Lessons from Canada’s Development Engagement in Fragile States

For anyone who thought that ‘fragile states’ would quietly fade off Canadian policy agendas when Canadian forces withdrew from Kandahar, the last year has been full of surprises. In 2012, Mali—long considered a paragon of democracy and a stable African partner for Canada—suffered a military coup and lost the northern half of its territory to rebels. South Sudan slipped back into violence despite historic elections and a clear vote for independence in a referendum. In 2013, Haiti (the largest recipient of Canadian aid) attracted public criticism from Canada’s Minister of International Development for its alleged lack of accountability, leadership and development results, despite years of enormous international investment. These snapshots of key Canadian fragile state partners remind us just how vulnerable democratic governance, peace and international cooperation are in a large swath of the global South today.

On February 8, the University of Ottawa’s Fragile States Research Network convened 100 government officials and non-governmental practitioners, academics and students to discuss challenges in fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS)—societies marked by converging governance, economic, social and environmental crises. What issues emerged in our discussions?

First, the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, signed by traditional Northern donors and 19 FCAS governments in 2011, provides some hope. It sets out mutual obligations building on two decades of learning in this domain. Commitments include reinforcing state institutions in FCAS while also fostering peoples’ security and inclusive national compacts for change; investing what it takes to understand the specific features of each FCAS; recognizing that state-building is an endogenous process; and accepting that FCAS require long-term engagement, adaptation and continuous learning, even from failure.

Each fragile society is unique; while principles have been codified in instruments such as the New Deal, they should be applied in a context-sensitive manner in each FCAS.

However, as one participant put it, despite the new agreement, we get it wrong more often than we get it right—with ‘we’ being international actors such as Canada as well as our counterparts in FCAS. Some argued that the New Deal was already a ‘dead deal’ because donors remained too risk-averse and impatient for results, while many FCAS governments had trouble moving towards real accountability to their citizens. Others suggested that Canada should champion a ‘better deal’ for FCAS: more generous aid and trade concessions, longer-term commitments and processes that are more inclusive of historically marginalised constituencies such as women.

There are options for including women, youth, the poor, the disabled and minorities in strategies for change. Activists (in government, NGOs and beyond) shared stories about how women and their supporters had obtained UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in 2000, and how activists were using that instrument to pressure elites to include women in peace negotiations, in UN peace operations and in reformed justice and security institutions. Yet tremendous challenges remain. Several panelists denounced the low level of compliance with commitments by some FCAS governments and Northern donors. For example, in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake, donors and international NGOs largely bypassed local organisations representing women and the handicapped. Even after the elections later that year, the government, citizens and donors have had trouble forging the cooperative relations needed to advance on priorities like revitalizing agriculture to ensure food security.

Most of those present agreed that there is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy for FCAS. Each fragile society is unique; while principles have been codified in instruments such as the New Deal, they should be applied in a context-sensitive manner in each FCAS. In Mali today, for example, that means using military force strictly within the framework of international law and being careful not to prop up a regime whose legitimacy is doubted by large parts of the population, especially in the northern regions. It means supporting efforts to reach out to Tuareg movements that are driven by unfulfilled promises of regional autonomy and development. It means looking for opportunities to re-engage with legitimate institutions of the state, while bringing the Tuareg and other marginalised constituencies, including women, into new national and local compacts. Coordinating appropriate responses certainly requires deep knowledge of the Malian context.

Several distinguished scholars shared their grave doubts that Canada and other Northern states were truly willing to walk the talk of a ‘new partnership’. They reminded us of the historic responsibility of former colonial powers for state fragility in many parts of the world. They recalled how some countries’ Cold War and post-9/11 policies reinforced the security agencies in fragile states at the expense of their democratic institutions. And they underscored the risk that privileging Canada’s business interests (particularly since the global crisis of 2008) could undermine fledgling economic recovery and long-term state building in FCAS.

Clearly, these issues require more evidence-based discussion. Over the coming weeks, we have invited several conference panelists to return to overarching debates and to the complex cases of Haiti, Mali and South Sudan, where Canada is deeply involved. We invite you to follow the ongoing conversation through the CIPS Blog. Just as peace is too important to be left to generals, states of fragility are too important to be left to ministers or theorists.

** For analysis of the New Deal and its prospects in different FCAS, see the special issue of Conflict, Security and Development 12:5 (2012) on development cooperation in fragile states. For Canadian practices, see Stephen Baranyi and Anca Paducel, “Whither Development in Canada’s Approach to Fragile States?’”in Stephen Brown, ed. CIDA and Canadian Aid Policy (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).

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This blog post is part of an online discussion on “Development in Fragile States? Lessons and Options for Canada” building on a symposium held at the University of Ottawa on February 8, 2013. Bringing together academics, Canadian government representatives and non-government experts, the conference and this blog series aim to create space for constructive, evidence-based policy dialogue on the development dimensions of Canadian engagement in fragile and conflict affected states.

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