Externality Fallacies in International Aid


We like models, don’t we? We claim that they represent a simplified reality that helps us make sense of it and serve as guidance for taking action. Accepted, it does in many instances (especially in well ordered situations when the cause-effect relations are observable and/or future developments are mostly in line with the extrapolated past trend). But what happens when some developments do not fit into any existing model? Then in a customary manner we are quick to dismiss them as anomaly that has to be brought back to the norm of the known models.

Take, for example the notion of democracy promotion and democratic transition. All former colonies and, in the same vein, post-communist countries were expected to make a quick and effective transition from their non-democratic regimes to elected and then liberal democracies. It was assumed with little consideration given to unique cultural features of those societies and to their readiness to do so. The reality has shown that this is not the case. Then the notion of ‘grey areas’ was introduced to explain that those countries which did not make it to democracy were lost somewhere in-between but eventually would have to be driven on the predefined route, or otherwise they risk of reverting back to authoritarian rule—with no third option allowed. Not necessarily, it appears—at least not in such a simplistic manner.

What we failed to appreciate is the difference between the commonly accepted set of defined democratic values and the variety of forms that democracy as a governance regime based on those values may take, depending on local political culture and institutions. Also, the mechanistic understanding of such ‘transition’ fails to take into consideration that in order to become sustainable, the reforms will demand a cultural change which time-wise could be expected to take no less than a generational span (independently of the amount of effort, money and pressure invested externally).

And finally, we tried to model those transitions as flawless and irreversible—yet another failure to appreciate that even liberal democracies keep evolving and there is nothing surprising if at times this process turns into zigzagging and iterations, in an attempt of finding the optimal adjustment of political system to the changed external circumstances, let alone high-impact ‘surprises’.

(There are countries, such as Argentina, known for this kind of iterative democratic development. And it seems that the outcry of ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary and Poland is exaggerated; the policies of their elected governments signal more of a search of effective adaptive strategies in the face of daunting economic and social problems rather than of turning back to European liberalism).

The same holds true with regard to ending violent conflicts and peacebuilding. So frequently we tend to overestimate the effects of globalisation and see the interaction between local and global as a one-way street, although the evidence suggests that the influence is reciprocal, and to be absorbed by local contexts the global trend (or external influence) has to be ‘glocalised’. On the other hand, there is another fallacy of assuming that the solutions offered (if not imposed) by the developed/industrialised world actors are superior to those home-grown initiatives of local political players in the developing countries. Even driven by the best of intentions, external interventions may distort the inherent logic of internal conflict, which is a product of an interaction of many factors acting within a unique set of local political, economic, social contexts.

Locally owned democratic reforms and peacebuilding processes may not look as logical and attractive as externally promoted/imposed models, but they are effective–not the least because they derive from and are built in local culture, contexts, and institutions.

In any case, whether it is democratic reform or ending the conflict–only when the solutions are driven and owned by domestic actors, there is a chance that the meaningful development (including constitution building) or peace deal would be concluded, and respected and implemented afterwards. And we have to be ready to accept that it may take decades for them to come to realise that only through cooperative strategies they would achieve the final settlement (which is never a zero-sum outcome but something that demands concessions from all sides but still they can live with that)—if, of course, the democratic state and sustainable peace are the final goals and the contest/infighting has not turned into a self-sustaining endeavour when keeping the confrontation and thus status quo going is an end it itself and not a means to achieving the goal.

(These fallacies of international assistance have been recognised and pointed to on numerous occasions and by various institutional agents and leaders over years. For example, the latest, 2015 OECD report on the States of Fragility (formerly known as fragile states), lists fifty such states in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Oceania and concludes that ‘far greater international political will is needed to support nationally owned and led plans, build national institutions’. Note that the majority of those fragile states have been recipients of international aid for decades.)

That said there are various types of internal conflict and a variety of conflict drivers interact in any given violent confrontation, and they are set in a certain external geopolitical field with many interests—so I am far from drawing yet another model here, but rather intend at pointing to some fundamental issues which have been somehow neglected in the international community’s involvement in domestic violent conflicts and civil wars across the globe.

Whether ‘give war a chance’ or ‘give peace a chance’ should not be formulated as a dilemma, in my opinion. There is another dimension to resolving internal conflicts, which may well amalgamate these two within a flexible, adaptive and ecologically rational approach—as demonstrated by some successful experiences in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Among most recent are Colombia and Myanmar—they may not look as attractive as models but they are real and effective. Not such examples in the Middle East yet… or are they in making?

This article originally appeared as a blog post on PolicyLabs under the headline ‘Democracy and Conflict: Real-life Solutions vs. Models



One thought on “Externality Fallacies in International Aid

  1. Pingback: Building Peace and Democracy in Myanmar, Brick by Brick | Security, Conflict and International Development (SCID)

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