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Multilateral assistance and aid addiction

By Henry Leong - posted Thursday, 1 June 2006

The recent civil unrest and violence in Timor Leste, which prompted the fledging government in Dili to request multilateral assistance, highlights the persistence of weak states. Weak states have been part of the post-1945 world order. The end of the Cold War has accentuated localised problems of nation states causing them to become international as problems of one state spill over into the next.

The challenges of addressing weak states stems from three areas: the dilemma of a “no quick fix” solution; the cost of prolonged intervention; and overcoming the apprentice mentality.

No quick fix

It is a myth that granting a country independence and installing a democratic government will solve the problems of its people. While there is inherent goodness preached in the gospel of democratisation, the reality is that stability goes hand-in-hand with democratic governance.


Opinions are polarised as to whether democracy or stability comes first. One school of thought asserts that stability is a tangible and real notion of sound governance, while democracy is a general principle that needs to be adapted to local conditions.

Suffice to say, a stable country is not necessarily democratic and a democratic country is not always stable. There is no scientific correlation between the two ideas and evidence suggesting there is, cited from Western democracy, ignores the fact the West took many centuries of trials and upheavals before evolving to the current state of being exemplary democracies.

Both external and internal stakeholders advocating for democracy and stability often clash over how it should be done. Beleaguered governments want external assistance to restore stability first so as to enable a process of democratic governance to evolve eventually. Agencies and countries rendering assistance enter on the assumption that peace and stability can be restored as soon as the fighting stops and the feuding parties start talking.

The score sheet for successful intervention remains patchy and claims of success remain qualified. This does not mean that intervention to help weak states is an expensive undertaking but rather that it takes persistence and commitment on both the donor states and the recipient government for it to work.

Intervention and restoration of stability in weak states does not simply mean deploying “more boots on the ground” or injecting more aid. This is because when the fighting stops, the reconciliation and rebuilding must begin for the long term. Strengthening weak states is about institution building and fostering ethnic and religious cohesion.

The dismal shape of “state building” in Iraq and Afghanistan are compelling examples of all the wrong things to do to delay the arrival of stability and democracy.


The challenge for other well-meaning and well-endowed political actors is to get it right with current and persistent cases of weak states. This is a tall order but a necessary one, as endemically weak states pose a problem not just to themselves but create a contagion effect in the region.

Costly intervention

Foreign intervention is expensive - politically, economically and socially. Governments making the case to intervene may find the initial move to enter a weak state easier than advancing the need “to stay the course” for the sake of democracy and humanitarian causes.

Political office-holders are directly accountable to their electorate. Issues of peace and reconciliation in faraway lands do not resonate with voters as deeply as domestic concerns of jobs, security and health care. Even if the case for intervention can be justified on national security grounds, as in the case of Timor Leste, good political management and constant public reassurance are needed so that short political memory and competing priorities do not take precedence.

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About the Author

Henry Leong is a graduate student in international relations at the Australian National University. His research interest is in Asian Security, particularly, in alliances and multilateralism. He trained as an archivist in Singapore.

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