Toward a New Paradigm of International
Engagement in Fragile States

Toward a New Paradigm of International Engagement in Fragile States

. 16 min read

Jonathan Papoulidis. Originally published in the HIR Fall 2011 issue.

Confronting the Aid Architecture Challenge

Fragile states are home to the world’s most vulnerable and war-torn populations. They are defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as states that are unwilling or unable to provide basic services to their populations. Fragile states are the farthest behind in attaining the Millennium Development Goals, the UN’s minimum standards of socio-economic progress. These volatile contexts account for over half of global infant deaths and shoulder over one-third of the world’s poor. Alarmingly, the majority of fragile states in 1979 remained fragile in 2009, according to the OECD.

At last year’s UN MDG Summit, a historic grouping of the world’s fragile and conflict affected states, calling itself the g7+, challenged the global community to invent a “new paradigm” for engagement in fragile states. The g7+ states supported existing international principles for aid effectiveness, including for better governance, accountability and transparency from their own governments. However, they took issue with international approaches that are often “inapplicable, unsustainable and incompatible with our in-country national agendas” to address immediate and longer-term needs in these volatile contexts. For the g7+, international approaches need to better support national ownership over policies for state-building, peace- building and development instead of imposing external mandates on fragile states, regions and populations. International approaches also need to ensure more effective and real-time engagement and overcome bureaucratic constraints that hinder international action to address uncertainty, conflict and loss of life.

This article argues that ensuring international approaches are more applicable, sustainable and compatible with national agendas for peace and development fundamentally requires more effective aid architecture.

Aid architecture is used here to describe the country-based organizational structures and processes established to align international assistance with national priorities and needs, and to structure coordination, strategic planning, and mutual accountability between national and international partners.

Although there is no panacea for solving the challenges of fragile states, it is a simple truth that how large-scale international operations and billions of aid dollars are coordinated and aligned to in-country agendas should be of central importance. Yet, aid architecture has been the most neglected element of aid policy and discourse on fragile states. This is surprising given active experiments over the last decade to design more effective aid architecture in these contexts. Practice has led theory in this area, however, resulting in a significant theoretical gap on how to make strategies and operations aimed at fixing fragile states more structured and sustainable.

Ahead of this year’s High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, this article offers guidance on how to strengthen aid architecture as the critical path to fostering a new paradigm for international engagement in fragile states.

Mind the Aid Architecture Gap

Over the last decade, experimental aid architecture has been developed in fragile states with the primary purpose of implementing Transitional Results Frameworks (TRF). The TRF is essentially a spreadsheet that (vertically) lists strategic priorities in key sectors like security reform, rule of law, governance, basic social services and economic development. Next to each strategic priority, the TRF (horizontally) provides details on implementation: timelines, supporting aid projects/partners and cost estimates. TRFs are simplified and accessible frameworks for action, but they are based on lengthy and substantive “joint needs assessments”, often in the form of Post-Conflict Needs Assessments (PCNA), given the overlap between conflict and fragility. These assessments map out challenges, priorities, needs, and context in fragile states to strategically guide national and international operations.

Intensive international efforts are made, usually within three months, to create joint needs assessments and selectively translate their findings into TRFs. These efforts are led by national governments, but heavily supported by the UN and World Bank, which deploy international teams for the purpose of creating the needs assessments and TRFs.

Once completed, the TRF serves as the official vision and strategy framework of the national government and partners, for up to two years, to guide the fragile state’s peace and development efforts. The TRF can also serve as a “basic national development strategy” for gradually addressing longer-term needs, according to guidance from the UN and World Bank on creating TRFs.

As the country’s core strategy framework, the TRF’s implementation should be of central importance to all stakeholders. However, a considerable implementation gap has often ensued after the international assessment teams have left and the TRF is presented to a donors’ conference to attract foreign aid for the fragile state. The UN and World Bank Joint Guidance Note on Integrated Recovery Planning Using Post-Conflict Needs Assessments and Transitional Results Frameworks (hereafter JGN) observes that “enormous effort and investment is put into the assessment process, but once completed and a donors’ conference held, action on the ground slowed or stopped entirely”.

