Grey zones at the heart of development

Les zones grises au cœur du développement
Article Index
Forgotten crises
The international cost of crises

“Grey zones” of globalization represent a key issue of international governance. These zones of political chaos and armed conflict, where growing numbers of the inhabitant populations challenge the right and legitimacy of the central institutions, are an indication of a geopolitical recomposition. They confront development actors with a series of challenges of a new type. How can we provide support to these zones and avoid the marginalization of whole sections of the planet?

In this respect, 2014 was marked by particularly acute episodes of violence and conflicts in Ukraine, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, the Sahel and the Middle East, with the development of the ISIS movement. Although it is important to be wary of the magnifying effect of the media, two significant trends are emerging.

Firstly, professional communities of humanitarian workers and journalists have faced a new scale of attacks while doing their jobs. For some time, these actors have benefited from relative protection in war zones due to their neutrality in terms of the conflicts between warring groups. Today they are often placed in extremely vulnerable situations, targeted by terrorist attacks and many types of reprisals and threatened with abduction. Only a few decades after the conflict in Vietnam or Biafra, the ability of the international community to testify to the suffering of the most vulnerable groups of humanity and to help these people, is thus being challenged.

There is a strong disintegration of social norms and the development of situations that are close to lawlessness in some parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in zones where ​​Boko Haram or the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) are active. The traditional and modern references that have historically regulated the social space have largely disappeared in these areas, to be replaced by a habitus that is marked by violence. Such violence is perpetrated by people without access to basic education, who have been traumatized by successions of crises and trapped in situations of chronic underdevelopment. In the Central African Republic, the year 2014 thus saw an unleashing of a particularly chaotic chain of violent phenomena and a crystallization of resentment with extremely diverse origins that was clumsily labelled as being of religious origin by the international media, which has a tendency to oversimplify.

The difficulties of intervention

The management of these territories in chronic crisis, which have experienced several waves of devastating conflicts, is not a new issue. In the 1990s and 2000s, the international community has been involved in many peacekeeping and reconstruction interventions, such as in Somalia, the DRC, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the risk of reaching a stalemate was not averted and is today a barrier for engagement. Indeed, recent events in Libya, Syria, Mali and the Central African Republic have once again raised the question of the legitimacy of intervention, which cannot be considered in isolation from the issue of its effectiveness: if we are not able to rebuild, is it desirable to intervene and run the risk of increasing the complexity of the local situation?

While this complex question is beyond the scope of this article, we can at least note, with the benefit of experience gained from more than twenty years of foreign intervention, that the international community has not been very successful in solving these crises.

Crisis recovery has long been thought of as a series of phases involving different actors –from emergency through reconstruction to development. It was recognized then that these phases actually constituted a continuum, requiring the sequential mobilization of activities that needed better coordination. Today, chronic crises create multiple needs within a single country, including the need for stabilization, relief to people in distress and socio-economic development, which challenges our ability to simultaneously link humanitarian, security and reconstruction measures.

There is now a consensus that this triangle of actors (humanitarian, military, development actors) must operate in a much more integrated way. The well-known concept of “linking relief, rehabilitation and development” (LRRD) refers to the compelling need to combine short and long-term objectives, to avoid or escape from the conflict trap where violence and underdevelopment feed each other.

While clear progress has been made during recent crises, much remains to be done to ensure that the working cultures and methods of various actors provide greater consistency in the different aspects of crisis intervention. However, this linking process must give careful consideration to the work of each actor to enable them to mobilize their entire added value and avoid a confusion of roles. This is one of the lessons learned from intervention in Afghanistan, where the military were entrusted with development tasks for which they were not equipped, and NGOs were involved in propaganda operations or even intelligence collection - which has seriously damaged their reputation amongst the population.

While humility is therefore needed regarding the ability of the international community to implement sustainable solutions to situations of increasing complexity, isolationism cannot be seen as a solution. Indeed, peace and security are global public goods: the year 2014 has shown that “grey zones” of maldevelopment have an impact that goes far beyond their borders. Whether considering international drug trafficking, forced migration (for which Melilla or Lampedusa have become symbols), or the spread of the Ebola virus which impacts international health security, it is clear to the world that crises in the South affect the North.

Failure to take action to address these “grey zones” is not therefore an option. In a way, the international community has no choice but to learn to do better. To do so it can analyse collective efforts that seem to be working effectively, such as action being taken in the fight against international piracy.

