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Aid to Fragile and Conflict-Affected States

This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.

In a nutshell

  • What is the problem? In “fragile” states, the government lacks the capacity or legitimacy to perform basic functions, including the prevention of internal violent conflicts. Fragile states and associated violence seem to be both a cause and an effect of poverty. The proportion of the global poor living in fragile states is expected to increase from one-third now to two-thirds by 2030.
  • What are possible interventions? Possible interventions focus on conflict prevention and early warning, conflict mediation and negotiation, post-conflict peacebuilding, and technical assistance programs for building government capacity. We do not have a sense of which interventions are likely to be most effective or cost-effective.
  • Who else is working on it? In 2008 and 2009, funding from private foundations for preventing and resolving conflict totaled $67 million, and of that total, $33 million was for field work in conflict-affected areas. Total Official Development Assistance to all fragile states in 2010 was $50 billion, but it is not clear how much of this total was used for building government capacity or addressing violence.

Published: September 2014

What is the problem?

Extreme poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated in fragile states, in which the government lacks the ability to perform basic functions. The poorest residents of stable (i.e. not “fragile”) states like China and India have seen significant income gains since 1990.1 However, income growth for the poor in fragile states has been slower, even in fragile states rich enough to be classified as “middle-income.”2 These trends are expected to continue, resulting in the proportion of the global poor residing in fragile states increasing from one-third now to two-thirds in 2030.3

Weak governance and associated violence seems to be both a cause and effect of poverty.4 There is some evidence that income shocks due to drought in sub-Saharan Africa increase the likelihood of civil conflict in the following year, though we haven’t investigated it deeply.5 In turn, conflict may cause poverty through the destruction of household assets, the loss of foreign investment,6 and reduction in human capital due to inadequate nutrition, education, or work experience.7

In addition to likely impacts on the perpetuation of poverty, violence in fragile states directly causes enormous internal and external displacement and loss of life. Some recent (as of September 2014) examples include:

  • Over 190,000 deaths in the Syrian Civil War between March 2011 and April 2014;8
  • 2.5 million new refugees and 8.2 million people newly displaced within their countries in 2013 according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees;9

  • An estimated 178,300 deaths globally due to organized internal conflicts in 2012.10

Beyond direct injury and loss of life, violent conflicts are also associated with increased gender-based violence,11 psychological trauma, and damage to property and infrastructure.12

Because of the increasing concentration of poverty in fragile states and the huge humanitarian impacts of conflict, successfully preventing violent conflict or improving the capacity of fragile state institutions would be enormously valuable.

What are the possible interventions?

Interventions for fragile states generally seem to focus on preventing or mediating conflict, post-conflict peacebuilding, or building state capacity:13

  • Conflict prevention and early warning systems: Conflict prevention interventions vary widely. Some examples include: funding education programs promoting non-violence, supporting documentaries on groups working through conflicts,14 income security or insurance programs to prevent shocks,15 and proactive human rights monitoring programs.16 Some early warning systems analyze flows of weaponry and relationships between ethnic, religious, and political groups to anticipate where conflict may occur in the future.17 In the early 1990s, conflict prevention and early warning systems focused on national diplomacy, but our understanding is that more recently the focus has shifted to the local level.18

  • Conflict mediation and negotiation: Work in this area includes research on improving the effectiveness of negotiation19 and facilitating third-party mediation.20
  • Post-conflict peacebuilding: Many post-conflict interventions involve fieldwork, including leadership and communication training, reintegration programs for ex-soldiers and prisoners, assistance to groups lobbying for reparations, and women’s empowerment.21

  • Building state capacity: Outside actors have frequently attempted to provide technical assistance to fragile governments for developing stable state institutions, especially after conflicts. However, we have the tentative impression that many attempts to import bureaucratic best practices have not been successful, despite substantial aid spending.22

We currently do not have a strong sense of the effectiveness of these interventions, and do not feel that we have a particularly promising strategy for reaching confident judgments about their effectiveness.

Who else is working on it?

