Q & A:
Stephen N. Ndegwa on Fragility, Conflict and Development’s Shifting Perspectives
July 20, 2011
In April, the World Bank released its much awaited World Development Report (WDR) 2011, the influential trend-setter for development. Notably, the Report diverges from the Bank’s previously narrow focus on economics, which until now served as the underpinning of international development goals, especially that of alleviating poverty. That said, poverty remains an intractable development problem. The Report states that some 1.5 billion people are stuck in a “poverty trap” that is fueled by conflict, violence and ineffective governance. While the number of civil wars has diminished, violence and conflict are still widely a perennial occurrence that roots 1 in 4 people on the planet in an unending cycle of poverty. The recurrent nature of violence hampers economic development, security and justice in affected states leaving them incapable of achieving not even one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Perhaps the million dollar question is how is it possible in 2011 that piracy – a problem of the pre-industrial era – persists as a result of the lack of opportunity created by the vacuum of a failed state. Still, the Report highlights that rather than discounting the development community’s efforts of the last six decades as a quixotic quest, it is more productive to look upon and put into practice the hard lessons learned by the sector so that it can better serve the underserved. Creative magazine interviews the World Bank’s Stephen N. Ndegwa, Adviser, Fragile and Conflict-Affected Situations Unit and Core Team Member of the WDR 2011, on the critical shift in thinking about international development that the WDR proposes.
Q. Titled Conflict, Security and Development, the WDR2011 calls for a paradigm shift in the thinking of development’s delivery –why a paradigm shift and why now?
I would not say it [the WDR2011] is a catalyst, what we are actually trying to create is a catalyst to shift peoples’ perspectives. We’re saying that over the years cumulatively the nature of violence in the public space has changed, the global environment has changed. There now exist an almost pedestrian nature to violence. One can be in New York and create a cell in Mumbai. So, that creates new challenges that we as global institutions, local and regional, and national governments have not actually caught up to. We need to change our own analytical and policy lens on how we respond to violence. We’re saying actually there is a role for institutions like the Bank to be more helpful in hedging against violence and to work in partnership with others so that more programs are implemented collaboratively and coherently. It does fundamentally mean a readjustment of the paradigm that economic development by itself will resolve violence. We must think of development in the context of security and justice, and security here does not just mean people in boots and guns, rather it means raising the confidence of a typical citizen to invest, move freely and have hope that the political and economic arrangements in place are fair and that they reward individual enterprise and diligence with increasing welfare. At the core of this paradigm shift is the idea that partnership with all stakeholders is the way to secure development.
Q. What surprised you about the conclusions drawn from the WDR2011?
We knew that violence recurs. But what we didn’t know and, it was quite surprising, is how violence mutates. In other words, there could be a civil war that’s ended and then many years later one finds that violence persists in the form of very high homicide rates, or very high domestic violence rates, or criminal networks that run amok. For example, in the Central American countries that experienced civil wars in the 1980s, they have now higher homicide rates than the death toll sustained during the war years. This reality supports the WDR’s call for a paradigm shift because it underscores that violence endures in mutated forms long after civil wars have ended.
Another case in point outlined in the WDR is that insecurity actually has much more of a global and regional impact than we thought. Another study for the WDR showed that in Northern Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which we conventionally think of as a problem restricted to Ugandans, has perpetrated quite a number of attacks across all the neighboring countries. These LRA attacks are not less disruptive to the villages and communities on which they visit violence than they are to Ugandans caught in the throes of civil conflict. If a violent movement like the LRA attacks a school or village outside of its normal area of operation, the impact on that village is the same as if it, too, were involved in that civil war. The dynamics of community and commercial life are no less disrupted when violence is perpetrated by outsiders and causes the destruction of schools, businesses and civilian casualties and death. This finding undergirds the policy shift advocated in the WDR, especially because the infringement of LRA like movements on territories outside their conflict zone was not grasped by the international community. This oversight is evidenced by the absence of any mention of extra-territorial attacks as a topic of discussion at the Security Council, which means that the international community lacks a coherent regional, national or international policy to respond to the needs of communities and countries affected by external conflicts.
And, finally the WDR sheds light on the pressures exerted on governments by international criminal trafficking networks, including illicit drugs and smuggled goods such as oil or pharmaceuticals. Foremost among these is the economic pressure exerted by the amount of money circulating in the underground economy created by these networks. This we think is an important development challenge that we need to respond to because it debilitates the energy and legitimacy of the state, and our response to this has not been typically as creative as it should. The huge governance challenge posed by these criminal elements is among the surprises highlighted by the Report.
Q. How do you see multilateral organizations and government being impacted by this report?
This report pushes very hard on prevention, we all know it costs less to be proactive than reactive in any situation. What we’re suggesting is that prevention comes with reexamining the lens we use to assess risk, because we’re saying that in many situations the cost of inaction is higher than the of preemptive action. We think there are ways to understand in a broader sense the context from which dysfunctional governance emanates so that we can enhance the scope of preventive measures we take to avoid its occurrence or at the very least minimize it. We can achieve this by utilizing better metrics to understand what drives violence so that we can counteract it. Our view is premised on the reasonable assumption that when you provide justice, you minimize the complaints that tend to drive violence while jobs and broad economic opportunity provide everyone with a stake in building and maintaining peace. So there are true public goods that we can provide or help government to provide so that eruptions of conflict and violence are minimized. For instance, the transfer of power from one elected government to another creates a particularly fragile moment in fledgling democracies. One way to prevent the descent into political chaos during these transitions is for the international community to assist countries to create conditions that promote peaceful resolution of contests and minimize violence. Much like when public health specialists promote both general hygiene and specific interventions to when public health is threatened – and which requires action at multiple levels. This approach at eliminating or minimizing threats to public health by preventing the spread of disease can be replicated at the political level by putting in place measures that help identify at-risk individuals and communities thereby providing them the necessary resources to overcome the challenges they face. In short, the Report advocates a proactive approach that emphasizes the better justice outcomes and better job development with the goal of giving everyone a stake to keep at bay the violence that arises when these are in short supply. Moreover, it insists that the way to durable peace is by building institutions that deliver these outcomes. An additional important recommendation is for relevant actors to base action on greater understanding of context, and results based on better metrics and better means of anticipating and preventing violent outcomes.
