Donors are usually generous in post-conflict situations, providing advice, expertise, and funds to help fragile countries get back on their feet. The idea is to move beyond economic development, rebuilding the entire state ecosystem, including institutions, civil society, and core government functions. In recent years, well-meaning benefactors have reached out to countries as diverse as Bolivia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Nepal after—or even during—disruptive conflicts.

But abundant resources are not enough. Sometimes, good intentions generate harmful side effects. This is a risk the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) recognized in its 2010 report, Do No Harm: International Support for Statebuilding. Policy reforms and aid can undermine the state’s ability to fulfill its basic functions: provide security and rule of law, raise revenue through taxation, manage economic development, and provide public services. For example:

  • Aid delivered outside state budgets can prevent governments from developing public financial management skills, including budgeting, planning, accountability, and coordination.
  • Donors can undermine “shadow public sectors,” especially where vulnerable governments have little experience delivering services. This denies governments the chance to build critical service delivery capacity themselves.
  • Generously-funded development programs can create a local “brain drain,” making it harder for governments to hire and keep top talent.
  • Failing to grasp the impact developmental policies have on local political dynamics can undermine “buy in” by powerful elites.

The OECD’s “do no harm” approach helps donors understand the tradeoffs between delivering aid and causing unintentional harm to the statebuilding process. While circumstances vary by country and program, the OECD’s findings can be used in designing effective post-conflict aid programs.

For example:

  • Big-picture strategic objectives may not always align with local statebuilding goals. For example, donor country policies to promote regional economic integration, limit global warming, or promote human rights may have implications when applied locally in a post-conflict setting. Donors should recognize and consider these potential conflicts when designing their programs.
  • Support for electoral processes can be harmful if they do not lead to an inclusive political settlement or receive approval from local elites, as could happen when an ethnic minority group is left out. In such cases, donors may need to consider alternative power sharing arrangements.
  • Donors need a deep understanding of the interaction between NGOs and civil society before engaging with them. Failing to understand this can exacerbate tensions in state-society relationships and interfere with political processes.
  • Donors can positively contribute to statebuilding when their actions support perceptions of state legitimacy—for example, providing security and protecting property in a post-conflict setting.
  • Restoring livelihoods and creating employment opportunities is critical for people in post-conflict settings, many of whom live in extreme poverty.
  • Donor programs that contribute to livelihood protection can support state legitimacy, but can cause harm if they reduce employment in the informal economy.
  • Understanding local conditions, including the politics, culture, and history, is important for designing and executing effective programs in post-conflict areas. Donors will need more workers on the ground than they would in other development programs.

Adapted from Conflict and Fragility: Do No Harm: International Support for Statebuilding, OECD 2010.