In 2008 and 2009, funding from private foundations for preventing and resolving conflict totaled $67 million, and of that total, $33 million was used for field work in conflict-affected areas.23 (These figures do not include funding for controlling and eliminating nuclear weapons, which GiveWell has examined in a separate shallow overview.) Field programs often focus on group mediation, working with victims of conflict, and women’s empowerment.24 Other strategies for preventing and resolving conflict include funding US-based advocacy organizations25 and funding conflict resolution research.26

Major private funders in this area included Humanity United, Skoll Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and MacArthur Foundation in 2008 and 2009.27 The Carnegie Corporation funded studies on conflict prevention in the early 1990s, and continues to fund conflict early warning systems.28

Net Official Development Assistance (ODA) to all fragile states from governments, international financial institutions, global funds, and UN agencies totaled $50 billion in 2010.29 About one-third of these funds usually go directly to the public sector.30 It is not clear what portion of these funds are used for technical assistance for developing state capacity or addressing violence. However, many official development aid agencies, particularly in Scandinavian countries, have substantial commitments to conflict prevention.31

Most ODA is delivered to a small number of fragile states, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Pakistan, while other fragile states are relatively neglected.32

Questions for further investigation

  • How can we most effectively learn about the effectiveness of conflict prevention, mediation, and reconciliation programs?
  • What are the most effective and cost-effective strategies a funder could pursue to strengthen fragile state institutions?
  • How much Official Development Assistance to fragile states directly addresses violent conflict?

Our process

We decided to look into this issue because of the increasing percentage of the global poor living in fragile states and our background perception of the large humanitarian costs of violent conflicts.

Our very limited investigation consisted primarily of conversations with a few experts on conflict resolution and fragile state interventions. Public notes are available from our conversations with:

  • Steve Riskin, Senior Program Officer, United States Institute of Peace
  • Darren Kew, Associate Professor, Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance, McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts, Boston

We also did limited desk research on different types of interventions for fragile states and on engagement by other philanthropists in the field.


Blattman and Miguel 2009Source (archive)
Chandy, Ledlie, and Penciakova 2013Source (archive)
Economist 2013Source (archive)
Foundations for Peace 2009Source (archive)
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Darren Kew, September 13, 2013Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Steve Riskin, November 26, 2013Source
Kharas and Rogerson 2012Source (archive)
Lockhart and Vincent 2013Source (archive)
Miguel 2007Source (archive)
OECD Factsheet 2013Source (archive)
OECD Fragile States 2013Source (archive)
Oslo Forum 2013Source (archive)
Peace and Security Funders Group 2010Source (archive)
Price, Gohdes, and Ball 2014Source (archive)
Pritchett and de Weijer 2010Source (archive)
PSFG Supplemental Information 2010Source (archive)
UNHCR 2013Source (archive)
  • 1. ”However, poverty in fragile states has decreased at a significantly slower rate than in other developing countries – especially in China and in India – which explains why global poverty is increasingly concentrated in fragile states, notably those of sub-Saharan Africa.” OECD Fragile States 2013, pg 34
  • 2. “Given these trends, the poverty picture is changing from one of poor people in poor countries (73% of the world’s poor lived in low-income countries in 2005) to one of poor people in middle-income countries (65% of the world’s poor in 2010), many of which are fragile (17% of the world’s poor in 2010). The concentration of poverty in middle-income countries reflects in part the fact that a number of MIFS (e.g. Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yemen) have only just moved from low-income to middle-income status, and so large pockets of poverty are likely still to persist in spite of this graduation. The high prevalence of poverty found in these MIFs may also be in part a symptom of fragility, i.e. a reflection of the nature of their political process and economic systems. But by weakening social cohesion, poverty is also a cause of fragility. There is also evidence that the impact of growth on poverty varies across countries and income groups: growth is not always matched by a proportionate reduction in poverty. Or more specifically: the income of the poorest groups in a given country often rises at a lower rate (Sumners, 2012, citing Besley and Cord, 2007; Grimm et al., 2007). If so, the distributional – and political – dimension of poverty reduction in fragile states will warrant specific consideration.” OECD Fragile States 2013, pg 34
  • 3. ”Today, a third of the world’s poor live in fragile states, but this share is set to rise to half in 2018 and nearly two-thirds in 2030, according to our baseline scenario (figure 10)
    Chandy, Ledlie, and Penciakova 2013, pg 14
  • 4.

