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September 10, 2015

Responding To: SFS Dean Inaugurates Georgetown's Discussion of Global Governance

Building Capacity and Resilience in Fragile States

Marc Busch

Fragile states are being left behind. As Dean Joel Hellman argued, unless we find innovative ways of helping fragile states, we’ll have to concede the fight against global poverty.  

This is not to say that fragile states are being ignored. On the contrary, they have featured prominently in a number of global initiatives over the past decade, from the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005) to the “New Deal on Fragile States” at the Busan High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (2013) and the Addis Ababa Financing for Development Summit (2015).

But the needs of fragile states and the modalities of foreign aid are often at odds. Post-conflict countries often require large-scale reconstruction and demobilization programs, implemented over several years. Yet, donors increasingly favor smaller projects and shorter time-horizons to show their dollars are having impact.  

One of Dean Hellman’s most sobering slides shows an image of a government office with a single employee at a desk. This isn’t how much of the world sees government capacity. Rather, we imagine big ministry buildings teaming with large staffs associated with specialized offices, each with its own acronym and letterhead. These are the trappings of governing capacity: the political, economic and legal know-how required to bring government policy to fruition. But these trappings have few empirical referents in fragile states.

What can be done? Problems of “absorptive capacity” are well known, of course, in discussions of foreign aid in fragile states. This phrase is typically used to explain how, in order to benefit from technology diffusion, would-be recipients need fluency in the ideas at issue. Think of a student who, for free, could take a calculus course. The idea behind absorptive capacity is that this student would derive few benefits from taking a free calculus course unless he was already comfortable in algebra. Many NGOs and multilateral institutions are working on this in areas outside of aid absorption. In the case of trade, for example, the Advisory Centre on WTO Law provides litigation services, often pro bono. Dean Hellman also encouraged the Georgetown community to take up this challenge. Georgetown currently leads the
Trade Lab project, which provides free legal help on trade and investment matters to developing countries.

But much more can be done.  Georgetown’s global educational exchange networks, for example, could be employed to help qualified students in conflict-affected countries complete their education.  In post-conflict countries, executive education efforts could be better targeted towards training public-sector administrators, as well as to global managers seeking markets in these countries.

From an aid perspective, absorptive capacity is both a skill- and a mind-set. Dean Hellman’s lecture on fragile states is a challenge to the Georgetown community to think anew about development. We submit that thinking about absorptive capacity is a step in that direction.

Raj Desai is an associate professor of international development in the Department of Government in the College and the School of Foreign Service. 

Marc Busch is the Karl F. Landegger Professor of International Business Diplomacy in the School of Foreign Service and a professor in the Department of Government.

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