Breeding ground for violence

It now seems likely that humanity’s “grey zones” will remain at the heart of global governance issues for decades. We should not therefore be satisfied with the containment of these situations, or merely a reduction of their impacts on bordering territories.

Most often, the grey zones can be found in regions where a sense of downgrading or marginalization has developed. This is the case in the Central African Republic, which has disappeared from the radar screens of the international community. This is also true for the Sahara-Sahel strip, a low population density area that has been disinvested by public authorities and the donor community in favour of more populated areas that are considered more “useful” for development.

Addressing these international insecurity problems also necessitates tackling issues of human insecurity (insecurities in terms of food, economic, social, identity, etc.) that are present in marginalized populations in the poorest countries. Without which, these populations are left without hope, leaving them vulnerable to becoming engaged in activities that threaten security - local, regional and international. If we do not address the roots of this extreme poverty, which is an engine of injustice and frustration, international external interventions are doomed to failure. In an environment of insecurity and chronic underdevelopment, which each day becomes increasingly connected to international networks, it will always make more sense for, today, a young Libyan, Syrian, Congolese and, tomorrow, a young Cameroonian, Nigerian or Malagasy, to mobilize in groups that will provide a social status, income, food security and a means of self-defence.

A development failure?

Given that underdevelopment is undeniably one of the ingredients of the breeding ground of violence, is development assistance the solution? Assistance can only do so much, and we must be careful not to assign it with objectives that are beyond its scope. Aid actors are foreign to most local political dynamics. While they can encourage, support or facilitate endogenous processes, they certainly cannot replace them.

It is often said that these chronic crises result from the failure of international cooperation policies. As for any public policies, it is obviously important to question the effectiveness of development assistance policies from different donor countries –which in recent decades have been assigned with very different objectives. But we should avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In the same way that it could be misleading to criticise policies that tackle unemployment on the grounds of high levels of unemployment, it would be wrong to accuse development assistance of inefficiency in the face of the multiplication of crisis situations. As important as it is, development is only one of the ingredients out of a series of conditions that are necessary for crisis exit. Foreign assistance can only constitute a support for social and economic development: it cannot be a substitute for public policies implemented by the authorities in the countries concerned.

The challenge therefore involves the adjustment of the development community’s forms of action, to ensure that all assistance reaches the populations to help them take back control of their destinies and territories.

The commitment of donors

Several donors have realised that reducing extreme poverty in the coming decades will be largely focused on so-called “fragile” states that threaten to become “grey zones”. Agencies such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) have clearly acknowledged this situation and decided to focus their flows of development assistance towards fragile territories. Faced with this highly complex subject, development actors must enhance their expertise, change their funding processes and, above all, ensure much better coordination between different assistance actors. Indeed, only effective coordination can help avoid the risk of too much attention being focused on certain issues or certain areas, while others are abandoned. This leads to the paradox of too much funding being directed towards certain areas or certain countries (such as Mali), while others receive too little (Central African Republic).

In this regard, multilateral development organizations have a specific role to play in creating the collective frameworks to facilitate the coherent mobilization of all international actors involved in crisis management. However, today, the incentives to work collectively and to pool financial resources, analysis and implementation capabilities are seriously lacking. Therefore, by default, each actor plays its own role, at the expense of overall consistency and effectiveness.

In this context it will be particularly interesting to observe how the development agencies of major emerging countries will position themselves on these issues of global public goods. Some signals are giving early indications, such as the choice of Turkey to host the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016, or China’s decision to fund the Ebola treatment centres in Guinea.

It is in the interest of countries that have long provided crisis management to encourage emerging countries, which are traditionally wary of foreign interventions, to take responsibility. Their involvement in crisis management instigates the necessary dialogue between Europeans, Americans, Africans and the major emerging countries on the objectives and modalities of containment and the management of “grey zones” that are currently expanding.


Forgotten crises

The grey zones correspond to frozen conflicts, localized rebellions, which have consequences abroad (flows of refugees, health crises...). All these situations are difficult to assess and address, both by local states and external agencies.


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The international cost of crises

The international community spends an increasing share of its assistance on conflict prevention and intervention in crisis situations, not to mention expensive peacekeeping interventions. A global cost to prosperity.

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