What Switzerland Can Teach Us About Development

Switzerland fragile statesInternational efforts to help developing countries start with a mental model of how government should be structured. It is based on the most common European model of state building—a model initially developed by France but shared by most countries today. European history did, however, have another model, one that is not well remembered but that may be much more useful for fragile states—the Swiss model. Continue reading

Why a Focus on Inequality in the MDGs (and in Fragile States) is Wrong

With the appointment of the United Kingdom’s prime minister, David Cameron, as one of the chairs of a forthcoming UN committee tasked with establishing a new set of UN millennium development goals (the existing ones expire in 2015), debate on the issue is expected to heat up in the months ahead.

Many in the development field think the reduction of inequality in poor countries should be a high priority. But this shows a misunderstanding of the problems the poor face in these countries—and what steps must be taken to help them. Continue reading

Book on the Social Divisions that Plague Fragile States

Social Divisions Fragile StatesA new book edited by Jeffrey Herbst, Terence McNamee, and Greg Mills discusses the most important problem in fragile states: weak social cohesion. It looks at “fragmented and weak states, made up of many nations and cutting across geographical, racial and religious boundaries” and explores why some countries with potential “fault lines” produce conflict while others are better at managing them.

More than a dozen authors contribute case studies on a broad range of countries including South Africa, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, India and even Canada and seek solutions that can be transferred elsewhere.

Over and over again, they learn that “the nature of the fault lines was far more complicated than the simple headline assigned to a country.” In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, Pierre Englebert finds an extraordinarily complicated picture, with “multiple and overlapping local fissures, widely distributed across the country, which contribute to a fragmentation of identities and networks at the local level and increased polarization of social life.” Christopher Clapham writes that Ethiopia is “riven by conflicts along almost every fault line–ethnic, religious, ecological, class, ideological, political–many of which are broadly aligned . . . Conflicts within Ethiopia itself spread across state frontiers–especially those with its three most important neighbors.” Continue reading

Libya: Tripoli (and others) Should Welcome Benghazi’s Demand for Autonomy


Last week, 3,000 militia and tribal leaders from eastern Libya announced unilateral plans to begin establishing their own autonomous government. They demanded a return to the loose federation that existed before Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi came to power in 1969.

Predictably, the leaders of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli rejected these calls. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, even claimed that they were inspired by elements loyal to Gaddafi’s old regime.

This is a mistake. Although Libya would in an ideal world be just fine with a unitary government built around a single national assembly, it is more likely to create a robust state that can meet the needs of its people if it empowers its regions. Continue reading

Horizontal Versus Vertical Social Cohesion: Why the Differences Matter

Social cohesion is an underappreciated but crucial element in development, state building, and poverty reduction.

It is an especially important factor in determining whether a state is fragile or not. As I argued in Fixing Fragile States:

Two factors above all others decide how a country’s political, economic, and societal life evolves: a population’s capacity to cooperate (which depends, for the most part, on the level of social cohesion) and its ability to take advantage of a set of shared, productive institutions (especially informal institutions at the crucial early stages of development when formal institutions are usually feeble and ineffectual). . . . These two ingredients shape how a government interacts with its citizens; how officials, politicians, and businesspeople behave; and how effective foreign efforts to upgrade governance will be. Together with the set of policies adopted by the government, they make up the three major determinants of a country’s capacity to advance.

Fragile states are deficient in both these areas. And the combination of political identity fragmentation and weak national institutions works in a vicious cycle that severely undermines the legitimacy of the state, leading to political orders that are highly unstable and hard to reform.

But social cohesion has rarely attracted the attention it deserves from the development community. Dependent on sociopolitical factors that are hard to measure, analyze, and understand, it holds no prominent place in any international agency’s programming. Like almost everything related to the “software” of how states work, it is all too easily ignored.

This may be changing at least at the margins—in conferences and reports. The World Bank, for instance, is using it to discuss jobs in its forthcoming World Development Report. And the OECD recently published Perspectives on Global Development 2012: Social Cohesion in a Shifting World.

This is progress of a sort, but these conferences and reports are missing something important. Instead of seeing social cohesion as a “complex cultural, psychological and social phenomenon,” as Duncan Green put it on his blog earlier this year, they look at economic issues and technocratic solutions. The OECD report, for instance, promotes redistribution via progressive tax reform and increased and more pro-poor public spending; investment in education; protecting poor people against volatility via social protection and improved labor market institutions such as the minimum wage.

There is nothing particularly wrong with most of this agenda, but it does not get to the heart of the matter. A country with high levels of social cohesion would likely have a leadership with an interest in introducing programs that helped the poor. A country that had little social cohesion would likely have a leadership that had little interest in helping the poor. These proposals matter far less than trying to figure out what affects elite attitudes and what might be done to make elites feel that the poor is “one of us.” Continue reading

Somalia Conference Wrap Up

In the aftermath of the conference in London on Somalia, I offer a wrap-up of the best articles and books to read on the country.

In the past week, there has been a number of excellent pieces on what the international community has done wrong in the past, and how it might do better going forward.

In general, they all suggest that the focus should be on what is working—in places such as Somaliland, Puntland, and Galmudug—rather than on any foreign blueprint for success.

Past initiatives have repeatedly attempted to impose a centralized bureaucratic governing structure on the country, a structure ill-suited to Somali society. Such efforts have never been effective and have only aggravated domestic tensions. Continue reading

Brookings: How Not to Evaluate Aid Effectiveness

There have been growing demands for greater independent evaluation of foreign aid for at least half a decade now. As William Easterly argued as far back as 2006:

We need independent evaluation of foreign aid. It’s amazing that we’ve gone a half century without this. . . . [Truly independent evaluation of aid would] give feedback to see which interventions are working and give incentives to aid staff to find things that work.

The Center for Global Development summarized the need in its report When Will We Ever Learn? Improving Lives Through Impact Evaluation:

Impact evaluations do not have to be conducted in-house. Indeed, their integrity, credibility, and quality is enhanced if they are external and independent.

It is with this understanding that I read the recent Brookings report on aid to fragile states. Continue reading