Presently there are no less than a dozen African countries, which are either caught up in, or are emerging from, armed conflict. Rebuilding societies ravaged by violent conflict and creating conditions for shared prosperity and sustainable peace is therefore a top priority, insofar as the development of Africa is concerned. However, Africa’s experience with post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding has not always been a success story. Besides the challenges associated with insufficient political will, inappropriate strategies, divergent initiatives, and misplaced priorities, post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding in Africa has often been hampered by the difficulty in mobilizing the enormous resources and expertise required to make these processes a success. This is hardly surprising given the fact that, while the task of rebuilding societies emerging from conflict demands a great deal of resources and expertise, it is these same societies that display the greatest deficiency in these assets, owing to the destructive capacity of violent conflicts.
Until recently, external support for post-conflict reconstruction in Africa has largely come from Western governments and their development agencies, reflecting the hitherto dominance of these countries in the field of development assistance. However, indicative of the growing cooperation among the countries of the South, a number of middle-income developing countries have become supportive post-conflict actors in Africa. The peace support and post-conflict interventions of South Africa in countries like Burundi, the DRC, and South Sudan; China’s support to the reconstruction efforts in Angola, Liberia, and Sudan; as well the contributions of the IBSA Trust Fund to post-conflict reconstruction in Burundi and Sierra Leone exemplify this trend.
Although there is an observed emphasis on investing in rebuilding infrastructure that would stimulate and support economic development, post-conflict interventions by emerging economies in Africa have also been directed to institutional capacity building, or what has generally been referred to as investment in ‘soft’ infrastructure. Even so, the gains in this regard have been far from adequate, not least because these interventions have largely been concentrated on building the capacity of national institutions, often at the expense of sub-national institutions. This is still the case, even though a recurrent feature of contemporary peace settlements in Africa has been their provision for the territorial decentralisation of political power, with the expectation that this would contribute to a positive transformation of power relations and the dynamics of conflict. In most cases, not much consideration is given to the institutional capacity of the sub-national administrations to which political and developmental responsibility is devolved.
Arguably, the disproportionate focus on rebuilding state capacity at the national level, usually to the neglect of sub-national institutions, constitutes a weak link in recovery efforts in post-conflict societies, particularly where conditions for localised violent conflict persist even after a formal transition to a relatively peaceful dispensation, as is the case in the DRC. Conversely, experience from South Africa (although not a classic post-conflict case) suggests that where support for institutional capacity development at the national level is complemented with similar efforts at the sub-national level, the chances for successful reconstruction and peacebuilding in transitional societies are increased. There is no gainsaying that capacity-building support provided by sub-national governments (SNGs) and development agencies from Northern countries like Germany, Finland, and Canada was crucial in making South Africa’s new provinces important institutional players in the country’s transition from apartheid to a democratic dispensation.
In the era of revitalised and deepening South-South cooperation, partnerships between African SNGs and their counterparts from other developing countries present the same opportunities for enriching post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding efforts on the continent. Through its capacity-building initiatives, decentralised South-South cooperation can serve as a vehicle for supporting institutional development at the sub-national level, thereby strengthening state-building efforts in transitional societies. Compared to traditional forms of decentralised cooperation, partnerships between sub-national entities of developing countries are better suited as mechanisms for institutional capacity development in post-conflict African states because of shared characteristics and experiences, which make the transfer of governance, ideas, and best practices much easier.
Of course, efforts to leverage partnerships among sub-national entities from developing countries in order to contribute to state-building processes in transitional societies in Africa cannot be immune to problems associated with limited resources. Although SNGs tend to possess a wealth of experience and expertise in local governance and service delivery, it is often the case that they run on low budgets that do not permit them to shoulder the cost of sustained transnational exchanges, including the cost of activities such as study tours, training seminars, and workshops. The partnership between South Africa’s Gauteng province and the Katanga province in war-torn DRC speaks to the limitations of decentralised South-South cooperation as a state-building mechanism, especially in the context of resource constraints. While some success has been recorded in this regard, Gauteng’s efforts to assist its Congolese counterpart rebuild its governance capacity have been limited by the South African province’s inability to finance programmes in a sustained manner.
Integrating SNGs into emerging South-South development cooperation frameworks, on the basis of their comparative strength as valuable resources of expertise, experience, and best practices in local governance, is therefore crucial in this context. For example, Brazil recently launched a programme for decentralised South-South cooperation, which would enable the country’s provincial and municipal governments to make use of financial and technical support from the Brazilian Agency for Cooperation (ABC) to share successful public policies with their counterparts in other developing countries. This programme provides a blue-print that could be emulated by other Southern development cooperation institutions, like the forthcoming South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA), in the interest of harnessing the potential of decentralised South-South cooperation as a complementary mechanism for state-building in transitional African societies. The partnerships mentioned above, involving South African provinces and their counterparts in Canada, Finland, and Germany are illustrative of the defining role that institutional support from national governments can play in catalysing the agency of SNGs in post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding. Testimonies from senior Canadian officials, for example, suggest that whatever contributions Canadian provinces may have made to state-building efforts in South Africa during the transition to democracy owes largely to the technical and financial support that these SNGs received from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and related institutions.
For a regional player like South Africa, whose Africa policy prioritises economic development through peace and stability on the continent, these insights are of even greater policy significance. Considering that restoring and, where necessary, improving the institutional capacity of the state is a prerequisite for successful post-conflict recovery efforts, Pretoria should find the current momentum of South-South cooperation as providing new opportunities for strengthening its post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding efforts in Africa. The option of decentralised South-South trilateral engagements is particularly worthy of consideration. This form of collaboration would enable relatively efficient South African provinces like Gauteng and the Western Cape, which also have a sufficient footprint in Africa, to partner with their counterparts in countries like China, India, and Brazil to execute capacity-building programmes at the sub-national level in conflict-ravaged countries such as the DRC and South Sudan. As argued above, success in this context would depend strongly on the support and foresight of SADPA, when it is eventually launched.
This article first appeared on Africa Up Close, a blog hosted by Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity (LEAD) of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.