Fragile states have limited capacity to govern. They have few highly trained policymakers, few managers able to organize departments and ministries, and few officials able to implement decisions. They have very limited financial resources and little prospect (unless they have a lot of natural resources) of becoming self-sustaining anytime soon. Why then do we ask them to do so much?
far from any threshold of “good governance”; at their pace or average pace of progress it would take very (to infinitely) long to reach a threshold; even at very to extremely optimistic accelerations of the pace of progress . . . the time from fragile states to reach solid levels of governance is measured in decades, not years.
Yet, such countries are expected to do more or less everything much more developed countries do. They must deliver adequate public services to all their people, adopt and enforce an enormous number of laws and regulations, and meet international standards in a wide range of areas. If they receive substantial sums of foreign aid, they must deal with each donor on every project and meet all their specific requirements. Is any of this realistic?
Melissa Thomas of SAIS/Johns Hopkins examines one aspect of this issue in her recent article Rich Donors, Poor Countries: the fiscal constraint. As she points out, poor countries are simply too poor to afford the full range of government institutions and services that more developed countries take for granted.
Revenue per capita was about $77 in Niger in 2011, $64 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, $52 in Afghanistan, and $44 in Burundi. . . . If aid is included (although in practice, aid is often not controlled by the recipient government) . . . [Niger's] total is $122. Uganda had about $72 per person; with aid, it rises to $124. Afghanistan, with $52 per person, has $263 per person with aid. . . . The gap between the resources available to poor governments and those available to rich governments is monumental.
Notwithstanding these constraints,
Both poor governments and donors have expanded the mandate of government far beyond what can be financed with poor country domestic government revenues. . . . Poor governments are adopting policies and institutions that they cannot afford to implement or sustain, often with donor encouragement, if not long-term commitments of support.
The net result is what Antony Allott described in 1968 as “phantom legislation”: “A law is enacted, but the regional facilities for its application are as weak as are the administrative cadres generally, and nothing of significance happens.”
The enormous mismatch between poor governments’ resources and their mandates undermines the quality of governance. . . . The adoption of laws and policies that cannot be implemented means that rule of law and equality before the law become impossible. The unfunded mandate increases government discretion as the government necessarily picks and chooses which of its policies or laws to implement, at what time, and for whose benefit. . . . fueling corruption. It also makes government accountability impossible. When people are tasked with responsibilities that they could not possibly perform, how can they be blamed when they fail? . . . Instead, citizens are obliged to judge government by other criteria, such as its ability to deliver private goods and benefits that they can more easily monitor. Lastly, the adoption of policies that cannot be implemented and institutions that cannot be sustained without external funding deepens and continues poor country aid dependence.
Government leaders need to make hard choices about what they can do with limited financial, human, and organizational resources. Donors ought to be encouraging such thinking — instead of pushing officials to do more with less. Such practices set people along an unrealistic course which undoubtedly ends in failure.
The obvious answer to this problem is to do less better. Prioritize a few areas, and focus all financial, human, and organizational resources only on doing them as good as possible. Withdraw from the rest. Such a strategy may please no one at first, but is more likely to produce a positive result over time, especially if clearly articulated and fairly implemented.
Melissa calls for governments to stop pretending they can deliver universal education, health, pensions, and court systems because “where a public service is a service in name only, extension should not be the first priority.” They should first address quality issues even if it means many do not get access.
I prefer to think of a pyramid of governance priorities. Instead of systemically limiting access to public services — which will undoubtedly produce conflict, especially in ethnically divided states — focus on fewer priority areas. So, for instance, instead of trying to enforce thousands and thousands of rules, try to do only 100, but well. Instead of trying to run a full slate of government ministries, make do with four or five. Instead of trying to deliver every possible public service, focus on a few.
Forcing leaders to prioritize will, among other things, make them understand how important it is to nurture wealth production. It is the only way to grow tax revenues (and state capacity) and therefore will end up with a greater concentration of government resources. Prioritize the public services necessary for it — security, the rule of law, basic infrastructure, and human capital.
As a country progresses along the state-building continuum and becomes more cohesive and capable, its capacity and resources will grow and it can accomplish an increasing and increasingly demanding set of functions. If we picture these functions as different levels of a pyramid, we can see state building as a process of increasing the height and broadening the base of that pyramid, with new levels being added to the bottom of the pyramid as the state grows stronger.
Some of the better run less developed countries understand the need to prioritize. Rwanda, for instance, reorganized government to enhance its planning and implementation capacity. New units set up within the president’s and prime minister’s offices revamped the yearly retreat for top leaders such that it became high-level forums for government planning, coordination and accountability. The net result was that participants at the 2011 event chose six priorities for the year whereas leaders had chosen 174 just two years earlier.