Rebuilding State Institutions, Post-Conflict: Reform Experiences from Afghanistan and Somalia

Authors Giulio de Tommaso and Rohullah Osmani discuss the challenges of rebuilding robust state institutions in post-conflict zones, using Afghanistan and Somalia as case studies, and provide policy prescriptions for public administration reform.

(Photo by Cherie Cullen via Wikimedia Commons)

Giulio de Tommaso and Rohullah Osmani

Background and Context:

In the aftermath of conflict, recreating a functioning state able to restore legitimacy, provide basic services, and ensure security to its citizens is a challenge. Multilateral development partners, eager to help, encourage public administration reforms (PAR) and the development of public management systems to allow a more transparent flow of resources.  This technical agenda is hard to achieve in the absence of minimally functioning institutions or a fully developed consensus about the nature and function of state institutions.

Restarting institutional activity after a conflict has been a worldwide challenge; it has proven even more difficult in places where the state continues to be under threat from terrorist elements challenging its legitimacy. The authors’ experience suggests that logically sequencing reforms, starting with re-establishing a sound constitutional framework, then establishing a set of basic, credible laws to anchor the institutional redevelopment process, and subsequently restarting basic service delivery to citizens produces better results. Yet sequencing is proving difficult in extreme post-conflict environments.

Both in Somalia and Afghanistan protracted war has produced near-total state collapse. Predictably, the path out of conflict has required constitutional adjustments, which are yet to be fully completed, a thorough revamping of existing laws, the re-creation of at least a few functional government institutions to build upon, and restocking a limited pool of government functionaries. All these functions are being carried out simultaneously. This lack of sequencing is creating uncertainty and inefficiency in the short term.

Compressing the institutional development process is probably unavoidable, given the circumstances of post-conflict states. Expectations are high, and the legitimacy of transition institutions is predicated on restoring at least a semblance of a functional state. Yet this compression has both social, economic, political and administrative costs which need to be highlighted.   Government institutions must reflect a societal consensus about rules, regulations, and priorities. In Somalia and Afghanistan, beyond a commitment to prevent conflict, there are substantial disagreements within society about the role of the state and this undermines the legitimacy of the laws and the institutions that are being built, planting potential discord in the peacemaking and institution building processes.

Failed states but functioning societies breed high informality

The most obvious negative repercussion of this institutional compression is the presence of formalistic rules on paper which are not followed in practice.  In failed states, societies and their norms endure through conflict. Modern institutions may have crumbled, and institutional chaos may pervade, yet societies remain organized. They follow rules and principles and continue to operate in informality. When the formal state does not function, the informal structures take over that space. While it is true that war in Afghanistan and Somalia caused near-total state collapse and huge physical and human destruction, this does not necessarily mean that these states were an institutional blank slate.[1] “Good practice” in carrying out institutional reforms involves adapting existing informal systems by bringing in suitable successful international experience.

The complexity of this process is daunting. Proposing and implementing laws and regulations which address dysfunctions, complement or improve the informal framework, and are assimilated and embraced can have the effect of enshrining the status-quo ex-ante which is at the root of institutional instability and conflict (such as the case in Lebanon). Yet proposing fundamental changes in the institutional rules brings resistance and inhibits the quick return to functioning institutions.

Afghanistan, since its inception in 1747, followed a centralized management system along both administrative and fiscal lines. Both in terms of administration and politics, strong leaders have succeeded one another. The executive branch has traditionally dominated the other branches of government and the central government has towered over subnational governments. Similarly, Somalia’s history is rooted in nationalism and the struggle for unity of its territories and, since 1969, history of a centralized government.

The Somali and Afghan civil wars and the destruction of the established administrative and political systems have seen the emergence of new societal interests, in the form of tribal, clan, ethnic, and regional interests across their territories, but – at least in administration – the legacy of strong centralized states endures.

