Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

Patrick assesses the future of world order, state sovereignty, and multilateral cooperation.

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A “New Deal” for Fragile States? Promises and Pitfalls

by Stewart M. Patrick
February 1, 2012

An East Timorese refugee family gathers around their camp in Dili, February 18, 2008. East Timor's government and the United Nations have started a programme to relocate some 30,000 refugees living in camps that dot the capital. (Beawiharta/Courtesy Reuters)


For the past decade, the challenge of weak and failing states has dominated the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Once dismissed as third tier strategic concerns, poorly governed and conflict-ridden states rose to unprecedented prominence after 9/11. Al-Qaeda’s ability to launch the most devastating attack on the United States in U.S. history from one of the most wretched countries on earth persuaded George W. Bush, in the words of the 2002 National Security Strategy, that the nation was “now threatened less by conquering states than we are by weak and failing ones.” Allied nations and international organizations from NATO to the United Nations drew the same conclusion, describing the world’s forty-odd fragile states as “weak links” in the chain of global collective security, generating risks ranging from jihadist terror to transnational crime, WMD proliferation to infectious disease.

Relief and development actors likewise seized on this chance to secure greater official attention and resources for fragile states, though for different reasons. As humanitarians rightly pointed out, such countries are the overwhelming source of the world’s refugees and internally displaced peoples, not to mention the location of the world’s gravest human rights abuses—including some that might merit intervention under the emerging norm of the “responsibility to protect.” Activists also observed that the inhabitants of fragile states remain the farthest from the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), home to the world’s “bottom billion.”

Despite this extraordinary attention, the United States and the world community have struggled mightily to develop effective strategies for improving the political legitimacy and institutional capacity of the world’s weakest states, so that they can deliver effective governance—including physical security, political representation, economic stability, and essential services—to their inhabitants.

Hope may be on the horizon, however. Late last autumn, a prominent group of actors gathered at the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (November 29-December 1, 2011, in Busan, South Korea)—including fragile states, major donor nations, and international organizations–announced a “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.” Significantly, the driving force behind this initiative was not the wealthy donor community, but a group of nineteen fragile and conflict-affected states themselves—including countries like East Timor, Liberia, and Burundi. This fact is critical. Too often, the donor community has only paid lip-service to the principle of “country leadership and ownership.”  Their initiative may demonstrate that rhetoric will be translated into action.

The “New Deal” has several path-breaking components. First, donor and fragile states alike endorse five core “Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals” (PSGs) that will guide their efforts. These include the promotion of legitimate politics, civilian security, impartial justice, employment, and efficient management. Indicators will be developed by September 2012 to help measure progress towards realizing these goals.

Second, the donor community has committed to support “inclusive country-led and country-owned transition out of fragility,” focused on a partnership not only with the ruling regime but—critically—other societal representatives. Donors will collaborate with national “stakeholders” to conduct baseline and follow-up “fragility assessments” and to better evaluate the sources of fragility and potential resilience. On the basis of these assessments, donors pledge to help national actors develop “one national vision and one plan out of fragility,” with the responsibilities of donors and national stakeholders spelled out in a formal “compact.”

Third, donors and fragile states commit to providing external aid and managing national resources more effectively, and to aligning these resources for results. They mutually agree to ensure greater timeliness and predictability in the delivery of aid, to improved transparency in its allocation and uses, and to use external aid to strengthen national institutions and systems (rather than leech capacity from them, as so often happens).

On paper, the New Deal has a lot going for it, promising better behavior from outside actors and fragile states alike. But there’s at least one huge stumbling bloc to bringing this new partnership to fruition: the ugly reality of fragile state governance. At its foundation, the New Deal presumes that governing regimes in fragile states are weak but well intentioned. In practice, of course, many such states are fragile because they are run by corrupt, even kleptocratic, elites who will go to great lengths to keep their grasp on power. Such regimes have little incentive to embrace truly open, participatory politics—much less transparent revenue management. One look at the list of nineteen fragile state partners—which includes Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and even Somalia—suggests how hard it may be to turn the document’s fine words into effective state-building partnerships.

This is not to call the New Deal useless, merely to suggest its immediate application may be limited to well-meaning governments whose leaders—Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, perhaps—are genuinely committed to good governance and willing to accommodate the political aspirations of a wide variety of domestic actors. Given these obstacles, the United States and other major donors have wisely decided to implement the “New Deal” on a pilot basis, which pairs particular donors with specific fragile states (Australia and East Timor, the United Kingdom and South Sudan, for example).

