Canada’s Fragile States Policy

David Carment and Yiagadeesen Samy evaluate CIDA's initiatives on state fragility.
By: , /
September 18, 2013

The complexity of dealing with, and responding to, fragile situations is reflected in the manner in which CIDA has more or less “allowed a thousand flowers to bloom” to support partner organizations, academics and NGOs that work on state fragility. In brief, state fragility for CIDA’s policy makers was all things to all people. Indeed, when it first appeared on the scene, as an idea in search of a policy, just around 9/11, the concept of state fragility brought with it a new and complex understanding of how donors interact and use analysis to support their policies. Given CIDA’s prior investments in conflict analysis, peacebuilding, public policy and consultations with civil society, it might be assumed that the agency would have been prepared to address these challenges. Such was not the case for a couple of reasons.

First, if one compares the key characteristics of how CIDA’s fragile states analysis and policy have unfolded over the past decade or so, we see that initially at least the organization relied on a number of initiatives that emphasized transparency, collaboration and value-based analysis. This is because, at the time, CIDA turned to the academic, humanitarian and NGO community to build analytical support for its policy developments, expecting that some sort of organically derived consensus would emerge out of the post-Iraq war intervention era. The truth is that a lot of the momentum and investments made during this period were either squandered or forgotten as various donors, including CIDA, scrambled to shift their emphasis from support to civil society (1994-2002) to state building (2003-2014).

The net result after 9/11 was an oversimplification of state fragility which equated the concept with security and conflict, coupled with a basic failure to heed important analytical and policy lessons of the pre-9/11 era. In brief, what CIDA’s post-9/11 policies on state fragility lacked in policy impact and precision were made up for in co-opting the “open source field” into a new discourse of how security, development and conflict interact. This approach as it turned out, worked to the Canadian government’s advantage because such information and conceptual frameworks helped to complement closed intelligence systems that tended to emphasize state security above anything else.

In many ways, CIDA’s initiatives on state fragility parallel similar changes in the fields of intelligence and early warning, which since the end of the Cold War moved away from highly centralized, secretive, closed systems with their emphasis on state security. The fundamental differences between the two are self-evident and have brought to the fore fundamental moral and ethical challenges for CIDA and other donors (assuming that open approaches and closed systems share similar objectives and principles).

For example, if the more closed systems of intelligence and analysis used information provided by open source organizations but for purposes and objectives other than those stated (e.g., to protect minorities or to deliver humanitarian assistance), then these secretive systems were, arguably, “free riders” on a public good. In fact, CIDA’s efforts to support open source analysis of state fragility was widely shared among its free riding partner departments, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), even though such information fell outside their own mandates and its uses were generally not known to the creators of such information.

A second and related conceptual problem is the manner in which unstructured information reached the general public through modern technology like the internet. State fragility as a concept is relatively abstract and mostly unclear in terms of cause and effect. However, its manifestations are more obvious. The unfiltered messaging through modern media of these manifestations worked to heighten public expectations for appropriate effective and timely responses to political crises, human rights violations, insurgency, complex emergencies and natural disasters. Unstructured reporting of such events was typically picked up by media outlets and retransmitted, long before governments were able to construct the “situational awareness” necessary to develop a coherent and constructive policy. The net result was an organizational response that thrived on “situational ambiguity” and “institutional waffling”. Faced with a raw and unstructured flow of information and lacking certainty about the causes of such events, the primary policy choice was to sit and wait until compelled to act by international mandate, public pressure or political instruction.

CIDA’s common country assessments were supposed to fix some of these conceptual problems. More specifically, CIDA laid out a comprehensive plan to develop what they called Country Development Planning Frameworks (CDPFs). CDPFs were supposed to align with nationally owned poverty reduction strategies. In most cases, however, fragile states did not have these policy strategies because they are typically incapable of developing them.

Therefore, there was a perceived need amongst the donor community for a greater degree of coordination among themselves and the application of what CIDA called a Post-Conflict Needs Assessment (PCNA) tool in order to establish and align its policies with national priorities and to agree upon a division of labour that included the government and national civil society. However, such an approach was used in only a few cases at the latest stages of conflict, such as in Haiti and Sudan. More generally, when one considers the ambitious plans CIDA had for taking its approach to state fragility to the world, it is quite clear that in principle and rhetoric, analysis and conceptual clarity were to be of primary importance.

In reality, almost none of these initiatives have ever been properly realized. Canada Corps mutated into the Office of Democratic Governance and was then abandoned in 2007. The Conflict, Peace and Development Cooperation Network (CPDCN) trundles on in other forms but has been more or less abandoned by its primary users and supporters, the World Bank and the OECD. And with respect to properly using analytical tools, these, as noted, have never been fully realized and implemented.

This is an excerpt from a paper to be presented at the symposium “Rethinking Canadian Aid: Foundations, Contradictions and Possibilities”.