    “Poverty is widely considered both the result of conflict, and a driver for future conflicts, and violent conflict has even been described as ‘development in reverse’…There is now widespread international consensus, including across the G7+ countries, that part of the reason for the intractable nature of fragility and conflict is the existence of ‘conflict traps’ and vicious cycles of weak governance, poverty and violence.” Lockhart and Vincent 2013, pg 11

  • 5. “The researchers discovered that economic shocks have an even more dramatic impact on civil war incidence than had been previously recognized. The size of the estimated impact of lagged economic growth on conflict is huge; focusing on the IV regression with country fixed-effect controls, the point estimate indicates that a 1-percentage-point decline in gross domestic product increases the likelihood of civil conflict by more than 2 percentage points. This implies that a drop in per capita income due to drought of 5 percent in one year increases the likelihood of a civil conflict in the following year by nearly half, a very large effect. This analysis highlights the key role that income volatility has played in generating armed violence.” Miguel 2007, pgs 54-55
  • 6. “Yet even in civil conflicts without large-scale bombing, capital can sometimes be depleted in devastating ways. First, household assets may be stolen or destroyed. Mozambicans, for instance, are thought to have lost 80% of their cattle stock during their civil war (Bruck 1996), while many in northern Uganda lost all of their cattle, homes and assets (Annan, Blattman, and Horton 2006; Gersony 1997); cattle and other farm assets often represent most of a rural household’s savings. As of yet, however, there is still limited systematic panel data on the implications of such asset loss on long-run household welfare. Second, countries at war are likely to see massive flight of mobile forms of capital, since foreign assets offer higher relative returns at lower risk (Collier 1999; Collier, Hoeffler, and Pattillo 2002). The same factors could lead to such low levels of new investment that the existing capital stock quickly deteriorates.” Blattman and Miguel 2009, pg 59
  • 7. Blattman and Miguel 2009:
    • ”A new and rapidly growing microeconomic literature finds more persistent negative war impacts on individual human capital, especially in African cases. Using panel data on child nutrition, Alderman, Hoddinott and Kinsey (2004) find that young children who suffered from war-related malnutrition in Zimbabwe are significantly shorter as adults, which may affect their lifetime labor productivity. In a related paper, Akresh, Bundervoet and Verwimp (forthcoming) exploit variation in the timing of armed clashes in the Burundi civil war to estimate impacts on child nutrition, and find that children who lived in a war-affected region have sharply lower height-for-age than other children, with an average drop of roughly 0.5 standard deviations. Turning to a Central Asian setting, adolescent Tajik girls whose homes were destroyed during that civil war are less likely to obtain secondary education, again with likely adverse effects on later wages and life chances (Shemyakina 2006). The validity of these studies, all of which use difference-in-differences methods, relies on the assumption of similar underlying human development trends in the war-affected and peaceful regions of these countries, something that is challenging to convincingly establish with the limited time horizons of most datasets. Moreover, as in the bombing studies, these studies may underestimate war’s overall impacts to the extent that even those in largely peaceful regions were also adversely affected by civil war disruptions.” pg 61-62
    • ”Blattman and Annan (2007) use exogenous variation in rebel recruitment methods—namely, the near-random forced recruitment in certain rural areas—to estimate its impact on adolescents and young adults. These youth are more likely to have persistent injuries, accumulate less schooling and work experience, are less likely to be engaged in skilled work, and earn lower wages as adults. Psychological trauma and community rejection, meanwhile, is concentrated in the small minority that experienced the most violence. The conclusion that emerges is that military experience is a poor substitute for civilian education and labor market experience. In settings where a large share of male youth actively participated in the fighting, aggregate economic impacts could be quantitatively important.” pg 62-63

