Dealing with Fragile States in Africa

Speech by minister Koenders (Development Cooperation)at the AEGIS European Conference on African Studies in Leiden.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to speak here today at the European Conference on African Studies. I don’t often get the chance to address an audience that is so well informed about Africa.

I myself was a student of African Affairs for a rather short period and try to follow as well as possible the development of this important area, but I really am an amateur now! And the field has definitely gained in importance and quality in the last decade.

African political scientists and political economists have developed an impressive series of arguments in the specific development of the African State, of its political economy and of its varied character. The Curse of the Nation State is now put into perspective of a more detailed analysis of the nature of the state in many African countries. Clear is that development of the State is very country specific, not necessarily linear and that development of early stage institutions as a goal of modern development cooperation requires qualification. Knowledge that is crucial for a Minister of International Cooperation. Development Practitioners have to look beyond the façade and systematically analyze the assumption of their policies. We have already seen – for instance – that service delivery institutions in – for instance – education stalls after initial progress in quite a few countries including Uganda. this requires more analysis and it has a lot to do with how institutions can develop in terms of capacity, relative autonomy and decentralization. Secondly, much has been written by you on the new role of Africa in the international division of labour.

Africa is the continent that benefits least from globalisation and lost out when manufacturing relocated from Europe and America. As a result its share of world trade reduced to two percent. More than three quarters of Africa’s export consists of raw materials and crude oil. This puts enthusiasm about recent g rowth figures in perspective. New changes exist for some African economies in the area of raw materials and biomass. The Chinese economy and its assertive projection in Africa also create opportunities and risks. Here more research is necessary, as is in the important area of the prerequisite for growth in Africa and the possibilities and impossibilities to learn from the Asian Experience. Also this is crucial for development cooperation Ministers, for instance in trade relations and negotiations.

How can African economies be locked out of traditional economic patterns, still receive asymmetrical preferences and follow the rest of the world in regional economic and political integration. Here I follow as a Minister critically the EPA’s, that refer to all these aspects:

  1. asymmetric
  2. Quota free market access
  3. regional integration
  4. proper timing (food security/government income
  5. Aid-for-trade/WTO demands

In the area of social anthropology and the sociology of religion you have put new emphasis is put on the positive and negative correlation between religion, conflict and development. Agency is here key, as is defining the Power of the Weak, coping strategies and new actors in business and civil society who could mitigate or enhance conflict. Important for all my programmes where we work with demobilisation and reintegration the weakest link – womens groups and


More generally studies have appeared on the nexus between conflict, underdevelopment and policy, and they have shown a confusing pattern for policymakers.

Many donor darlings – I refer to Central Africa in the beginning of the 1990’s – were star cases in conflict resolution, beginning democratic development after Mitterrand’s la Baule Speech, and they had even received an A grade from the IMF and the WB.

Not much later – behind the façade, again – elites felt more threatened than ever and proofed to be master – entrepreneurs in exploiting ethnic and political divisions and genocide followed.

The toolbox of western intervention was forced on the African reality without proper timing or analysis of deeper political analysis. Knowledge of the historical situation, or root-causes related to ecologic degradation or elite competition.

In all these areas, African Studies and practitioners and politicians have to be much more in contact with each other. Destabilisation as a new way of intergrating into the world, not through capital and economic and social investment, but through drugs, illegal migrations, corruption and maybe terror is not yet systematically analized by policymakers or academics.

It is true. International cooperation in Africa is often not aware of the richness of the varied academic field of African Studies to explain this, but it is also true that academicians often feel distant from the MESO-level of politics and limit their evaluations of African policymaking and development cooperation as well-intentioned but overly naïve.

These mentalities will have to change.

I think the Netherlands needs a new knowledge infrastructure to professionalize our African Developoment Policy and we have started to do this already with this important Institute. I call on you to make this possible, as I also call and ask my civil servants to cross the bridge more often.

Today I will not even try to put my own stamp on the field of African Studies. That would be overambitious.

I will simply raise a few questions for further discussion in the field from a Minister who stands in the mud of every day realities. As you know the Millennium Development Goals are central to my policy. Not because they are analytically or scientifically very sophisticated. They are not. They are output-criteria, that could be easily criticized. They are interrelated, they don’t say much about the political and economic strategies to reach them, and they abstract from country specificity, agency and international context. They are not instrumentalized for predictable capital flows, sustainable debt, fair trade and ethical investment. Nevertheless they are internationally agreed, they form a guiding post, and they inspire local plans, programmes and ideas. So let me take that political basic point as a start.

We know, compared to other continents, African countries dramatically lag behind in achieving the eight Millennium Development Goals. If current trends are extrapolated, no sub-Sahara African country will attain the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Many will not achieve more than one or two. Conflicts and insecurity aggravate poverty and misery and create the environment in which international criminal and terrorist forces can operate.

