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From Haiti to Afghanistan to Ethiopia, the Challenge of Supporting Fragile States
25th August 2021 • Trending Globally: Politics and Policy • Trending Globally: Politics & Policy
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It’s been a summer of crisis in some of the world’s most fragile states. 

At Trending Globally, we’ve found ourselves asking the same questions over and over lately -- are the world’s rich countries simply not doing enough to help fragile states around the world? Or are they helping, but in the wrong way? 

On this episode guest host Dan Richards talks with Brian Atwood, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute, about the unique challenges of providing aid to fragile states. Brian led the U.S. Agency for International Development - known as USAID - under President Clinton. He was also dean of the Humphrey School for Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota from 2002 until 2010. Brian explains what the international community is getting wrong when it comes to helping the world’s fragile states, and what we might change to make it right. 

You can get more information about this and every other Trending Globally episode, including transcripts, by visiting our website here

You can learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts here


[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards.

It's been a summer of crisis in many of the world's most fragile states.


- Global leaders are raising alarm about widespread famine in the Tigray region of Ethiopia with food used as a weapon of war amid ethnic conflict in the area.

- Tens of thousands of Afghans swarmed into Kabul Airport, desperate to leave at any price.

- We're seeing new evidence of the scale of devastation from Saturday's earthquake in Haiti.

- All this just weeks after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise.


DAN RICHARDS: At Trending Globally, we found herself asking the same question over and over this summer. How do these kinds of tragedies and crises keep happening in places that have been the focus of so much foreign aid? Are the world's rich countries simply not helping enough, or are they maybe helping in the wrong way? And if that's the case, what can we actually do to help fragile states become stable, prosperous ones?

To get answers, we turned to Brian Atwood, a visiting fellow at Watson. He led the US Agency for International Development, known as USAID, under President Clinton. He was also the dean of the Humphrey School for Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota from Two Thousand Two to Twenty-Ten. On this episode, you'll hear from Brian about what the international community is getting wrong when it comes to helping the world's fragile states. We'll also explore what we might change to get it right.

Haiti, Ethiopia, Afghanistan-- these are very different countries in very different parts of the world. Many of their issues are very different, but they're all what the international community would call fragile states. So how do we define a fragile state? Here's Brian.

BRIAN ATWOOD: In particular, it's a state where the institutions of government simply don't work. Most commonly, these are states that have come out of a civil war. There is a lack of human security, if you will. They can't depend on government to protect them and provide welfare for the people.

And usually, there's a very poor distribution of wealth. That's characteristic. You have the elites that don't seem to care much about the poor in the country, and the poor may represent 80% to 90% of the country. And basically, this kind of poverty undermines social cohesion and makes the government of such a country very vulnerable.

DAN RICHARDS: You probably have images of what this might look like, but for this episode, let's take a specific example, a country that's received billions of in foreign aid over the years, yet seems to be in as deep a crisis as it's ever been.

BRIAN ATWOOD: Well, Haiti, of course, is an interesting case study.

DAN RICHARDS: Haiti's history, even a brief outline of it, makes two things clear, the first, how political, environmental, and economic issues can compound and create a vicious cycle of fragility; second, that foreign aid and assistance can not work in a wide variety of ways. So let's start back a few years with Napoleon.


BRIAN ATWOOD: The people of Haiti basically overthrew the French government, defeated Napoleon's army, if you will. It was a war of attrition, but eventually, they were able to declare their own independence.

tarted as a slave uprising in:

BRIAN ATWOOD: However, their government wasn't run very well.