  • 8. “This report presents an analysis of killings that have been documented in the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria) between March 2011 and April 2014, based on five datasets. Based on a comparison of records from these five sources, HRDAG found a total of 191 369 unique records of documented killings. Importantly, this enumeration should not be inferred to include only civilian victims. The status of the victims as combatants or non-combatants is unknown for all but a few records, but both statuses are reported. Therefore, collectively the data sources include records of both combatants and noncombatants.” Price, Gohdes, and Ball 2014, pg 3
  • 9. “An estimated 10.7 million individuals were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution in 2013. This includes 8.2 million persons newly displaced within the borders of their own country, the highest figure on record. (2) The other 2.5 million individuals were new refugees – the highest number of new arrivals since 1994.” UNHCR 2013, pg 2
  • 10. Economist 2013
  • 11. “While men typically bear the brunt of the direct effects of armed conflict, women suffer disproportionately the indirect effects such as increased domestic violence and rape. While statistics are hard to come by, examples of gender based violence in fragile states abound. In DRC, 48 women are raped every hour, and 52% of Afghan women have been victims of physical domestic violence.” OECD Factsheet 2013, pg 2
  • 12. “The direct humanitarian consequences of war for survivors are enormous in physical insecurity, loss of property, and psychological trauma. There may also be lasting economic development costs for societies that experience violent civil conflicts. And the international “spillover” effects of conflicts can be large for neighboring countries faced with refugee flows, lawlessness on their borders, and the illicit trades in drugs, arms, and minerals that proliferate in conflict zones.” Miguel 2007, pg 50
  • 13.

    • “USIP works to promote the peaceful resolution of international conflict. The institute works across the full ‘life cycle’ or continuum of conflict—from prevention and early warning to management, mediation, and negotiation, through to post-­conflict peacebuilding.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Steve Riskin, November 26, 2013, pg 1
    • ”What is ODA [Official Development Assistance] to fragile states for? Like in more stable contexts, aid can play a unique role in saving lives, bringing about structural change for poverty reduction, and catalysing non-aid flows and behaviours. But in fragile situations the New Deal identifies five peacebuilding and statebuilding goals (Box 2.1) as the most strategic and effective objectives [Legitimate politics, Security, Justice, Economic foundations, and Revunues and services].” OECD Fragile States 2013, pg 51, 55

  • 14. “USIP also works to improve relationships and help facilitate the resolution of disputes between ethnic, religious, or political groups in an effort to prevent violent conflict. This work includes formal and informal education and helping groups to understand each other. For example, USIP-supported documentary films helped actual or potential parties to violent conflict to understand how peoples in other settings have worked through similar conflicts. In addition, USIP funds (and implements) programs to train NGOs, and international civil servants and others to undertake conflict prevention and early warning efforts.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Steve Riskin, November 26, 2013, pg 1
  • 15. “One possible approach is for more foreign aid to explicitly play an insurance role. I call this new type of aid Rapid Conflict Prevention Support (RCPS). RCPS aid would target countries experiencing temporary income drops due to poor weather or adverse commodity price movements, both of which are easily monitored by aid donors (using existing databases such as the Famine Early Warning System for Africa).” Miguel 2007, pg 56
  • 16. ”The Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) is committed to promoting social justice through its grantmaking and developmental support work in Bangladesh. There is an important emphasis on community empowerment and an awareness of human and group rights within its work with ethnic communities that are impoverished and experience discrimination. The MJF is a proactive foundation which, as shown in this research‑based case study into social justice or lack of it in Bangladesh, especially for the minority Saontal community, reduces potential conflict through its partnership work on social justice issues, thus helping retain peace in a fragile socioeconomic and political context.” Foundations for Peace 2009, pg 49
  • 17. “USIP has also funded work to analyze flows of weaponry and to enhance understanding about relations between ethnic, religious or political groups within some countries to try to anticipate and prevent conflict.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Steve Riskin, November 26, 2013, pg 1
  • 18. GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Darren Kew, September 13, 2013:
    • “Interest in conflict early warning systems and conflict prevention strategies developed during the early 1990s. The Secretary-General of the United Nations at the time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was interested in such systems because he thought that the UN should use preventive diplomacy to limit conflict. The Council on Foreign Relations and the Carnegie Corporation of New York funded early studies of conflict prevention strategies.” pg 1
    • “In the last several years, many early warning scholars, activists, and organizations have shifted their focus toward the local level. Instead of producing national-level reports, organizations enter localities where violence is emerging and work with local communities to prevent further violence. The advantages of local conflict prevention work include:
      • National governments are generally more receptive to organizations that work locally than organizations that try to influence power arrangements at a national level.
      • Emphasizing local responses prevents organizations from being overwhelmed by large - scale problems. For example, when early warning systems focused at a national level, they often saw economic development and political reform as the solutions to conflict, but large systematic changes such as these can be nearly insurmountable from the perspective of a single organization.” pg 2

