The case for doubt: pushing innovations in state-building instruments

Looking at what was spent achieved in major state-building projects in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, we obviously note a discrepancy. This discrepancy is even more concerning, when comparing what was expected at the beginning of these interventions with the results today. While underperformance can be an opportunity to incentivize innovation, major changes in the instruments of state-building are still absent. And the persistent shortcomings only fuel the fire of critics, who want to scrap these instruments all together.

The problem

The core problem is: insufficient space for doubt and the inability to harness it for making the instruments more effective. Confidence in the certainty, that good governance will be the dominant norm in the future anyway, became an obstacle to innovation. It leads to the assumption, that the current instruments are correct and just need more time and resources to succeed. Afghanistan, 16 years into the war, illustrates this point very well. There, the instruments fell short of building up a state, that ensures stability and prosperity on its own and – instead of incentivising innovations – the shortcomings resulted in strategies and tools that still look like more of the same.

To facilitate the planning, implementation and measuring of state-building programs, an outcome-focused approach has established itself, which reduces highly complex transformation processes to quantifiable indicators (number of police stations built, number of ministry staff trained, specific laws in place etc.). However, that approach led to a two-level, hybrid system. Where one level became formalized, and is complying with standards of the donor governments, while the other one remains informalized, and appears in the daily realities of people interacting with the state. In this modern version of Potemkin villages, donors are incentivizing change on the surface while being oblivious of underlying structural failures. For example, it is easy to establish, on the surface, a formal, merit-based, promotion process for high ranking army officers and measure, if all the formal procedures are applied. However, it is much more difficult to find out, if the eventual decisions are not being determined by bribes or political affiliation, overseen by savvy actors, who know how to play the system, while using all the required formal procedures.

This technical, outcome-oriented, approach is justified by the necessities of running large bureaucratic structures and coordinating among a multitude of contributing states and other actors. However, the weaknesses of this approach are undermining the desired impact of state-building and bureaucratic rigidity complicates efforts to remedy these shortcomings. While donors acknowledge the importance of evaluating the final impact of their programs and collecting the lessons learned, the bureaucratic realities often make it just another box to check, at the end of the implementation, that might, or might not influence future programming. Such institutional shortcomings have already contributed to the failure of state-building in the past, such as in Vietnam, while the capacity of the involved bureaucracies to adapt remains low.

External donors and implementers, despite acknowledging the primacy of impact, still have a high level of confidence in the outcome-oriented approach and its instruments. Once the instruments fail, the result is frustration with state-building among the wider public and a push by populist movements to abandon it altogether. Accepting state failure, and relinquishing all instruments to possibly fix it, however, will not make the problems go away. It will just create more urgent cases of state failure further down the road, which, in turn, will require new state-building efforts. The ability of hostile actors, such as the Islamic State, to survive and to adapt its strategies to changing circumstances- particularly by exploiting weak and failing states – adds to this problem.


Experience shows: the ability of the legitimate state to attract significantly more resources than its opponents, does not guarantee eventual victory. Without innovation in the instruments, a protracted stalemate between the forces of state-building and its adversaries is the most likely scenario. In Iraq and Afghanistan, this confrontation involves an ongoing armed conflict, where the underperformance of formal state structures keeps the insurgency alive. Supporters of strong and accountable states, however, do not only have to fend off external enemies. Within the very same state institutions, many actors do not see a strong and accountable state in their interest. Which leads them to confront and undermine the state-building efforts from within, thereby they further complicate success for the intervening powers.

In the absence of successful state-building, the polarization between proponents and opponents of state-building will also intensify among the intervening societies in the west. This confrontation takes place between two camps. On the one side, established actors who support the current western consensus of at least continuing, already started, state-building endeavours. On the other side, emerging actors, inside and outside western governments, who fundamentally reject the very idea of state-building abroad and prefer spending the money back home. While the second camp might even reject development cooperation as a whole, state-building projects without tangible results are an easy target.

Recommendations to international donors and implementors

  • Create space for doubt and constructive criticism and accept failure as a force for positive change
    • Encourage dissenting and critical opinions to avoid unhealthy overconfidence in the current instruments (e.g. additionally to success stories, give space to failure stories in official reports by implementers)
    • Utilize doubt in these instruments to initiate an honest dialogue on the merits of state-building among intervening societies in the west
  • Put emphasis on continuous impact evaluations to overcome an outcome-focused approach and utilize them to modify programs where necessary
    • Spend more resources on impact monitoring, not only at the end but also during implementation. And putting a focus on discovering possible underperformance (e.g. creating specialized positions to analyse failures and shortcomings)
    • Develop fast-track mechanisms to channel lessons learned from identified shortcomings directly into modifying current programs and acknowledge that bureaucratic rigidity, despite ensuring transparency, can also be a reason for underperformance
  • Stay committed on vision and long-term goals and ensure that state-building tools are contributing to achieving them
    • Focus on the vision of where to go as a unifier between the various actors and become more flexible on how to get there
    • Develop impact evaluations for interventions as a whole and require regular reviews as to whether the current tools are contributing to the desired long-term goals or not


Michael Mayerhofer studied political science in Berlin and Vienna. During the last six years, he has been working in Pristina, Sarajevo, Kabul, and Gaziantep.

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