Fragile states in the post 2015 framework: let's agree to disagree

Jonathan Couturier

Ruins in war torn Mogadishu: Before development, try peace. Photo Source: ctsnow, Flickr.

One of the problems with the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) was that they did not have anything constructive to say about the plight of fragile or conflicted-affected states. One of the problems with the post 2015 development framework, currently being designed to replace the MDG’s expiring in 2015, is that they could repeat that mistake.

Why would it be a mistake? Simply put, some the greatest development and geopolitical challenges of the future reside in fragile and conflict-affected states – they can no longer be ignored. Blighted by poor governance, they lack the administrative and political structures to govern their population and territory effectively, to resolve conflicts, provide security and stability, and to plan for the future. As a result, their economies collapse – extreme poverty is prevalent, chances of a better future are ruined. It is no coincidence that none of these states are close to achieving any of the MDG’s. They account for 60% of the world’s undernourished population; 61% of its impoverished people; 77% of the world’s children who are not in primary school and 70% of the world’s infant deaths. Even in countries with abundant natural resources, such as Nigeria or the DRC, collapsed or dysfunctional states have prevented their fabulous riches being used in the public interest. In other words, the world’s greatest development failures reside in fragile and conflict-affected states.

The MDG’s mistake was to assume that most countries had the necessary structures in place to deliver development. Not so in fragile states. By definition, they lack some of the basic pre-conditions for economic growth, human security and social cohesion.  Therefore any post-2015 framework which does not attend specifically to their needs, as well as those of more stable developing economies, will leave a large portion of humanity behind.

In geopolitical terms, fragile-states present a complex challenge. They are hot beds of instability. Their social, economic and political breakdown can quickly degenerate into conflict, as societies tear themselves apart and ungoverned spaces are taken over by criminal, terrorist or violent movements. Such instability rarely stays confined within a fragile state’s borders. Not bound by the niceties of territorial sovereignty, it spreads and disrupts neighbouring countries, regions, and the international community. In an interdependent world, the consequences of a state’s disintegration can be far reaching. Take Syria, for example. The increasingly sectarian nature of the violence as the state disintegrates is threatening the entire region – with the potential to draw Europe, the US, Russia and Iran into the fray. In other words, the disintegration of fragile states is a ‘global bad’.

Fragile states are also a global ‘bad’ in another sense: the causes of their fragility are also global. It is very easy to blame state-failure on internal factors – but in reality they are also the product of intersecting global flows and competing foreign, economic and security policies. The DRC, for instance, remains a vacuum partly because its resources are pillaged by unregulated global economic interests. The rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was directly linked to the Soviet invasion, and the ensuing civil war that destroyed the country’s political fabric. In the Nigerian delta, oil companies operate in enclaves designed to exclude, rather than include the local population in the generation of wealth. In short, the structure of the global economic and political order, generally advantageous to markets and great power interests, serves to weaken fragile-states just as much as internal factors do.

Where does the post 2015 framework come into this? Well, faced with a global problem, we need a global solution. Right now, attempts to assist fragile-states are hardly global. They are usually driven by Western powers engaging in ‘nation-building’, that is attempts to reform the domestic governance of fragile-states, in the hope of creating the necessary conditions for security, stability and economic prosperity. However, these attempts merely represent a few drops in a turbulent ocean. First of all, there is a complete lack of international coherence. While the EU or the US attempt to tailor their policies to work towards conflict-prevention and state-building, there is no guarantee that other countries, especially emerging powers, will follow suit. Secondly, nation-building, as its name suggests, is a domestic effort. It does little to tackle the intersecting global flows which mould the conditions in fragile-states, whether these are unscrupulous foreign policies, or detrimental trading and economic arrangements. What is needed is a truly global approach to fragile-states.

Discussions on the post 2015 agenda, then, are a unique opportunity to design a global framework to assist fragile states. It is the first time that serious global discussions on the topic are happening at a high level, whether these are the Global Thematic Consultations on Governance, or on Conflict and Fragility, or the input of the Dili Consensus. It is the first time that global powers, and developing countries, will be able to sit down together and talk about these issues.

The process is unlikely to lead anywhere, however, because of strong differences in opinion between Western countries, and  emerging powers, such as the BRICS (Brazil, Indian, China and South Africa)– themselves becoming prominent development actors.  Most recognise that fragile states are a ‘global bad’. For instance, South Africa is keen to see conflicts resolved in Somalia and Sudan/South Sudan, as these represent potential markets. India does not want further chaos in Afghanistan, fearing it could destabilise the region. China, similarly, does not want a fragile Pakistan, as it relies on its security forces to contain local terrorism and keep trade routes open. Emerging powers even share common ground with the West in their diagnosis of the problem: poverty, stark inequality and a lack of economic opportunities are challenges they all recognise.

However at the post 2015 negotiating table, this consensus will fizzle out rapidly. While both developed and developing powers put forward valid solutions, they talk past each other. For instance, Western powers take a domestic approach to conflict prevention, claiming that reforms in local governance, such as democratisation and more accountable security forces, are key to unlocking a country’s economic potential. They will want to push that point in any post 2015 framework, however it will hit a brick wall: emerging powers consider this to be an excuse for Western meddling in the sovereign affairs of developing nations. Instead, countries like Brazil and India want to focus the post 2015 discussion on global governance. They argue that fragile developing nations are being undermined by economic rules skewed against them, and by their inability to stand up to great power interests. Consequently, they call for a restructuring of the international economic and political architecture, with greater representation for developing countries.  Specifically, they envisage emerging powers acting as representatives of fragile states in reformed global forums, such as the UN Security Council, or the International Financial Institutions.  The West, though, is reluctant to engage with these issues – making their inclusion in the post 2015 framework unlikely.

Therefore, any hope of seeing a deal on addressing the plight of fragile and conflict-affected states in the post 2015 framework seems remote. While they represent the major development challenges of the coming decades, and some of the greatest geopolitical challenges, any hope of reconciling policy differences amongst the great powers seems slim. The West is obsessed with a domestic approach to governance reform, while emerging powers take a greater interest in reforming the global economic and political order. Both have good points. Both need to find a way to meet somewhere in the middle, otherwise those who have fallen behind will stay behind.

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