Over the longer term, however, the New Deal could begin to transform expectations—both within the donor community and among fragile state regimes—about the conditions under which fragile states will be eligible for significant development assistance. In embracing the “New Deal,” the donor community has raised the normative bar—suggesting that significant aid will depend on genuine internal processes of societal consultation, in the form of “credible and inclusive processes of political dialogue.”  For such implied conditionality to have an impact, of course, the donor community will need to display solidarity in its approach to engaging some of the world’s most dysfunctional countries—a tall order, given the rising influence of non-traditional donors like China, which has been less than circumspect about engaging authoritarian and corrupt regimes.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Donata Garrasi

    Hello, thank you for this excellent article.
    You point out a key challenge for which no document or agreement, including the New Deal, has a clear answer: what to do when national actors lack the legitimacy, capacity, or simply, the will to be accountable and to take the necessary actions to move away from conflict and fragility?
    We hope that the New Deal can inspire creative approaches and innovation in these contexts:
    i) first, the New Deal is a political document that can be used by a range of country level actors to push for different ways of doing business – civil society will play a key role in many “difficult contexts”;
    ii) second, the New Deal recognises that at times the conditions are not there to follow the provisions from A to Z – the use of such tools as compacts are then proposed as mechanisms to pull together a core of “well intentioned” people and initiate gradual reforms;
    iii) third, and most important, the New Deal has led to an agreement on a ground-breaking “global good”, the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals for which indicators are being produced – this will leave little space for hiding the poor investment in key areas like security, and the lack of progress in building peace and positive state-society relations.
    At times it takes few to make a difference, and it takes peer pressure (Liberia or Timor Leste are good examples) to break patterns of inaction. We hope the momentum generated by the New Deal will make a difference even in some of the most intractable fragile situations.
    Donata Garrasi, Coordinator, International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding

  • Posted by g7+ media officer

    Mr Patrick,
    greetings from the g7+ (, the group of 19 nations you refer to in your article, although not by name. As you do point out the New Deal is unique in that it was driven by the fragile states themselves in the form of the g7+, a forum that has allowed our countries for the first time in history to have a consolidated voice on the world stage.

    The g7+ welcomes informed discussion on the New Deal and is enthusiastic about the potential the New Deal has to bolster our peacebuilding and statebuilding efforts, significantly increase the efficiency of aid and accelerate improvements in the quality of life of our people. The work of piloting the New Deal through partner countries is underway, a work we are approaching wholeheartedly.

    Mr Patrick
    Fragile states are often battling the challenge of negative perception. We note this in your article, but perhaps most spectacularly in the photo you have used in this blog, a photo of Timor-Leste dating from 2008. For the record Timor-Leste’s last IDP camp was closed on the 22nd August 2009 after 150,000 IDPs were successfully resettled and reintegrated over a two year period through a unique country led and owned program. At the time the international community speculated this process would take ten years.

    Sometimes misunderstandings and negative perceptions are perpetuated because our situations are complex and require much greater sensitivity in approach to open dialogue at every level.

    The example of the IDPs is but one example amongst thousands of the kind of progress that can and has been made in our countries.


  • Posted by Andy Tamas

    I’ve been working in Afghanistan and Iraq for some years now and agree with much in your article — however I don’t think the scene is as bleak as you report. I see within these poorly managed fragile states a vibrant, committed and educated next tier of leadership that deserves all the well-designed support it can get.

    The international community has not really made this cadre the focus of concerted attention, preferring to play games with the current leadership while being taken to the cleaners, and to write elaborate policies and plans for the country rather than helping the next team learn to craft their own state building frameworks. Investing in this promising next generation is not expensive, and will demonstrate that somebody knows where to focus resources for maximum sustainable return.

  • Posted by Shah Mansoor

    I run a local organization in Afghanistan. I agree to most of your arguments. As a development activist, I believe that indigenous and home grown solutions to tackle problems is the only way that can bring real and sustainable development in the lives of people in fragile states like Afghanistan. The new deal seems a promising initiative since it was conceived by the fragile states, not imposed by wealthy donors and driven by politics. However, the prospect of it succeeding seems a distant dream because of many obstacles, notably, as you mentioned the government and political structure in these countries. The new deal will have better chances of success if coupled with measured to empower people economically and socially to challenge their governments and helping create conducive environment necessary for implementing the five components you mentioned. Also, unequivocal support of the powerful and rich countries is critical in going forward with the project. It also sends a strong message to incompetent and corrupt governments in fragile states to change their behaviors.

  • Posted by francesca cook

    Dear Mr Patrick,
    Thank you for your excellent article.
    You correctly point out the ugly reality of fragile states, and what this potentially means for the future of these goals.
    One difficulty with donor work in fragile states is the skewed focus on The State rather than an important focus on the people, and the relationship between the two. As we have seen with the Arab Spring and in other situations, empowering the people, as key drivers of change, is the best way to create a demand and a force for governance change. Rewarding those bad faith Fragile States by continuing a state-centric approach will perhaps not produce the results the statement and goals seek to achieve. .

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