Global Policy Forum

Failure Is Not an Option


By Bert Koenders and Eric Solheim

June 10, 2007

Many failed states like Burundi are still forgotten when it comes to development aid - and this neglect is increasing the risk of conflict.

"If we have learned anything from September 11," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman rightly wrote, "it is that if you don't visit a bad neighbourhood, it will visit you." Yet, more than five years after that day of infamy, the international community is still not committing the resources needed to draw its failed or, to use a better term, fragile states into the mainstream of democracy and development. Recently, the Netherlands and Norway invited other rich countries to visit one of the world's most neglected neighbourhoods: the wretched, war-torn African country of Burundi, next door to more widely known Rwanda and afflicted by many of the same problems, including a legacy of genocide.

There are around 35 fragile states in the world. Burundi is one of them. In these states, conflict or corruption has eaten away at government's capacity to do the main thing its citizens expect it to do. Since the end of the cold war, the vast majority of international crises have been triggered by states unable and sometimes unwilling to uphold the rule of law. State failure in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and Afghanistan not only caused unspeakable human suffering at home, but also compromised the international order through international terrorism, regional wars and the mass exodus of refugees. Human rights and the international order are one reason why fragile states should top the world's agenda. International development is another. As a recent World Bank report pointed out, of all developing countries, fragile states are the least likely to achieve the millennium development goals. Home to a 10th of the developing world's population, they have accounted over the past few years for almost a third, not only of its extreme poverty but also of its infant mortality and primary school drop-out rates. And when development fails to take root, the seeds of war can germinate. Each percentage point fall in economic growth rates adds a percentage point to the risk of conflict.

Given what's at stake, has the international community risen to the occasion? In our view, the international effort up to now could be characterised as too little, but not yet too late. According to the latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, many fragile states are still forgotten states when it comes to development aid, their main source of development finance. As aid to other low-income countries has risen, fragile states have been left behind. One of these aid orphans is Burundi, a small country at the heart of Africa. Like its neighbour Rwanda, the pages of its history are stained with the blood spilled in a complicated conflict. The 1993 assassination of its first democratically elected president triggered yet another civil conflict, which lasted more than a decade and cost more than 250,000 lives. But after all this carnage - largely unnoticed by world opinion - there is now a historic opportunity to turn the page. Since the democratic elections of August 2005, President Nkurunziza has at long last brought some security to a chronically insecure country, even enabling him to lift the midnight-to-dawn curfew, which was in force for 13 years. Over the years other African countries, particularly the Regional Initiative under the leadership of South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, have assisted the peace-process in Burundi, including a cease-fire agreement between the government and the last remaining rebel group of Burundi, the FNL, from September 2006.

Now it is up to the rest of the world to build on that national and regional leadership and give Burundi the chance finally to emerge from fragility, as other African countries such as Uganda and Mozambique did before. Again, heart and head are pushing us in the same direction and urging us to engage more closely with fragile states. Impoverished Burundi would be a good place to start. With its work on Burundi, the UN's new peacebuilding commission has already garnered political commitment throughout the developed world. Now we need to make a financial commitment too. For all its fragility, the level of aid Burundi currently receives is still relatively low compared to its needs and its policy and institutional quality. With tough anticorruption controls tied to a $1.3bn aid package - only a dollar a head for the entire population of the developed world - we could finance a big push in good governance, sustainable development, security, education and the fight against HIV/Aids.

The recent aid conference in Burundi's capital Bujumbura, cosponsored by the Netherlands and Norway, triggered half that amount. While a positive outcome in principle, in practice that sum will only get Burundi halfway through the no man's land between war and peace. That is why in the coming period, we will continue our appeal to the donor community. Burundi's national motto is "unity, work and progress". Now that unity has finally been restored, Burundians are ready and able to work on progress. Let's work with them.

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