The tragic series of events that have struck South Sudan and the Central African Republic in recent months are of deep concern to us all. But for the g7+ – the group of post-conflict states that I serve as General Secretary – we have felt these countries’ pain particularly keenly. All g7+ members have recent experience of the kind of instability and bloodshed now rocking South Sudan and CAR. We know first-hand how conflict is ‘development in reverse’, and that a return to conflict can set progress back by decades.

South Sudan and CAR are both pilot countries for the ‘New Deal for engagement in Fragile States’, the landmark agreement endorsed by 44 countries and international organisations in Busan, Korea in 2011. The New Deal sets out to fundamentally change the way the international community works with countries emerging from or at risk of conflict, recognising that these states have been poorly served by dominant aid approaches designed for non-fragile environments.

Some have argued that, two years after it was signed, the concept of the New Deal is in crisis. Immediately following last week’s first Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation High-Level Meeting in Mexico – a meeting seeking to shape the aid landscape for the coming decades – now is a good time to reflect on where we have travelled since Busan, and how far we still have to go.

The New Deal is more necessary than ever

If recent events in CAR, South Sudan and elsewhere teach us anything, it is that the principals behind the New Deal are not only sound, but more necessary than ever.

The New Deal calls for peacebuilding and statebuilding objectives to be put at the forefront of international efforts in conflict-affected countries. That means helping these countries and their governments to strengthen security and justice systems, supporting inclusive political settlements and ensuring citizens have access to the jobs and basic services to help re-build their trust in the state. It calls on international aid organisations to ensure that everything they do in these environments serves to reinforce peace and statebuilding.

The New Deal also calls for donors – bilateral aid agencies, UN agencies, and International Financial Institutions – to change their modus operandi in a fundamental way. Operating effectively in countries in danger of falling back into conflict demands risk-taking, speedy action, flexibility, persistence, and even creativity.

SPLM Rally Juba 05/07/11

Genuine statebuilding demands great investments of time, resources and political will, along with a willingness to accept the new risks and uncertainties associated with change. With the New Deal, we will get out of it what we put in.

The tragedy is that – as the signing of the New Deal demonstrates – the ‘better angels’ within development agencies know these things. They know what works. But the systems they work within appear stubbornly resistant to change. Of course when dealing with huge bureaucracies, beholden to cautious taxpayers, implementing reform is difficult. But in the case of the New Deal, behaviour change from aid organisations has thus far been a chimera.

We are in a marathon, not a sprint

So what lessons can we draw from all this? First, we must recognise that the re-orientation of international engagement in post-conflict countries is first and foremost a political process, requiring real political commitment on all sides. To achieve change on the ground, the New Deal must change mind-sets and shift priorities at the very highest levels. Yet since Busan, too often it has been seen as a technocratic exercise; something that can be ‘implemented’ by one or two ministries and their local donors. We need to bring the politics back in. This means building momentum and commitment to change at all levels of society, from the grassroots to the President.

Second, we need to practice ‘strategic patience’, and recognise that some parts of the New Deal are going to take time. We are in a marathon, not a sprint. In particular, generating greater country ownership over the development agenda requires the undoing of years of established practice, the un-silencing of national voices, the resumption of real leadership and accountability by our weakened government institutions, which for years have been beholden to multiple external agendas. Country ownership requires new types of dialogue between donors, government actors and civil society, and deep consultation with our citizens on their priorities and aspirations. Fragile state capacity is by definition smaller than that of our donors. We need more time than our development partners.

Third, donors and international organisations need to resist the urge to do the easy things first. A desire to rush ahead with New Deal processes such as Fragility Assessments and Compacts has arguably resulted in a loss of quality. Processes intended to enable consultation among our citizens have instead tended to be driven by international consultants to fit donor schedules. Meanwhile, the things that donors really have within their power to grant – the changes to their aid and operating policies – have been de-prioritised.

The mistake many New Deal enthusiasts made was to think that any of this was going to be easy. Over-hyped expectations combined with an under-estimation of the difficulties involved, has led many of us to rush to demonstrate technical results rather than slowly working towards real change. We need to remember the maxim “more haste, less speed”.

Genuine statebuilding demands great investments of time, resources and political will, along with a willingness to accept the new risks and uncertainties associated with change. With the New Deal, we will get out of it what we put in.

Two years on from the Busan High Level Forum, we should celebrate the fact that we have started this journey together, reflect on how much further we have to travel, and steel ourselves for the long walk ahead.



Dr. Helder da Costa is General Secretary of the g7+ Secretariat, based in Dili, Timor-Leste. Currently he is representing the g7+ on the Steering Committee of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation. A version of this article originally appeared on the Guardian’s  Poverty Matters Blog