Q. What are some of the predictors, indicators of violence to look for that can inform the design of a development program?
This is a hard one, because one of the things we push for is first to understand very well the political context and second to assess the capacity of institutions to foster a climate in which decision makers are accountable to citizens and civic groups who in turn recognize and accepts their legitimacy to make and implement decisions for the public good. The triggers for conflict could and/or would be varied in different circumstances. A country with fairly robust institutions in economic management and resource allocations is less likely to provoke citizens into violent reactions although inequality exists among citizens. Take for example the disputed 2000 elections in the U.S. A similar dispute would trigger massive fragility in half the countries in the world. But in the U.S., 250 years after independence, a peaceful resolution put an end to the crisis in a matter of days without shaking the system whose institutions are very, very, very robust. Now, imagine this situation in a country that’s only been in existence for 50 years, has deep ethnic or regional divisions where party affiliations is determined according to one’s membership in specific ethnic or religious groups. So, to design a water project in such a place we want to look at local institutions available to resolve conflicts that may arise if one or more groups perceive that access to water is distributed unequally because distribution is based on discriminatory practices related to ethnic or religious identification. So, if government doesn’t provide security, vigilante groups arise and they tend to ossify into gangs later on. The point is design is context specific and thus the need to examine the institutions in place in order to understand in real time and in historical terms their legitimacy to administer development programs so that aid recipients will not resort to violence to resolve potential conflicts.
Q. How do you gain public trust in a post-conflict situation?
We try to stay away from this “post-conflict” notion. In fact, the underlying point of the Report is that there is no such thing as post-conflict. Look at some countries in Central America that formally ended their civil wars and yet citizens are still killing each other at a greater rate than during the wars. The New York Time disclosed a year ago that Venezuela has a higher civilian homicide rate than Iraq, and Venezuela is not in a “post-conflict” situation. So, we want to talk about fragility, conflict and violence as cyclical events and about the vulnerabilities at each stage. For development, it means that building trust is an important step against vulnerability descending into outright violence. And, yet it’s difficult because we want to deliver justice in a way that conforms to cultural norms while adhering to its traditional methods so that a business person knows that his/her property and profits are secure, and that he/she won’t get killed for trying to run a business. The authority of the state gains legitimacy when it provides security to persons, their goods and property. The repeated theme here is that good governance is fundamental to building trust in the state. We see this played out all the time in the developed economies of the West or Asia where public trust erodes significantly in the aftermath of catastrophic events or public health threats when governments fail to respond timely and appropriately due to corruption or ineptitude or both.
Furthermore, in the modern age, legitimacy is conferred on states when their actions conform to the standards of international norms related to the rights of citizens, compliance with the rules of international treaties and adherence to the behavioral criteria of a good global citizen. A state that fails to meet these standards risks being ostracized by the international community, leaving it without protection from the Security Council or unable to access development funds from donors or international organizations, which in turn deprive its citizens the means for improving their welfare. Consequently, justice, public good and international good citizenship are the core elements for stemming the cycle of conflict and violence that obstruct the progress of development.
Q. What has been the response of other governments or organizations such as USAID to this report?
It’s been fabulous, there is a strong recognition that its messages resonate with many of our partners. Governments across the entire income spectrum and other organizations have all been very supportive. At its core, the WDR underscores what good governance is about — the security of citizens and their increasing welfare. Its recommendations are aligned to a great extent with the literature on understanding conflict and the recurrence of violence and within that context the provision of economic opportunity. In short, its genius is to have stitched together a compelling story that helps us re-envision the challenge of fragility, conflict and violence in all types of countries and to try to change the international response.
Q. What are some options for international support, for any country now in violence?
We can’t use a cookie cutter approach. Now that we understand violence not only recurs but also mutates, we can no longer think of these situations as “post-conflict” for example, and this is a fundamental shift. The challenge is continuous and context specific, which means that helping a country after a catastrophe is hardly the way to “fix it” enough to allow it to go back to normal development. In fact, normal development for such a country should assume that the specter of violence remains and is sometimes elevated. Hence, we need to understand the context and know under what conditions the specter of violence gets elevated. If we say it takes a long time to create institutions that will help these countries resolve problems that trigger violence then our instruments need to respond to that long term need. Typically, most of our support tends to be 2 or 3 years, and it means that the ability to sustain support in a particular area, let’s say public finance or governance for 10 or 12 years in order to sustain robust institutions in challenging early phases is nearly impossible.
It means figuring out how to acknowledge the risk of inaction, to determine what to do about it and how to act in preventive ways. We have found that there is some evidence of volatility in funding going to certain countries. If there is a crisis in the news, a country tends to get lots of money, but if is simply going into crisis, it tends not to get funding until it hits the wall. Is this something that can be addressed so that deteriorating conditions, which are politically very difficult to discuss, can be dealt with timely and appropriately. One way around that is to have a long term perspective for every country, including the seemingly stable ones.