavals. AFD will soon launch a research program to better understand the ways development projects can affect the political economy of violence by reducing certain vulnerabilities that feed violence.

Despite important progress over the last decades, this field of analysis and action is still in its infancy, at a time when new stresses emerge, such as the impacts of climate change. That is why investing in knowledge about the forces that animate developing societies is crucial if aid hopes to contribute to the peace and stability of developing societies with the tools at hand –and with all the humility the subject commands. The Fondation Chirac’s prize for the prevention of violent conflict is in this sense an important initiative to encourage steps forward in this collective learning process.

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