For the sake of improved participation and inclusiveness in the political process, development partners have encouraged the establishment of strong local institutions capable of giving a voice to the new power players. Significant resources are invested in the creation of subnational governments. Yet, in practice that is met with resistance coming from a strong central government tradition.

In Somalia, creating a loose federation of states reflects the political consensus in the aftermath of conflict. Devolving powers to the periphery could defuse clan-based tensions. But within public administration, resistance remains to moving away from the centralized power system of the previous regime. Compounding this issue is a generalized lack of human and financial capacity.

Effectively resuming administrative life with constrained human and financial resources requires that priority be given to reforming key central government agencies vital for revenue generation, economic growth, and basic service delivery to the citizens.  This would contain costs and concentrate capacity increasing the likelihood of successfully establishing effective institutions. Yet rebuilding a loose federal state requires that the sub-national administration also be reformed in parallel.

In addition, the difficult and protracted constitutional discussions reduce the ability of both international and national actors to conceptualize and prioritize institutional development. Given the lack of constitutional clarity regarding the role and functions of different levels of government, Somalia is constructing multiple levels of new weak institutions. The potential weakness of the subnational institutions may hamper the efforts to legitimize Somali institutions, provide effective services to the citizens, and prove unable to replace informal, and often un-transparent clan-based networks.

Incomplete political reconciliation process means low legitimacy

The experience of Somalia and Afghanistan make it clear that the end of hostilities does not mean that the key issues which led to conflict have been resolved. Warring or competing factions are under strong pressure by national stakeholders and the international community to reconcile. Yet disagreements remain and workable institutional and political arrangements to address them must be negotiated. In the best of circumstances, belligerents choose to defer discussing difficult subjects to avoid conflict, leaving key issues in the hands of the “transition.”

For example, discussions over local government responsibilities involve the redistribution of resources and the relative power of stakeholders. In Somalia, constitutional discussions regarding the role and power of member states are still ongoing, and yet subnational governments are already being developed, supported by multilateral development partners, creating on-the-ground circumstances which limit the scope of the constitutional discussion. Similarly in Afghanistan, despite significant reforms that have strengthened public sector regulations, considerable ambiguity in the de jure public service delivery framework still remains, and the functional responsibilities assigned to central ministries and provincial administrations are unclear.[2] This situation affects the effectiveness and legitimacy of both the central and provincial administrations.

Similarly, rebuilding government employment requires that the government make decisions about how to develop its institutions. In Somalia, the Wadajir Agreements give loose indications about the need to develop along the lines of subsidiarity, giving to the lowest level of government, which is closest to the citizen, the ability to make decisions. However, what that means in practice is unclear. People are being hired by different levels of government, and arrangements are being made to allow for retrenchment, but retrenchment is difficult and politically very risky under the best of circumstances, and is especially difficult in states coming out of conflict.

In Afghanistan, there is awareness of the lack of clarity concerning government organizations’ mandates and the operating modalities of key public agencies. This is compounded by state agencies’ low capacity to formulate and implement policies, laws, and regulations. Most public organizations, whether at national or subnational levels, have not yet been able to align their structures with their mandates and available resources.  More than forty percent of the civil service workforce resides in Kabul, and financial resources are mostly concentrated at the center. Constitutionally, local governments are expected to have a role; yet, in administrative practice, local governments have limited decision-making authority in setting their own structure, recruitment, size of establishment, and composition of their workforce. In Somalia, there are about 5,000 federal government civil servants for a population of 12.3 million. They are divided across 25 ministries, although the majorities are in the Ministry of Finance, the Presidency, and the Ministry of Information.[3] Subnational member states are also hiring staff, and it is not clear how many have been employed so far. International development agencies finance a large number of advisors, teachers, health workers, police, and the armed forces. An exit strategy to transition these individuals into the civil service is yet to be determined. The haphazard construction of administrative structures increases the perception of illegitimacy.

