22nd February 2017

From functional governance to sustainable peace: Making the space to reflect, learn and adapt

Aditi Haté

Adapting. (Photo:  jbarreiros, Flickr)
Image: Adapting. (Photo: jbarreiros, Flickr)

Last month, UNDP co-hosted a Global Meeting in Jordan on supporting core government functions in fragile and conflict-affected settings. It brought together over 60 colleagues and practitioners from the UN system, World Bank, donors, and government representatives from around the world.

Three days of discussion, tapping into first-hand experience from 14 conflict-affected countries, focused on a key aspect of restoring the basic functionality of government to sustain peace: how do we improve our learning from first-hand experience of navigating the balance between the technically possible and politically feasible in volatile, conflict-affected environments? Three takeaways stood out for me.

Core government functions are not simply the nuts and bolts of service delivery; they are a key arena for negotiating elite bargains and stabilising fragile political coalitions.

Politics is the elephant that was always in the room. When it comes to restoring the basic functionality of government, what is often traditionally seen as a purely technical endeavour is in fact knee-deep in politics. As development practitioners working in conflict-affected settings, we know politics and elite bargains shape the environments in which we work. Indeed, our very presence on the ground is perceived by one and all through a political prism.

We also know that support to public administration and public sector governance (or, as we at UNDP now call it, “core government functions”) is not simply the nuts and bolts of delivering services, but a key arena for negotiating elite bargains and stabilizing fragile political coalitions. Projects falter because they demand changes on the ground that may be technically possible and normatively desirable, but are not politically feasible.

So – how do we fix this?

Better diagnostics may be the first morsel, but do we have the appetite to eat the whole meal? Research has convinced us that public administration and governance, once considered to be purely technical, is awash with politics. Building more context-sensitive diagnostic tools, frameworks and trainings or consolidating a whole bunch of them to help us better gauge the politics of development every couple of years will only get us so far unless we also invest in the space for adaptive programming based on these better diagnostics. But we need to convince the sceptics.

We need evidence about when, why, and in what ways elite bargains impact and co-opt core functions of the state, especially when the incentives for elites in power aren’t always inclined towards developmental progress in the short-term. Those of us whose focus is governance need to draw more on real-life country experiences that demonstrate how to strike a balance between political accommodation needs in the short-term and sustainable peace and development in the long term.

Is that enough? Not quite.

Space for adaptive programming is the booster shot we need. The World Bank’s 2017 World Development Report makes a powerful case that investment in capacity to adapt both politically and economically is crucial for sustainable development. In extremely constrained governance environments, the continuing cultivation of adaptive policies and institutions should be a high priority. But too often the institutional imperative across the development community to demonstrate tangible quick-win results and disburse funding takes precedence. Practitioners rarely have the opportunity to be innovative in the way they iteratively take political context into account and design adaptive programmes on the ground.

When the focus is the delivery of quick and measurable results in diverse and volatile contexts, often without complete information and in response to demand for swift reaction to unforeseen crises, the lessons that might deliver long-term sustainable peace and development are missed.

How often are we able to reflect, capture and translate what we’ve learned about the impact of elite bargains on our technical assistance?

As H.G. Wells said, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative”. So let’s pause and look inwards for a moment. Do we have the incentives and mechanisms in our project cycles and daily work to be adaptive to volatile political dynamics? For instance, our political colleagues often have their finger on the pulse as political settlements are re-negotiated. How do we make sure this analysis gets to the development desks in real time to allow adaptive programming on the ground?

To go a step further, how often are we able to reflect, capture and translate what we’ve learned about the impact of elite bargains on our technical assistance? Take civil service reform for example, where the technical becomes political once we start to consider how civil service jobs are acquired or distributed to stabilise fragile coalitions. And how do we create an environment that encourages and indeed rewards adaptive experimentation and iterative learning within our institutions?

The Global Meeting did a great job in furthering this conversation among some of the best and most seasoned governance practitioners and partners from fragile and conflict-affected settings. But the call now is to dig deeper to find answers to this question so that we can redirect our efforts to navigate these volatile settings and improve the odds for restoring functional governments.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author only and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Development Programme.

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Aditi Haté

Aditi Haté

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