Opinion

How can we implement the SDG 16 in our increasingly volatile world?

Published on 16 March 2016

Image of Camilla Lindstrom
Camilla Lindstrom

DPhil Student

In early March, the World Bank-hosted Fragility Forum saw around 600 delegates from all over the world gather in Washington DC to discuss how to meet the challenges of fragile and conflict affected states. The World Bank itself estimates that almost half of the world’s poor expected to live in countries affected by fragility, conflict and violence by 2030.

This photo was taken through the window of an international aid vehicle. The sticker makes it clear there are no weapons on board – the only defence it has as it moves carefully around the mosaic of armed groups. Credit: Simon Davis - DFID (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This year’s forum concentrated on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and in particular goal 16 on peace, access to justice and effective institutions. Entitled ‘Promote peace and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive Institutions at all levels’ some speakers called for a catchier description of it, although, perhaps unsurprisingly, no one was able to provide an alternative.

Helpfully, the SDGs are aligned with other international initiatives on fragile states, such as the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States and, according to the World Bank, they also reflect some of the main recommendations in its World Development Report of 2011 on Conflict, Security and Development.

However, given the limited progress made in meeting the SDG predecessors, the MDGs, in conflict-affected and fragile states (the majority of fragile states and conflict-affected countries did not meet the MDG targets, see OECD’s States of Fragility Report 2015), it is apparent that the SDG agenda with its 17 goals and 169 targets will be difficult to achieve in countries struggling to meet even the most basic needs of their populations. If anything the task might seem even more daunting today with the number of civil conflicts almost tripling between 2007 and 2014[1].

Time to re-think what we mean by ‘fragile’ and ‘conflict-affected’ countries

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, opened the forum, highlighting that the paradigms and frameworks which have, up until this point, guided our perspective and approaches on how we work on fragility and conflict might be less relevant than we have hoped. Fragility is now no longer limited to low-income states, and we have to come up with models on how to operate in middle-income countries that are experiencing conflict and violence. Mrs Catherine Samba-Panza, Interim President of the Central African Republic reminded us that a single fragile state actually results in fragility for the entire world while UN Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, emphasised the need to work much more with the prevention of conflict and not wait until a conflict actually breaks out.

Fragility is not just about states, it’s also about people, and President Kim called for innovative financial tools to be used to help refugees and host communities.

I took the following key issues from the discussion.

Sub-Saharan Africa risks losing out as development funds shift to Middle East and North Africa

With the international community’s attention moving towards the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa and the ensuing refugee situation, there is clearly a risk of less focus and funding going to conflict-affected states in sub-Saharan Africa. We have recently seen some countries such as Sweden diverting significant percentages of their aid budgets to finance the costs of settling refugees in their own countries.

When are we going to stop talking and start acting on conflict prevention?

Frustratingly, there is still a lot of talk and little action around the need to combine humanitarian and development work; the mantras being that there is no development without peace and no peace without development and that context is everything so we need to focus more on conflict prevention and flexible support models.

It is well overdue for the international community to act on these old truths where little, except paying lip-service, has so far been done. Instead, there has been too much focus on short-term interventions, combined with programmatic risk-aversion and the imposition of rigid control-systems, which have done little to tackle long-term, complex and deeply ingrained problems which lie at the root of many conflicts.

Three interesting insights into people-state relationships (hint: democracy does not necessarily deliver for poor people)

There were, however also some new and refreshing insights into development efforts in fragile states with research findings being presented which challenged old assumptions.

For example, research by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium questioned the assumed linear link between people’s access to basic services and their perceptions of local or central state authority.

The IDS-led International Centre for Tax and Development recently published work which shows that people in fragile countries do contribute a lot to state services via various taxes, even though much is paid through informal channels. But the very fact that they are paying informal taxes needs to be taken into account when reforms in taxation systems are being envisaged.

Finally, another presumption that was challenged was the imagined link between the existence of democracy and development gains, which will be the subject of the 2017 World Development Report. In a thought provoking presentation, one of the authors of the WDR report 2011 described rapidly diffusing global norms on democracy with over 100 countries carrying out some form of democratic elections. However, he asserted that democracy is not delivering for poor people and we should revisit the link between governance and development. Some countries which haven’t followed the good governance agenda, such as China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Rwanda, have still been successful in managing to deliver some development gains for their respective populations and avoiding large-scale violence.

What can be learned from these countries and what will happen when these countries become richer? Will the citizens still accept a non-democratic state?

I was particularly interested in discussions on how to work with politics and the elite in fragile states, which squares well with my own research on how donors are trying to build state-capacity in a semi-predatory state like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To conclude there were a lot of interesting and thought provoking discussions. However, more concrete steps beyond mantras such as working together, innovative financing and working with conflict prevention were not really identified. None-the-less the forum provided an important platform to share new research and to question previous assumptions on fragile states.

[1]Opening Speech by UN Deputy Secretary-General Mr Jan Eliasson

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Conflict and Violence

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