The JGN attempts to bridge the gap by proposing the establishment of a “governance structure” (read, aid architecture) to steer TRF implementation. In making this recommendation, the JGN should have drawn on the lessons and good practices of previous aid architecture experiments in order to propose a more robust, but realistic model for designing the “governance structure”.

Yet, the JGN does not directly examine these experiments at all. Instead, it suggests only that the proposed governance structure should ensure provisions for programmatic and financial monitoring of TRF progress, along with the creation of a “national coordination unit” within the government to both coordinate and monitor implementation. Conversely, the JGN elsewhere provides an example of TRF implementation from Liberia that is not driven by a national coordination unit, but rather by an overarching coordination structure for the TRF called the Results Focused Transition Framework (RFTF) in the Liberian context.

The JGN describes the RFTF Implementation and Monitoring Committee (RIMCO), co-established by the Liberian government, UN, and World Bank, as “a mechanism to oversee implementation and monitoring of the RFTF and financial flows, as well as act as a forum for regular donor consultations”. RIMCO therefore provided a high-level forum for joint oversight, monitoring, and dialogue amongst stakeholders. Curiously, the JGN does not reveal how RIMCO and the proposed “national coordination unit” were in fact part of a single, multi-tiered aid architecture in Liberia, which additionally included a range of multi-stakeholder sector committees led by the government. Such omissions might be understandable in a general guidance note if the basic model of this aid architecture was specific to the Liberian example. However, the same basic model has been used (with only slight variations) in aid architecture for several other fragile contexts, including Haiti, South Sudan, and Afghanistan (all of whom are major g7+ participants).

The JGN’s failure to account for this basic model in proposing a “governance structure” demonstrates that practice has led theory in developing aid architecture for realizing TRFs. It similarly helps account for the significant aid architecture gap in aid policy. According to the JGN, the proposed national coordination unit is seemingly intended to singlehandedly drive coordination, oversight, and dialogue among stakeholders to implement TRFs in fragile states. Had the JGN identified and drawn from the existing “first generation” experiments with aid architecture in these fragile states, it would have been able to work from a more robust model for the governance structure and placed fewer burdens on a single coordination unit to lead coordination and implementation of the TRF.

To begin to fill in this aid architecture gap, the next section provides an overview of the basic model used in “first generation” aid architecture experiments in these fragile states.

Practical Experiments in “First Generation” Aid Architecture in Fragile States

Starting with Liberia in 2003, an experimental model emerged for implementing TRFs. As briefly mentioned above, the Liberian model involved three basic levels or tiers:

The high-level tier was established through an RFTF Implementation and Monitoring Committee (RIMCO) to provide high-level policy direction and oversight over the RFTF’s implementation and by extension, the fragile state’s change agenda. RIMCO was chaired by the Head of State and comprised senior officials from donor countries, a national and international representative of non-governmental organizations, government ministers and other senior stakeholders. The UN and World Bank both co-chaired the high-level committee.

A sector-level tier worked under the high-level RIMCO body and was established through a series of sector level committees, to develop sector strategies based on RFTF sector priorities and to oversee their implementation. RFTF sectors included security sector reform, rule of law and governance, elections, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants, economic development, and infrastructure. Gender and environment were cross-cutting themes to be mainstreamed across sectors. Each sector committee was led by a Minister or other senior government official or designate. The sectors were co-chaired by the UN and World Bank. Wider representation from NGOs and civil society stakeholders was envisaged for each sector in order to provide a central coordination platform for aligning partner efforts behind sector strategies, and to allow local stakeholders and partners to contribute to these strategies.

A support-level tier was established through a Support Office, led by the Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs and staffed by a small contingent of senior national and international staff. Whereas the international co-chairs of the high-level and sector-level committees were supposed to provide direct operational and analytical support to these bodies, the Support Office was created to track overall progress of RFTF implementation, using the projected timelines, aid/project partner commitments to specific priority outcomes, and cost estimates. This progress tracking would provide the analytical baseline for use by the other tiers of the aid architecture in revising and implementing the RFTF according to the evolving situation on the ground.