DAN RICHARDS: Haiti experienced continual conflicts and regime changes over the next century. It didn't help that the United States, wary of a country governed by freed slaves, refused to acknowledge Haiti's legitimacy, but that didn't stop the US from forming a now-familiar relationship between rich and poorer countries. Here's what I mean. In Haiti, in the early 20th century--

ble to pay back the loans. In:

It wasn't a pretty sight. It wasn't a positive thing. It was our form of colonialism. They didn't come out until the FDR administration. Then you go through the Duvalier years, Papa Doc and Baby Doc, and those were very oppressive dictatorships.


support, ran the country from:

BRIAN ATWOOD: Finally, the people rose up, and Baby Doc was exiled out of the country. And then a very charismatic priest by the name of Aristide, a liberation theologist who was actually elected.

trand Aristide was elected in:

The years after Two Thousand Four were filled with political unrest in Haiti, and then--


- There has been a huge earthquake, magnitude 7.0, just off the coast of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

- It is hard to imagine a country less able to cope with a devastating earthquake.

- And we have a statement just out from President Obama. He says his thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been affected by this earthquake. He's also directed his staff to begin preparing a humanitarian assistance package.


DAN RICHARDS: This earthquake was the worst to hit the country in two centuries. It killed hundreds of thousands of people and left over a million people homeless. Since then, over $13 billion in aid has been directed towards Haiti.

In Twenty-Sixteen, an American-educated businessman named Jovenel Moise was elected president. He was framed as a reformer by his supporters, but not everyone saw it that way.


BRIAN ATWOOD: This president was very controversial. He was a businessman who was becoming more and more authoritarian as the days went by. There was a controversy over his initial election, so he didn't even take office for a full year until that was resolved.

So then he said, I expect to stay another year, and he was basically taking on authoritarian or dictatorial powers to say, I'm going to stay for a year. I'm not going to hold an election. That's when this plot was made against him.

DAN RICHARDS: Moise, as you probably know, was assassinated earlier this summer, throwing the country back into political chaos, and about one month after his assassination, Haiti was hit by another earthquake. That was just a few weeks ago.

BRIAN ATWOOD: That's a long story, but that's a sad story for Haiti.

DAN RICHARDS: Haiti's story is, in so many ways, singular, but hopefully, this grim overview illustrates how environmental issues, political violence, and economic suffering can create a vicious cycle of fragility in a country. It reminds me of something Brian said when we spoke.

BRIAN ATWOOD: It's always the goal of development to work yourself out of a job.

DAN RICHARDS: Unfortunately, people working in development and foreign aid in Haiti have been gainfully employed for a long time. So what role can the international community play in breaking this cycle? How can aid organizations finally work themselves out of a job in Haiti?


One thing they need to do, according to Brian, is develop a clear sense of priorities, especially when working in a country that's suffered on as many different fronts as Haiti has. Have you ever heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs? You can think of it like a sort of pyramid. At the base are the fundamental things humans require to survive. As you move your way up, the, quote, "needs" get a little more lofty and complex.

The theory is that you need to satisfy everything on one level of the pyramid before you can move up to achieving this stuff on the next level. Brian and others in the foreign aid world use it when thinking about how to help countries like Haiti. So let's take a quick tour of the hierarchy. At the base--

BRIAN ATWOOD: It's basic human needs-- food, water, housing. People, basically, if they have no food and no water, they're going to be desperate, and who knows how to act on that?

DAN RICHARDS: Once that's satisfied, we move up a level to what Maslow identified as safety and security.

BRIAN ATWOOD: You can have food and water, and if you feel insecure, you're going to act out as well.

DAN RICHARDS: After that?

BRIAN ATWOOD: Love and belonging, as in Maslow's words-- that means family and community.

DAN RICHARDS: And at the top, once people have all of that--

BRIAN ATWOOD: Esteem and self actualization. I mean, you get that if you feel all of the other things, your basic human needs, and your safety are taken care of, and you're able to read books and become educated and actualize yourself. That's the hierarchy of needs.

DAN RICHARDS: Free and fair elections and an accountable military-- they're more like in the top half of the hierarchy, and while they might seem like the most important things during a political crisis, if the ones beneath them aren't met, you're probably not setting any new government up for long-term success. When Brian was head of the USAID under President Clinton, a lot of his focus was on securing the bottom levels of that pyramid for people living in fragile states. One of his first projects was in Haiti, working on solving the two bottommost rungs sort of at the same time.

