In the last decade, the focus on political and institutional governance in development assistance has faltered, for a variety of reasons. These include pushback from some developing country governments in relation to whose standards of governance apply and to double standards; pressure in some donor states to reduce aid spending and further restrict migration; the rise of geopolitical competition, with attendant incentives to prioritize political and security allegiances over domestic governance issues; the rise of donors with development models focused on different standards; and the challenges of operationalizing pro-governance policies in diverse political and& social contexts.
Several DAC donors, including the EU, the UK and the US, have formally articulated their intention to tie development aid more directly to geopolitical and foreign policy objectives, while the number of aid recipient states that are democracies has fallen. The OECD DAC notes that between 2010 and 2019 there was a 19-fold increase of humanitarian aid to closed autocracies. Bureaucratic incentives in large aid agencies also contribute, tending to favour the continuation of existing programmes in which considerable time, money and effort have been invested and to avoid reducing aid budgets for fear that they will be permanently axed.
Between 2010 and 2019 there was a 19-fold increase of humanitarian aid to closed autocracies.
This means that the signals sent by donors to recipient countries risk becoming less clear, and the predictability and cohesion of donor policies potentially weaker in response to tensions over serious human rights and rule-of-law abuses.
About this paper
The number of politically estranged situations and the scale of needs in them means it is no longer possible to treat such contexts as exceptions, to be ignored or addressed solely through humanitarian instruments. Alternative, tailored approaches are required. This paper argues that sound national interest, geopolitical and collective security reasons, as well as ethical reasons, exist for development donors and multilateral actors to meet urgent needs, prevent further social and economic disruption, increase resilience, and take advantage of peacebuilding opportunities where they arise in estranged situations. The paper considers the desirable balance between staying engaged and adapting development assistance in ways that support a recipient country’s return to constitutionality and the normalization of relations – political, diplomatic and development. It recognizes that these situations are highly political and that responses are shaped by the interplay between technical considerations of potential modalities, political constraints in both recipient and donor countries, as well as wider geopolitical and geoeconomic considerations.
The paper draws together diverse experiences of situations where relations between donors and national authorities are estranged, as well as examples from other relevant fragile settings. It builds on existing work, in particular the OECD’s DAC Recommendation on the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus, UN guidance on engagement in exceptional circumstances, and the World Bank and IMF strategies for fragility, conflict and violence. It documents some of the ways in which donors and multilateral organizations can coordinate to design and deliver development assistance without legitimizing unlawful regimes or fuelling further conflict, human rights abuses or large-scale corruption. It outlines a range of practical modalities for aid delivery that can be applied, the minimum conditions required for their implementation, and options for their monitoring and oversight.
Such approaches are necessarily limited. They are neither an alternative to long-term development partnerships, nor a panacea for global fragility. But they may offer some practical ways of navigating and adapting to politically estranged situations that are more politically impactful, more efficient and have fewer harmful consequences for those most in need.
Approach and methodology
This paper is a first attempt to examine a growing subset of FCS and international impact, and for which existing development approaches have limited application. Given their significance as major donors and their engagement over the past two decades, the paper focuses on the perspectives and policies of members of the DAC. DAC donors are major funders of multilateral political, humanitarian and development action in fragile and conflict affected states, and are active in multilateral bodies’ governing structures. Also, data on DAC members’ ODA allocations are publicly accessible.
Using the World Bank’s annual list of FCS, Chatham House and the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University developed a dataset of politically estranged country situations between 2010 and 2022. We assessed those FCS against the following four features: (i) status of international recognition of the country; (ii) international legal and constitutional status of the governing regime; (iii) number and scale of UN, US and EU sanctions regimes in place against the state and individuals or organizations occupying positions in the governing regime (UN arms embargos on states in active conflict, for example, were not considered by themselves an indicator of estrangement); and (iv) the existence of an internationally mandated commission of inquiry into alleged human rights abuses. FCS with at least one of these features were designated as politically estranged for the year in question. We then tallied UN population figures for these countries for each year.
The paper benefitted from the perspectives of current and former UN, IMF and World Bank officials working in fragile and politically estranged contexts, including through interviews, 12 short case studies, three thematic papers and an expert workshop held at Chatham House in July 2022. Research was also undertaken through semi-structured interviews and consultations with over 50 senior and mid-level development officials between March and November 2022, including the DAC International Network on Conflict and Fragility’s Joint Task Team on Afghanistan. Finally, the paper draws on research literature and open-source documents on fragility, as well as briefings and discussions with multilateral and member state representatives in New York and Washington, DC.
This paper is, necessarily, a preliminary examination of options for donors to navigate situations of political estrangement. Further work is required to explore the perspectives of recipient states, communities and organizations, as well as those of non-DAC donors. Detailed in-country reviews of policies and practices in specific estranged settings, with a view to identifying lessons and effective practices, are another critical area of future work, as is the piloting of approaches set out in the following chapters.