That is also why Africa deserves our attention, morally, politically, strategically. It has been a focus of Dutch development cooperation for a long time and it is becoming a focus of international cooperation more broadly already as it should. Aid, trade, migration, climate directly implicate Africa. As to development cooperation. In the last five years or so, my predecessors earmarked about one quarter of our total bilateral expenditure in Africa for conflict zones and post-conflict and fragile states.

I have now made fragile states one of the priorities of my Africa policy. And with a Dutch contribution of about 2 billion euros a year to African development, we are talking about significant resources. The new Dutch government has made achieving the Millennium Development Goals, particularly in Africa, one of its main priorities. Let me put this in the context of categorizing 3 types of countries useful for policy purposes only.

The first group refers to countries, in which the trust in the government can be such that budget support is possible and the most efficient tool for development, but only in my view when a serious political dialogue is possible, and the bias towards government, pro centralization and anti-accountability can be corrected. Mozambique is an example.

A second group are countries to be graduated and their prime partner will be our Ministry for Economic Affairs; development cooperation is phased out and the emphasis is on trade, investment and public goods like climate policy and human rights investments. Cabo Verde and maybe Ghana can be examples.

A third category is the difficult and large group of fragile states; in and out of severe conflict for shorter or longer periods of time, difficult to analyze, but even more difficult to work with from a development practicioners point of view. Its been the first goal of my travels for that reason.

Of course we are familiar with the work of scholars such as Patrick Chabal and Stephen Ellis, present here today. They have created breakthroughs in our thinking with their work on the nature of ‘the state and conflict in Africa’. Thank you for that. But also scholars such as Paul Collier and his latest work ‘The Bottom Billion’ can have an impact on policymaking. I am confident that pioneering scholarly work will continue to provide us with new insights on conflict traps and fragile states.

Because of the importance of the dialogue between politicians and scholars, I launched a knowledge network on fragile states recently. The network includes NGOs, private sector parties, policymakers and scholars and aims to feed scholarly work and practical experience into the policy making process.

Fragile states

For me such a net work is crucial. Let me elaboratefrom my side on the challenges posed by fragile states. State fragility lies at the heart of many development and security problems. It has resulted in loss of life on a scale unmatched in any other continent. According to the latest Foreign Policy Failed States Index published this June, 18 of the 32 most fragile states are African, and 8 of the top 10.

The Dutch government recently committed itself to intensify our efforts in f ragile and post-conflict states, with Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, which I just visited, as obvious examples. While these states account for only one-tenth of the developing world’s population, they account for one-third of the world’s extreme poverty, infant mortality and early school leaving. As things stand now, these countries will not achieve the Millennium Development Goals. According to the World Bank, for instance, Burundi won’t achieve four of the eight MDGs by 2015. So we urgently need to act. Doing nothing is not an option.

Poverty is one reason why fragile states should top the world’s agenda. Protecting the international order and human rights is another. 9/11 taught us some hard lessons in this respect. Fragile states provide opportunities for criminal activities, terrorism and sometimes other forms of violence. Fragile states also invite very wrong interpretations of their nature, inviting misguided interventions like the recent American-Ethiopian one in Somalia. Not much seems to have been learned in the last 14 years!

Fragile states can also produce spill overs: migration, economic decline, refugees, smuggling, violent groups crossing borders and arms trafficking. These are all major threats to security, development and stability. They often have regional, national and sometimes global implications. Some spill over effects, like migration and refugees, are in evidence all over Africa and in the media on a daily basis. Development Cooperation and the Justice Department in Holland are now preparing a Migration and Development agenda focussing on pilots on circular migration, brain gain and brain drain, push and pull factors and the functioning of diasporas. But the real refugee problems are local! The hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps across Darfur and neighbouring countries are a poignant current example. Rebel groups like the Interahamwe in eastern Congo and government-backed militias in Sudan and Chad also cross borders regularly, murdering, burning down villages and destroying livelihoods.

Non-resolved refugee issues can create bomb-shells as we see in the Palestinian Territories today and in Ruanda, Uganda and Congo 13 years ago.

The criminal networks that operate in the shadows of fragile societies, smuggling arms or natural resources such as diamonds, timber and gold, are less visible. They benefit from high levels of state fragility and the resulting lack of government control, as we can see in eastern Congo. Terrorists, rebel groups and war lords use these networks and link them up at global level.

Our policies are far behind although we are focussing more and more on surveillance, the EITI-initiative, the issue of resource curse and ethical business and the increasing violemce against women in states where security is more and more unevenly distributed.

Fragile states also do serious economic harm to neighbouring countries. The conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, which cost the government control of almost half the country’s territory, blocked a very important import and export route for Mali. This led to higher prices in Mali for many important products and cut many Malians off from an important regional market and remittances.

The final and perhaps most important reason why fragile states demand our attention is that we must stop them from going into crisis and eventually collapsing totally, with dire consequences for their peoples. Preventing fragile states’ collapse is far less costly than trying to repair the damage afterwards, when it is too late. Some studies estimate that every Euro spent on prevention saves the international community four euros later and that in fact good policies can be very effective.