BRIAN ATWOOD: We trained some of the former military to be farmers. We took away their weapons and gave them farm implements. We basically wanted to make sure that that military would no longer be a threat to Haitian society.

DAN RICHARDS: Reduce the potential for violence, give people jobs, provide more food-- sounds like a win all around, but interventions like that one are actually much harder to implement than they might sound. One of the main reasons is that, given the violent history of colonialism and foreign occupation in countries like Haiti, any type of assistance that even echoes that sort of relationship will probably be met with suspicion, which is totally fair. The solution, as Brian puts it--

BRIAN ATWOOD: You have to be very careful to establish a trust. I mean, if you're going to put in a peacekeeping force, that peacekeeping force has to, in some ways, reflect the kinds of people that live in that society. I was very impressed by the peacekeeping force that went into Haiti during the Clinton administration because it was made up of neighboring countries, and many of the US military that went in were of Haitian Americans. They were intentionally recruited to go into Haiti.

DAN RICHARDS: So in addition to prioritizing needs, successful aid interventions also need to consider how to build trusting relationships in the country they're working in. There's also a third thing that needs to be considered when it comes to foreign aid, and that is timing.

BRIAN ATWOOD: We pay a lot of attention when there is a crisis. It makes the headlines, and then all of a sudden, even the desire to continue to help sort of fades away. The big crisis in Haiti was a natural crisis. It was the earthquake of years ago. It killed 300,000 people, including a colleague of mine that was working for the National Democratic Institute, but many, many, many Haitians died and were dislocated.

The famous White Palace where Aristide and Duvalier's-- and I've been in that palace-- was absolutely destroyed. So to think that you can recover from that even within a generation is unrealistic.


DAN RICHARDS: Assistance needs to be deployed reliably between crises for as long as the bottom of that hierarchy of needs isn't being met. So aid to fragile states needs to do a few things, then-- one, help people stay healthy and safe and set them up to climb higher up Maslow's hierarchy of needs; two, be trusted by the people who live in the country you're working in; and three, sustain itself even when there isn't an immediate crisis.

But how do you make all of that happen in a country that, by its definition, is fragile, that's unequal and unstable? Here's what Brian thinks.

BRIAN ATWOOD: Go local, local ownership. If people don't really feel that they're owning the program, the chance of achieving real sustainable results, results that endure, are much less. I mean, resources are important. Money is important for people, but it's also important to direct that money at a particular project, whether it's creating a school, buying books, making sure that kids are educated, and making sure the health care system works at the local level.

DAN RICHARDS: In addition to being locally based, projects also need to be individualized, tailored to the communities they're in. Brian told me about someone who really modeled how to do this in his career. His name was Robert Gersony, and he was a consultant to the State Department and USAID for over 40 years. He visited and reported on the needs of countless fragile states during his career.

BRIAN ATWOOD: He went everywhere from the border of North Korea to Rwanda to Uganda to the Middle East to Gaza and basically interviewed people to find out what they really wanted. He found out, for example, in Gaza that youth were a real problem. If you didn't do something for young people, they were going to become terrorists, possibly.

So he set up a sports system so that they would be able to play football, soccer, and people were raving about programs like that. And I mean, he basically interviewed people extensively so that there was no doubt about what the people needed. Every time you are listening carefully, you'll come up with really good projects.

DAN RICHARDS: So there is some good news, and there's some bad news. The good news, when it comes to thinking of aid in local and specific ways--

BRIAN ATWOOD: There's a strong consensus among development experts that that's the way to go.

DAN RICHARDS: The bad news, this kind of work is still really hard to pull off. Part of the reason for that is because as you could hear from Brian's examples, these types of projects are often highly individualized, depending on the place, and they're often kind of small in scale. And a lot of the world's foreign aid infrastructure isn't built for working on a small scale.

