Does core government functionality matter for transitions out of fragility and conflict?

Reflecting on findings from research conducted for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)


This article was co-authored by Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, global policy advisor, Core Government Functions at UNDP.

Do countries that prioritise national budget expenditures on core government functions (CGFs) have better peacebuilding and statebuilding outcomes? That is a question that, over the last six months, our Conflict, Security and Violence, and Public Financial Management teams have undertaken to research at the request of the United Nations Development Programme.

With its ambition to leave no one behind, the UN’s 2030 Agenda demands that governments’ core functions and institutions 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.

Without a functioning government with an operational public administration, the aspiration of the 2030 Agenda, and the implementation and localization of SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions 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, reduce social tensions and avert conflicts. It is the most marginalized who need most a responsive and inclusive public sector.

Conducting fieldwork in Myanmar, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, and Colombia, we have sought to unpack the relationship between government effectiveness (through core government functionality), fragility, and stability in these vastly different transition contexts, with the aim of connecting the prioritisation of spending and reform on CGFs to more successful transitions towards peace and development.

What we found was that three conditions are of particular importance to support peaceful transitions:

1. Aligning donor and government priorities

The best examples of successful transitions within our case studies were when CGF expenditures had been prioritised by both governments and donors, and there was continued national ownership and leadership for expenditure in particular areas to support meaningful reform. From a donor perspective, it is important to tailor support which understands both the capacity and the resources within government to implement reforms, both of which are often much more limited in FCAS contexts. It was also clear that the extent to which reforms can be donor-driven was closely linked to the financial influence of donors in a particular context.

However, while the research recognises the need for pragmatism to do what there is space to do, it seems increasingly important that in these challenging environments the international community should also be bold. It mustn’t shy away from some of the more politically challenging reform areas, as this will risk these areas becoming entrenched throughout a transition and hence more difficult to reform.

2. Continuously prioritising CGFs over a sustained period, even in contexts of protracted crisis

When CGFs are continuously prioritised to deliver ‘complete’ reform, rather than initial prioritisation and then a gradually declining interest by both governments and donors, we see better results. Similarly, lack of reform or incomplete reform was connected to real risks of conflict relapse in some of the countries examined. The strength of the executive and the centralisation of political power, as opposed to devolution and effective local governance (a common factor in all of the case study countries), was especially relevant for this risk. This is particularly the case in countries such as Myanmar and Sierra Leone.

This prioritisation is about support to governments before the end of a conflict or a moment of transition, rather than waiting for a peace agreement or a political settlement. We saw successes here in both Sierra Leone and Colombia. We found, too, that even in the most challenging contexts, it is still possible to prioritise CGFs and implement genuine reforms. Technocratic reforms such as in public revenue and expenditure management tended to be more resilient even in protracted crises, while identifying and working with reform-minded officials, ‘champions’ within ministries, yielded success even where the political leadership was not prioritising a particular reform agenda.

However, the research recognises that donor commitments in protracted crises face challenges in the context of multiple transitions and cyclical phases of violence, and South Sudan was a particular example of this. The difficult question remains: how can you continue to engage in a meaningful way in the most challenging contexts, even when the political and security situation is deteriorating?

3. Ensuring reforms are genuine and equitable

When expenditure results in reforms which are genuine and benefit sections of society equitablly rather than only a particular group or set of groups within it, we found this serves to support peaceful transitions. However, there were few examples of where this was the case; indeed in some countries expenditure on a function was being instrumentalised by the government for its own political agenda.

This is perhaps the most difficult condition to achieve, and brings with it more questions. How can governments and donors achieve this equitability in the context of a non-inclusive political settlement? And how might you balance humanitarian assistance with support for central government when they are seen by the population as being a party to the conflict? This dilemma is particularly pertinent for Myanmar and South Sudan.

A last thought on sequencing and (re)conceptualising transitions

Our five case studies revealed that although there were some similarities in prioritisation - the urgency of security sector reform, for example, against the seeming lack of prioritisation for public administration - timing and sequencing of reforms across the core government functions remains a challenging process to unpick.

The type of transition influences the space for, nature and timing of specific reform. Despite a popular misconception, even restoration after institutional collapse or in the case of independence is never truly ‘starting from scratch’; destruction through conflict will not necessarily erase the challenges which existed in previous institutions.

All this leads us to acknowledge that despite some similarities in findings between the countries we studied, each has experienced or is experiencing its own unique transition process. Drivers of conflict have been different, the timing and distribution of cycles of conflict or incidences of violence have differed both between the different countries and within them, and government functionality has varied dramatically.

For the international community, this means tailoring support which understands that the path towards peace is a bumpy one, and we need to stay the course.

Image credit: John Wollwerth /

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