Fragile states are often unable or unwilling to tackle poverty or cope with violent conflict. This makes them the toughest challenge for development cooperation. When it comes to development aid, fragile states are in fact forgotten states. They receive only half as much aid as other developing countries. According to the OECD these ‘donor orphans’ are ‘marginalised from international attention’. But, money alone is not enough, of course. I’ll come back to that. Nevertheless, we are focussing on a multilateral approach, in the Peace Building Commission at the UN, in incorporating the Multi Donor Trust Funds and make them political, quick, and less bureaucratic and in bridging the gap between humanitarian support and sustainable development.

For all these reasons, I have made fragile states one of my highest priorities. So much is still badly done and misunderstood. The world cannot sit by while these countries spiral into crisis. We need to draw them into the mainstream of development and democracy. But putting them back in business is not business as usual.

A different approach

Ladies and gentlemen, if we want to reduce extreme poverty, meet the Millennium Development Goals, increase stability, combat negative spill-over effects and ultimately prevent violent conflict we need to improve the capacity of fragile states. To do so, we have to engage with fragile states in a timely and appropriate way. This means we have to refine our approach and we need your help. When state capacity is very weak and institutional structures hardly developed, we must adapt our expectations and agendas. We have to adopt a different mindset.

Lack of good governance is the essence of the problematic nature of fragile states. So we can’t make good governance a precondition for aid, or expect fragile states to deliver long lists of governance reforms. Therefore these reforms need to be prioritised, achievable and appropriate to the context. Development and stability can be achieved with very different governance arrangements. The most urgent governance reforms are often those that directly address the failure to protect people and their property, security sector reform and macro-economic stability. This is why The Netherlands support the national budget and the reform of army and police in Burundi. A risk in our own parliaments, but a risk worth taken. Without a boost to the new government, changes for stability will immediately evaporate.

In assisting fragile states we must I think take a more of a political then a technical perspective with regard to the instruments that we apply. Let me give you the example of post-conflict elections. Often the international community exerts a lot of pressure to have elections as soon as possible after the termination of the conflict. It makes available huge sums of money for this. Is this always sensible?

Paul Collier showed us that elections do not always contribute to the consolidation of post conflict peace. Afterwards there is a huge risk that the party which has lost – if not accommodated- will resort to violence again. The 1997 elections in Liberia won by Charles Taylor are a point in case. The jury is still out on the effects of the elections in the DRC. I learned as UN political adviser in Mozambique in 1994 from the Angolese disaster that only a country specific timetable and sequence of investments could do the job. Lessons long learned, but still not applied, or too little too late.

The reality on the ground should guide us. Not the instruments that we have at our disposal. This not only applies to supporting elections, but also to other donor-interventions. Such as: Security Sector Reform and the sequencing of humanitarian assistance and structural aid.

State fragility comes in different forms. So it is crucial that policies be country-specific and take the local and regional context into account. If we want to be effective, we need to do a thorough analysis of the causes of fragility in a specific country. And keep on re-evaluating them. Here you come in again.

We need to have a clearer understanding of the reasons for state failure. We need to understand the history of a country and its people, who holds the real power and how it is used. We need to look behind the façade, at the informal rules of the game, such as patronage networks. As has been so eloquently explained by Professor Chabal in his book ‘Africa works. Disorder as political instrument’. In all countries where we work I have already instructed to make new policy assessments and conclude how our intervention capacities relate to the political facts on the ground.

We also have to set clear priorities. Sometimes less is more. You can’t rebuild a house when it’s still on fire. You have to focus on securing safety, stability and law and order first. These are preconditions for development. We have to acknowledge that our capacity is limited. We cannot do everything everywhere.

We also have to make longer-term commitments. The problems of fragile states are structural. So we have to be prepared to go that extra mile. Institutions cannot be built, nor can their capacity and effectiveness be improved, overnight. In other words, staying power is crucial. At the same time we have to develop mechanisms to deal with incidents like human rights violations in the short term.

When dealing with fragile states, we have to take political and financial risks. Political risks, because appropriate checks and balances are often lacking in fragile states and their regimes do not always respect human rights or have an adequate record of governance. Financial risks, because they cannot always account for every Euro spent. This means that desired outcomes cannot be guaranteed in advance. What we can do is to analyse better where the risks lie, react as early as possible when risks increase and adapt our programmes where possible. The OECD-DAC ‘principles for good international engagement in fragile states’ are useful guidelines.

Last but not least, given the nature of the problems facing fragile states, we can only be successful when we work in an integrated way. This means using all our available instruments: Diplomacy, Development and, where appropriate, Defence. Choosing specific combinations in specific situations.

Wrestling with dilemmas

We know that we have to work differently in fragile states. But that does not mean that we have all the answers. As I said, good analysis is crucial in designing tailor-made policies. Extra research increases the knowledge about fragile states available to policymakers. And it can help us compare different states and different types of fragility.