BRIAN ATWOOD: And the problem with some of the large donors, even like USAID, the Agency for International Development, is that they're involved in big projects, and the World Bank is the same way. They've got to get a lot of money out the door, so they go to a big nongovernmental organization or nonprofit or a for-profit organization and take on huge health or education projects.

DAN RICHARDS: Smaller, diffuse projects can also be riskier to fund.

BRIAN ATWOOD: In the case, say, of the United States Agency for International Development, you're using American taxpayers' money, so you've got to track it. You've got to make sure it isn't being wasted. You are less willing to take risks.

You have a bureaucracy and oversight. You have a General Accountability Office that oversees everything you're doing. You've got an inspector general that's watching you to make sure the money isn't wasted.

Well, some degree of waste in some of these really poor countries is inevitable, but it seems inevitable that you should be taking a few risks with it as well. And if something isn't working, fine. You have the flexibility to change it, move it around so that something is working, but a lot of that flexibility isn't built into the system.


DAN RICHARDS: It seems like we're at a moment when lots of experts like Brian understand that things need to change in terms of how we provide aid to fragile states, yet many of our institutions haven't made the necessary adjustments to let that happen. And it's essential that they do, not just for the people living in fragile states, but for all of us. This is probably something you, our listeners, already know, but it's worth repeating. Brian put it to me this way.

BRIAN ATWOOD: Problems at home do relate to what's happening overseas, and if we don't work with other countries to try to solve them, we're going to suffer ourselves.

DAN RICHARDS: Examples of this are, oh, everywhere.

BRIAN ATWOOD: Right now in Africa, you're seeing a resurgence of this COVID variant called Delta, and if we don't get vaccinations out to those people, it's all going to come back and hit us again. And it already is starting.

DAN RICHARDS: Another example--

BRIAN ATWOOD: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that came out was devastating. It basically says we've already gone a long way down the path of getting to the 2.7% Fahrenheit increase that is going to cause serious problems. We're losing the rainforest double the size of the country of France every year, and that means a lot of biological entities are being destroyed at the same time. It's a serious transnational problem.

DAN RICHARDS: Climate change is, of course, transnational in more ways than one.

BRIAN ATWOOD: I've just been involved in a study that Refugees International did for the Biden administration on migration and climate change, when people see the number of refugees or displaced people in the world more than ever before, and we're paying a large bill for that. So I think Americans ought to be able to understand better today their vulnerability to infectious disease, to climate change, to all of these factors that, in many cases, start from the fragile states of the world.

DAN RICHARDS: Thankfully, Brian sees some signs that change in the world of foreign aid might finally be coming.

BRIAN ATWOOD: I'm encouraged by what the Bush administration is doing with respect to its emphasis on local ownership.

DAN RICHARDS: Under President Biden, USAID is putting a new emphasis on locally based projects and seems open to thinking about foreign aid in new ways.

BRIAN ATWOOD: That may mean changing a few of our US procurement laws. It'll mean changing the bureaucratic culture. It'll mean that some of the organizations that sit in Washington within the Beltway that expect to get USAID money won't be getting as much.

DAN RICHARDS: International agencies, government contractors, Congress-- these are not groups famous for their flexibility. Making mainstream the types of changes we've heard about from Brian in this episode-- it's not going to be easy, and even if everyone gets on board with these ideas, there's still no clear map out of the woods for a country like Haiti. There's still going to be a lot of work to do, but thanks to people like Brian who have been pushing the international community to think locally, specifically, and long term, more and more projects are at least helping to point fragile states in the right direction.


This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Kate Dario. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield, additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps others find us, and make sure you subscribe to us, too. You can find us by searching for Trending Globally on all the podcast apps.

You can learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcasts on our website. We'll put a link to that in the show notes. Thanks for listening. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally.




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