Photo: United Nations in Serbia


Imagine a government with an embryonic public administration and a dysfunctional civil service. That is, an emerging government overwhelmed by political and administrative challenges alongside insufficient funding and capacities to operate and provide public goods and services. Nowadays, nearly two billion people, including almost half of the world’s poor, live in countries with inchoate governments stunned by fragility and repeated cycles of violence and conflict.

With its ambition to leave no one behind, the 2030 Agenda poses great demands on governments core functions and institutions to provide integrated and multidimensional responses to development challenges. This is particularly relevant to countries affected by fragility and conflict, as the public administration becomes the chief provider of social protection and public goods while co-existing among formal and informal ineffective political power arrangements. These arrangements are products from protracted struggles between the various powers competing for control over resources.

The public administration of any country, developed, developing, or fragile, embodies a large and complex set of issues, procedures and structures related to the management of personnel, institutions and relationships. These issues are exacerbated in developing and fragile settings given their nascent institutions and the pressures deriving from the dependency of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups on the public sector.

The challenges associated with conditions of fragility and violent conflict are daunting and multidimensional. The strengthening of public institutions is at the heart of Sustainable Development Goal 16, as it aims to enable core functions of government as an essential strategy to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies. It encompasses both technical and political aspects associated with the functioning of the government apparatus and the delivery of public services and goods.

Civil service restoration and reform is as much of a political process as it is technical. Based on this linkage, at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), our experience has shown that in order to promote a politically sensitive approach to civil service restoration and reform we need to draw on a series of precepts and lessons from the literature on political economy in fragile and conflict-affected settings. Some of these lessons include:

  • International assistance in low-income and fragile settings should be understood as non-neutral mediations by external and domestic actors, and should be approached in ‘temporal’ terms;
  • Political settlements should not be understood as stable conclusions that end periods of volatility, but more appropriately as unstable interim situations that reflect the positioning of domestic powers. Also, these should be viewed as subject to potential subversion by other actors, either dissatisfied with or excluded from the negotiated pacts and the distribution of resources;
  • Analysis of merit-based reforms in a variety of institutional settings suggests that agreements to reduce patronage in human resource practices in civil services occur mostly when the relative power and capacities of the less influential parties and stakeholders increases; and
  • The idealized goals often held by the international community for public administration may be laudable but are often unrealistic. Thus, a focus on achieving “good fit” rather than applying international “best practice” should be sought.

UNDP’s recent guidance note “Supporting Civil Service Restoration and Reform” sheds light on salient issues and lessons learned from implementing support programmes as varied as civil service census and identification in Bosnia Herzegovina; emergency public service response in Central African Republic; de-ba’athification policy in Iraq; transfer of knowledge in Liberia; management capacity for public administration in Lebanon, and civil service coaching and mentoring in South Sudan, among others.

Why does it all matter? The short answer is because without a functioning government with an operational public administration, the aspiration of the 2030 Agenda will not be realized. Strengthening core government functions to better manage and deliver public resources is a key strategy to keep people out of poverty. It is the most marginalized who need most a responsive and inclusive public sector.

Effective, accountable and responsive institutions are fundamental to the achievement of peaceful and inclusive societies as envisioned in the SDGs. Nowhere is this objective more salient, and more elusive, than in both developing countries as well as societies that have been deeply affected by political fragility and conflict. These core functions of government are essential for development, statehood and resilience. They all are dependent upon the capacity of the civil service to function and deliver.

Icon of SDG 16

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