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Fragile States: Strengthening Government May Prevent Slide into Civil War

Paul Skidmore of the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative says with training and support, new governments can improve living standards, create jobs

This is Part 4 of a 5-part series: Strengthening Governance in Africa
Go to Part: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

Fragile states are a special focus of security and development officials, especially in the West. Many of them are recovering from years of conflict and have government institutions that are not capable of delivering social services, recruiting investment or ensuring order.

Unless they are strengthened, fragile states may cost the international community millions in humanitarian aid and security costs, with some becoming regional incubators of instability or even terrorism.

One international organization that is working extensively with post-conflict recovery is the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) in Britain.

The AGI is working in Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone to help improve the delivery of services by national governments rebuilding after conflict.

It works with governments and other groups like the Zimbabwe-based Africa Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) to provide the training, advice and support that will help these governments provide security and public services and attract investment.

Fragile States: Strengthening Government May Prevent Slide into Civil War
Fragile States: Strengthening Government May Prevent Slide into Civil War

Paul Skidmore, the AGI’s Director of Strategy, says improving effectiveness can determine whether a government retains public support and whether the country slips back into violence.

“You need to very much focus on implementation, on delivery, on getting things done,” says Skidmore.

“Because often people’s expectations of government are very low, they don’t expect it to do much, and if they don’t see government delivering things they care about – security, education, jobs, health – they can lose faith in politics and turn to more other perhaps more violent ways of expressing their opinion.”

Skidmore says the civil service of post-conflict governments often lacks trained personnel. For this and other reasons, he says, the international community should support an agenda that is limited but focused – one that will not overwhelm new administrators:

“We must be humble and remember when our own countries were at less advanced stage of development; we did very few of the things our governments currently do. We need to try to avoid creating 21st century government on an institutional architecture not as advanced as that in terms of tax revenues, in terms of strength of institutions.”

Given the inexperience of governments that are rebuilding, Skidmore says AGI and other development NGOs have learned the timeframe for bringing about effective change can be narrow.

“The sooner you can give quick victories, as a result of the political process, the more you can shore it up for the future.

“It is often the case that in fragile states, things can change quite quickly,” he warns. “It’s not as predictable as [for example] in the US or UK government where’s there’s an easy political cycle from election to election or a budget [process] year to year. You must be able to move quickly if windows of reform open. There may be a new minister who comes in who seems like someone who has the right kind of intentions. Can you move quickly to support them so the reform process heats up more quickly?”

Two African countries with formerly fragile systems are Rwanda, which experienced genocide 14 years ago, and Sierra Leone, which is recovering from decades of civil war.

He notes that both have made remarkable progress.

“Two years ago,” he says, “[Rwanda] was named the most improved country in the world in terms of ease of doing business. [It’s a country] where incomes have doubled in the past 10 years and huge strides are being made in enrolling children in school and malaria is under attack.

“Sierra Leone,” Skidmore continues, “torn apart 10 years ago, is sending its troops on peacekeeping missions abroad.”

Both, he says, acted immediately to ensure security, without which business could not function and the economy could not grow. They worked to curb corruption, which can weaken public confidence in governments and its ability to provide services.

“[In Sierra Leone], when President Koroma came into office a few years ago, he established a new anti-corruption act,” says Skidmore. “He toughened up an anti-corruption commission; he was one of the first in his country to declare his own assets as a personal sign of leadership and because of that new toughness, a number of his own ministers have been prosecuted for corruption, because from his point of view, you start by putting your own house in order.”

Paul Skidmore of the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative
Paul Skidmore of the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative

Skidmore urges the international community to continue give new governments practical support and not simply exhortations to do the right thing. He says the African Governance Initiative is working with ministries to help them prioritize and craft practical plans, and provide technical assistance and training to other parts of the government, especially those that support the leadership.

“In fragile states, it really matters to peace and stability that people see government delivering for them. If you don’t have effective leadership from the top, it’s hard to get government to function effectively,” he says.