Aid Strategies in ‘Politically Estranged’ Settings: How donors can stay and deliver in fragile and conflict-affected states

Over the past two decades, fragile and conflict-affected states (FCS) have become a policy priority for international development actors.

The global and human consequences of fragility have encouraged new multilateral and national approaches focusing on upstream prevention; building institutions; generating security, justice, and jobs; fostering inclusive national ownership; and strengthening international coordination.

In a growing subset of fragile situations, these policies and approaches are difficult to apply. Over 49 percent of people in fragile settings live in situations where relations between major donors and national authorities are estranged. Such situations of rupture are no longer the exception but one in two of current fragile states.

What are politically estranged situations?

  • Settings where ruling national authorities have obtained or retained power unconstitutionally (e.g., Afghanistan, Mali, Myanmar).
  • States under comprehensive international sanctions over serious human rights abuses, acts of external aggression, or political corruption and for which UN investigations may be underway (e.g., Syria, Eritrea).
  • Transitional situations in which national authorities are recognized as temporary pending the establishment of or return to constitutional order (e.g., Haiti, Sudan).
  • Contested electoral situations where donor states do not recognise the party claiming victory or have prohibitions against it (e.g., Venezuela, Palestine).

The suspension of development aid in estranged settings can exacerbate fragility. It can deepen suffering, drive further displacement, and strain humanitarian instruments already responding to over 340 million people in need. It can erode social capacities and institutions, raise risks of negative spillover, and can intensify geopolitical competition. Ultimately, it undermines donors’ strategic interests and development goals.

A new approach is required. This report, a joint NYU Center on International Cooperation-Chatham House study, draws together diverse experiences of situations where relations between donors and national authorities are estranged, as well as examples from other relevant fragile settings, to show how donors and multilateral organizations can design and deliver some forms of development assistance to meet urgent needs, prevent further social and economic disruption and increase resilience, without legitimizing unlawful regimes or fueling further conflict, human rights abuses or large-scale corruption. 

The study begins by outlining the global context, its objectives, and approach—identifying sound national interests, along with geopolitical, collective security, and ethical reasons for donors to stay engaged in estranged settings. This does not mean ignoring the sources of estrangement: for donors committed to aid effectiveness, ignoring coups d’état or large scale human rights abuses is not an option. As this study shows, there are proven approaches and modalities to deliver aid in such contexts which have not yet been systematically considered by development donors.

The second part of the study explores four key challenges that shape decisions on what aid is provided and to whom, and how relations between donors and authorities in recipient countries break down.

  • In estranged situations, the needs of recipient populations usually increase and, for donors committed to aid effectiveness—their accountability to them. At the same time, accountability to donor domestic constituencies becomes more visible and complex and domestic pressures often mount in donor countries to withdraw development assistance. These overlapping accountabilities shape the scope and form of development aid and require a careful balance between them.
  • Inclusion. Estranged relations create information and coordination gaps that pose challenges for identifying priority needs, recipients, and partners. In such settings, effective political economy analysis is essential to identifying which institutions, communities, or groups can or should be engaged in estranged settings and to managing risks in working with them. Such analysis is complicated by the lack of partnership with authorities and, in some instances, the reduction or withdrawal of donor presences.
  • Aid to estranged settings is usually restricted to a limited number of basic services. But support to key macroeconomic functions—such as payment systems and currency arrangements—are essential for the provision of health, education, and social protection assistance. Current humanitarian-development divides complicate delivery in estranged situations.
  • Estranged situations are highly dynamic and development actors need to be capable of responding quickly to potential opportunities to improve relations as well as further deterioration. This demands capacity to quickly review and adapt programming, which can be challenging in highly circumscribed situations.

The third section of the study explores some of the political and practical constraints to tackling these challenges and some of the ways that development actors can navigate them. While political dynamics around any single estranged setting vary for each donor, the authors outline some of the themes dominating domestic public and policymaking debates around aid in these settings and how they influence donor decision-making. The section identifies options for donors to target outreach to priority donor domestic constituencies and strengthen public messaging (including establishing realistic expectations in advance) as a way to build and maintain political support.

Next, the report unpacks the conditions that accompany aid to estranged settings, as well as options for their more effective application and communication. Increased conditions for aid are inevitable in estranged contexts, but coordination between donors on the criteria they intend to establish for aid to flow is often more difficult. The study encourages donors to limit conditions to a set of core issues common to development and humanitarian actors, and to apply them sub-nationally rather than as national “red-lines.”

There is no one size fits all response to estranged settings. The fifth section of the report provides a menu of modalities for delivering aid in estranged settings that can be effective in meeting urgent needs, preserving local capacity and institutions and increasing resilience while also navigating domestic as well as recipient country political and practical constraints in each.

The study also includes options for robust oversight and redress mechanisms that are essential for the provision of aid in estranged settings. It highlights emerging good practices to ensure that delivery and monitoring mechanisms, as well as funding, are adaptive and flexible to respond to opportunities to improve relations or to avert their further deterioration.

In its conclusion, the report includes two sets of recommendations, with the first focusing on actions that can be taken within existing donor strategies and policies; and the second proposing changes to national and multilateral strategies and policies to facilitate more consistent, timely and effective approaches in estranged situations. Finally, the authors identify areas for further research and policy analysis, including sanctions and conditions, financing instruments and the divisions between humanitarian and development departments and budgets.

This paper has been drafted under a joint Chatham House–CIC project examining options for aid delivery in politically estranged settings. We benefited from the knowledge and perspectives of a wide range of aid policymakers, practitioners and researchers who gave generously of their time and expertise. The paper is also available on Chatham House’s website here.

Stay Connected

Join our mailing list to receive regular updates on our latest events, analysis, and resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.