Notably, in moving from a TRF to a national development strategy, Liberia’s newly elected government and international partners developed “new” aid architecture for implementing this strategy. However, the new structure conformed to the same underlying model: a high-level Reconstruction and Development Committee chaired by the Liberian President and comprised of heads of multilateral and donor country agencies, as well as government ministers and other stakeholders; four Pillar Working Groups that worked to integrate planning and coordination across the same general range of sectors as the TRF; and a Secretariat that supported both the high-level and sector level committees.

Haiti’s Interim Cooperation Framework (ICF) established a similar structure: a high-level Joint Committee for the Implementation and Monitoring of the Framework, chaired by the Prime Minister. Several sector committees (sector tables) and a secretariat or Unit for Implementation and Follow-Up. Haiti’s current post-earthquake aid architecture has taken the form of an Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, with a high-level Board and secretariat to implement the National Action Plan for Reconstruction and Development (derived in part from a “post-disaster” joint needs assessment). As observed by World Vision, missing from this architecture are the sector tables which were an integral part of the ICF architecture. After nearly a year of operations, the Commission proposed the revitalization of these sector committees, although (problematically) not as an integrated part of its architecture. Had robust guidance on designing aid architecture in fragile states existed at the outset, the Commission could have avoided having to ‘re-invent the wheel’, one year later, in re-introducing sector committees.

The short-lived aid architecture for South Sudan’s Joint Assessment Mission and TRF demonstrates a similar model with a Joint National Transitional Team serving as the high-level oversight body, supported by a secretariat and various sector committees and line ministries. A UN attempt to refine this model into a Sudan Aid Coordination Framework or “AidFrame” provided a coherent, multi-tiered structure that more closely mirrored the aid architecture outlined here.

Afghanistan currently has a similar structure: The high-level tier was established through a Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board comprised of Afghan Ministers and international partners, and several sector-level committees operated below the Board, as did a support secretariat. This aid architecture was created to implement both the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, the origins of which came from a joint needs assessment, and the Afghanistan Compact, a formal iteration of the “compact” for shared responsibilities and accountability recommended by the JGN.

The above examples demonstrate the use of a basic model for designing aid architecture in select fragile states. The basic model offers a streamlined approach that organizes national and international stakeholders into several tiers and aligns large scale operations and hundreds of millions, if not billions, of aid dollars to strategic objectives and national priorities captured by the TRF or national development strategy.

The high-level tier provides political and policy direction and oversight for the entire operation, the sector tier provides space for technical coordination and policy dialogue across the full range of sectors, and the support tier brings operational and analytic support to the high-level and sector tiers for TRF implementation.

As evident by the lack of policy guidance, the practical applications of this model were not always led by a clear and coherent vision of each tier’s role, or how each tier both relied on and supported the other. This undercut the greater efficacy of this model. Future guidance must accordingly seek to strengthen the coherence and centrality of aid architecture as part of a new paradigm for effective engagement in fragile states.

Next Generation Aid Architecture in Fragile States

Next generation aid architecture must better understand, define, and seize the potential of the first generation model to more effectively coordinate multiple stakeholders, as well as plan and implement a nationally-led strategic framework for the fragile state’s lasting peace and development.

Within this aid architecture, the high-level tier serves a vital function in overseeing the ongoing adaption and implementation of the strategic framework. To do this properly, the high-level tier should include senior representation from international donors, multilateral institutions, NGOs, civil society, and other
stakeholders. It should be chaired by the head of state or government, and co-chaired by the UN and World Bank as the principal supporting organizations of the TRF or national strategy. The representation of national civil society helps to foster national ownership over the process at the highest level, while the inclusion of operational partners, not simply donors, helps provide an environment of transparency, varying operational perspectives, and mutual accountability between stakeholders. In past examples, international NGOs and local civil society representatives were limited to one each, but they were intended to represent coalitions and not just their own organizations. Senior representation from government ministries and entities as well as international donors is indispensable given that, as the JNG observes, there is a shared responsibility between these actors to support the fragile state in recognition of the often weak capacity of national government and the considerable resources and expertise of external partners.