  • 19. “USIP has also funded a body of research to improve the effectiveness of negotiation. This includes a series of studies on cross-cultural negotiation that explores the negotiating styles of key countries around the world including Russia, China, Pakistan, France, Germany, Iran and the United States. In addition, The Institute supported a study that resulted in Engaging Extremists: Trade-Offs, Timing, and Diplomacy, edited by I. William Zartman and Guy Olivier Faure, a book that probes the complex issue of engaging with extremist groups — whether to negotiate, and, if so, how, when and under what conditions.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Steve Riskin, November 26, 2013, pg 2
  • 20. Oslo Forum 2013, pgs 12-14
  • 21. Foundations for Peace 2009:
    • Leadership and communication programs in Sri Lanka, pgs 10-17.
    • Re-integration of ex-prisoners in Northern Ireland, pgs 27-34.
    • Lobbying for reparations in Colombia, pgs 18-26.
    • Women’s empowerment in Nepal, pgs 43-48.

  • 22.
    “This notion of ―accelerated modernization through transplantation of best practice has powerful attractions. Unfortunately, by now (2010) it is obviously false as a universally applicable development strategy. There have been too many nation-states which have adopted the forms of Weberian civil service bureaucracies and yet have not seen the corresponding increase in state capability (more on the empirics of this below) to continue to believe that ―form follows function is a workable general theory of change.” Pritchett and de Weijer 2010 pg 4
  • 23.

  • 24. Peace and Security Funders Group 2010, pg 31
  • 25. For example, ”[Humanity United’s] Largest Grant 2009: $2,250,000 one-year grant to the Center for American Progress toward establishment of a cohesive and sustainable US-based constituency against mass violence and to ensure that members of this constituency effectively influence ongoing policy debates.” PSFG Supplemental Information 2010, pg 11
  • 26. For example, ”[United States Institute of Peace’s] Largest Grant 2009: $600,000 two-year grant to the Institute of World Affairs for a study to determine how to best build sustainable peace out of societies emerging from war.” PSFG Supplemental Information 2010, pg 16
  • 27. Peace and Security Funders Group 2010, pgs 13, 21.
  • 28. GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Darren Kew, September 13, 2013
    • ”Interest in conflict early warning systems and conflict prevention strategies developed during the early 1990s. The Secretary-General of the United Nations at the time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was interested in such systems because he thought that the UN should use preventive diplomacy to limit conflict. The Council on Foreign Relations and the Carnegie Corporation of New York funded early studies of conflict prevention strategies.” pg 1
    • ”The Carnegie Corporation still works on conflict early warning, but it has shifted its focus.” pg 4

  • 29. ”ODA to fragile states represented USD 50 billion, or 38% of total ODA in 2010 (Figure 4). In the average fragile state, ODA is the biggest financial flow, followed by remittances and FDI, although aid dependency (measured ODA/GDP) is generally less in middle-income fragile states than low-income fragile states.”OECD Factsheet 2013, pg 4
  • 30. ”The favoured channel of delivery for ODA to fragile states is the public sector (34% of ODA, against 50% of ODA to non-fragile states), followed by multilateral channels (21%, against 12% of ODA to non-fragile states).” OECD Factsheet 2013, pg 4
  • 31. Many foreign governmental and quasi-governmental agencies, particularly those in Europe and Canada, fund programs under the peace and security rubric or in closely allied fields. In addition to analogues to USAID, there are government-funded agencies, some akin to USIP, such as Oxfam Novib and Cordaid in the Netherlands, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Authority and Denmark’s Danida. Whether focusing on poverty alleviation, justice, human rights or other development work, these kinds of donors support directly or indirectly the advancement of peace and security.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Steve Riskin, November 26, 2013 pg 4
  • 32. OECD Factsheet 2013:
    • “Across countries, ODA to fragile states is highly concentrated: half of total ODA to fragile states and economies went to only 7 recipients (out of 47): Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the DRC, Haiti, Pakistan, the West Bank and Gaza and Iraq (Figure 4). Per capita, top recipients are Micronesia, the Solomon Islands and the West Bank and Gaza,” pg 4.
    • “Based on aid and growth prospects, countries that would warrant particular attention in the coming years include those that combine projections of falling aid and:
      • are considered chronically under-aided: Niger
      • slow growth: Sudan, Chad and Kosovo
      • high aid-dependency: Afghanistan.” pg 8