The use of the TRF as a “compact” to capture shared responsibilities and mutual accountabilities is recommended by the JGN, although as a free-floating agreement; in practice, Afghanistan’s high-level tier, the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, has served as a custodian of the Afghanistan Compact. Next generation aid architecture should consider creating and anchoring compacts within the high-level tier to institutionalize shared responsibilities and foster greater cohesion among stakeholders in performing oversight functions based on agreed priorities.

Although virtually all first generation country experiments with aid architecture maintained the high-level tier, the sector tier was comparatively weak and often short-lived. This severely curbed the ability of the high-level tier to perform oversight functions and address major challenges and opportunities, since the sector tier was meant to provide implementation updates and flag concerns across the full range of sectors for action at the high-level.

Each sector committee should represent the “core group” of local stakeholders, operational partners, donors and multilateral institutions directly working in specific sectors, such as social services, governance, justice, security reform, and economic development. The sector committee should be chaired by the Minister or senior government official in charge of the sector. This empowers the role of government to efficiently coordinate overall efforts of the core group (those most central to the sector’s operations and reform), while equally promoting an environment of transparency and mutual accountability among actors.

Although each sector committee should remain relatively small in size, it should actively seek to invite representatives from communities, the private sector, academia, and broader civil society to observe or participate in relevant deliberations of the committee as “expert witnesses”. As an example, the sector committee for economic development should invite local stakeholders from peri-urban areas to contribute their insights on economic revitalization in those places. This would broaden the reach, public transparency and knowledge base of the sector committee without compromising its size and therefore its decision-making ability.

Importantly, the core group helps to shape ideas, plans, and approaches for implementing TRF priorities from a variety of policy and operational perspectives that the group represents. This then allows the government

chair of the sector committee to make the best decisions for the sector. For example, Timor Leste’s 2008 TRF prioritizes the decentralization of government services and the empowerment of local communities over their own affairs. However, in realizing this priority, the TRF does not indicate how this should be done operationally. Instead, it calls for “terms of reference” to detail next steps. It also calls for “studies on decentralization options” to be completed and discussed with stakeholders.

The creation of a governance sector committee would provide a ready-made planning venue and core group for creating the terms of reference to map out next steps in decentralization and local empowerment. The sector committee would allow space for local stakeholders to discuss grassroots empowerment needs, for NGOs and other operational partners to contribute innovations and lessons from their programs on local empowerment, as well as to discuss future linkages between government services and those that they provide locally, and for donors and multilateral institutions to dedicate resources and technical expertise for carrying out the studies on decentralization options. The sector committee would likewise provide a forum for stakeholders to discuss decentralization options produced by the studies, inviting broader members of society to participate (as outlined above). In light of the often weak government capacity to plan and coordinate, the sector committee would simplify coordination efforts and channel expertise for creating informed terms of reference for decentralization which the group, led by the relevant Minister, would then help to implement.

The establishment of several sector committees to carry out similar simplified planning and coordination efforts across the range of TRF sectors would dramatically shift paradigms of engagement in fragile states. The committees would empower national leadership over strategic planning and implementation, streamline operational coordination and policy dialogue amongst the “core group” of actors in the sector, and increase transparency and mutual accountability over sector reforms, including by reaching out to broader society to participate in committee deliberations. Furthermore, sector committees should periodically convene jointly through inter-sectoral sessions to harmonize planning for overlapping priorities. For example, the security sector reform committee and economic development committee could jointly plan initiatives for creating jobs for former combatants.

As part of the broader aid architecture, sector committees would refer major challenges and opportunities to the high-level tier for their intervention. For example, where a sector committee’s plans for decentralization require executive-level policy changes in ministries (say, to locate them in rural areas or budget for bottom-up planning) as well as a commitment of predictable international donor finances to support, the high-level tier could take action on these requirements as shared responsibilities between the government, for high-level policy change, and donors, for predictable finances, to enable decentralization and local empowerment efforts. This would clear the way for the sector committee to undertake next steps.

Recognizing the limited capacity of governments in fragile states, ensuring the smooth operations of both the high-level and sector tiers requires a dedicated support tier. In the past, secretariats have been too small in size to support aid architecture. Liberia experimented with appointing the UN and World Bank as co-chairs of the high-level and sector level tiers, but this did not translate into the needed technical support to keep the various committees operational. Instead, government and international donors should ensure a sufficiently resourced and staffed secretariat to provide support to the aid architecture. This will allow international co-chairs to act more as facilitators of substantive debate and strategic planning in the committees, without requiring them to dedicate additional time and resources for operational support that is outside their Headquarters’ defined mandates and budgets. As part of this operational support, the support tier helps compile and circulate “big picture” updates on TRF progress from partners in the sector committees, and those more broadly involved in the response. When headed by the Minister of Planning or other senior official, this “big picture” understanding can lend to energetic troubleshooting, direction and gap filling around TRF implementation in support of the high-level and sector tiers, especially when senior and experienced national and international staff are part of the secretariat and backstop the Planning Minister in this troubleshooting role.

Haiti’s Commission secretariat provides a promising model of a better resourced support tier consisting of an Executive Director, a team of directors and technical experts that can enrich sector committee deliberations and actions, and various liaisons and administrative staff for added support—in addition to units for performance review and auditing.

The establishment of better staffed and supported secretariats, when created to support an overall more robust aid architecture, can mean the difference between effective and coherent engagement in fragile states, and piecemeal cooperation, analysis, and monitoring.

Towards a New Paradigm for International Engagement in Fragile States

Despite intensive national and international efforts to create multidimensional strategies for fixing fragile states, and despite billions of dollars spent by international partners in these countries, there has been alarmingly little attention given to developing aid architecture that is more effective at implementing these plans and targeting funds in ways that are strategic, sustainable, and aligned with national priorities.

This article has argued that more effective aid architecture must be at the center of efforts for a new paradigm of international engagement in fragile states. Towards this new paradigm, guidance has been suggested on how “next generation” aid architecture can better support national ownership and capacity, streamline planning, coordination and oversight activities, and cement mutual accountabilities and shared responsibilities.

In the absence of more robust aid architecture, the international community will continue to use less relevant structures for the task. This is apparent with the increasing reliance on “pooled funding mechanisms”, such as Multi-Donor Trust Funds (MDTFs), which allow several donors to collectively fund aid projects in fragile states. MDTFs have increasingly overstretched their capacity and mandate as funding mechanisms by attempting to lead on policy dialogues, provide high-level oversight, and coordinate multiple-stakeholders.

Reinforcing the need for more relevant aid architecture, the Scanteam’s comprehensive MDTF study for the World Bank, Flexibility in the Face of Fragility, has recommended that “Where it exists, MDTFs should be integrated into and support the larger aid architecture (a National Development Strategy, PRSP or relevant planning and/or coordination instrument)” to improve “relevance and coordination”, as well as to address political issues without “importing them into MDTF discussions”. This recommendation underscores the need to look beyond MDTFs and invest in larger aid architecture in fragile contexts.

As South Sudan is currently searching for aid architecture to implement its nascent peace and development agenda as Africa’s newest nation, as Afghanistan has a greater need for effective aid structures to manage the “Kabul Process” for empowering national leadership and public institutions to better implement the Afghanistan Compact and National Development Strategy, as Haiti’s aid architecture for implementing the National Action Plan on Reconstruction and Development is presently under review, and as many other fragile states struggle to establish strategies and structures for lasting peace and prosperity, developing next generation architecture that is more strategic, nationally-led, and effective could not be more timely or critical.

This year’s Fourth High Level Aid Effectiveness Forum in South Korea will be a decisive moment for a new agreement between g7+ countries, the UN, World Bank, and international donor countries on the need to learn from aid architecture experiments over the last decade in these fragile contexts, as well as to commit to creating and partnering through next generation aid architecture that is fit to purpose in supporting a game change in fragile states. The stakes could not be higher for over one billion citizens of the world’s most vulnerable states.

Jonathan Papoulidis is Senior Policy Advisor, Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Affairs, World Vision Canada. He previously served with the UN on three continents, including as Special Advisor for Aceh and Nias, Indonesia, and advisor to the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Liberia. World Vision Canada has taken a lead advocacy role in highlighting the importance of effective aid architecture in fragile states and improving upon the basic architectural model advanced in this article. Any errors and omissions are solely those of the author and not those of World Vision.