Achieving quick PAR in situations of fragility is a difficult endeavor

The difficulties confronting Somalia and Afghanistan in establishing legitimate and efficient institutions are extreme, but not uncommon. International experience suggests that PAR is difficult under any circumstance. Reasonable security, institutional legitimacy, strong central and local political leadership, and a will to carry out institutional change are required for success. In fragile states, some or all of these elements are not often present. Achieving results requires human capacity and financial resources; both are necessary and it is hard to compensate for one with the other. In the immediate aftermath of conflict, internationally contributed financial resources in Afghanistan and Somalia have been significant, but limited human capacity has affected the ability of these countries’ governments to effectively utilize those resources. Poor financial systems have resulted in corruption. This inefficiency and waste, which frustrates both development partners and their government counterparts, has been hard to eradicate. Despite their relatively long experience in post-conflict states, development partner intervention remains reactive.

Public administration systems must reflect societal priorities and the local customs. Imposing best practices from elsewhere brings resentment and reduces ownership.[4] Changing formal rules, organizational restructuring, and capacity development can improve organizations, but the longer the conflict, the longer the time required for establishment of legitimate formal institutions capable to reclaim their authority. Afghanistan, and now Somalia, are excellent examples of countries where informal rules and customs have crowded-out formal institutions, strongly influenced politics, and critically impacted institutional change.

The world needs quickly functioning states after conflicts, yet institutional change needs a deliberate and targeted approach, especially where there is a high level of informality, strong customs, and weak legitimacy.[5] This takes time and pragmatism which must be reflected in reconstruction plans. A limited reach beyond the central government dictates that the approach to public administration reform should be gradual and incremental.

For example, since 2003, Afghanistan has initiated reforms to establish an effective and functioning state.[6] It created an Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission (IARCSC) to lead the process. This agency has carried out multiple reform projects with development partners’ assistance, many of which have been successful; yet, still today, 15 years after the beginning of reforms, Afghanistan has only a semi-functioning, rules-based civil service[7] and the reform process remains in a preliminary phase. Given the length and the depth of the Afghan conflict, this situation should not surprise anyone.

In addition, the pilot Priority Reform and Restructuring (PRR) focused on selectively improving pay in departments that carried out effective reforms and resorted to merit-based civil service appointments. Following the PRR phase, Afghanistan introduced and implemented a new system-wide pay and grading system (P&G) in over ninety percent of government agencies,[8] and trained over sixteen thousand public servants.[9] The new improved P&G structures were expected to reduce civil service corruption, and attract, retain, and motivate qualified staff. Independent evaluations reveal that this system has only had mixed results: the government has had limited success attracting and more importantly retaining qualified staff, meanwhile fifteen years on, the government is still unable to cover the totality of its wage-related expenditures. A similar pattern is appearing in Somalia.

Additionally, evidence from Afghanistan suggests that reforming and anchoring the structure of government brings efficiency gains, but is hardly a panacea. Reducing the number of ministries can curtail the political leaders’ bargaining ability. In post-conflict states, political and representation considerations capable of sustaining peace must be given priority in the establishment of efficient institutions. Accordingly, ensuring political stakeholder representation in executive positions is perceived as an important way to ensure legitimacy and trust in the institutions.

It has also, not surprisingly, been found in Afghanistan that well-designed government organizations will not provide better services unless they are staffed by capable civil servants. They have been a scarce commodity. On the one hand, qualified personnel returning from abroad have provided some needed capacity inputs in certain circumstances. On the other hand, they have come with salary expectations that are above what the market can reasonably afford. This, in effect, has contributed to creating a dual track civil service, where long-tenured civil servants who are paid low wages are asked to coexist with higher paid returnees who perform equal or similar functions. This situation further complicates the reform process in weak states, and sometimes makes it difficult for the governments to retain competent civil servants.

PRR and P&G interventions in Afghanistan were expected to reduce the migration of staff to better-paid, donor-funded projects, yet donors habitually undermine the very same mechanism that they have put in place by continuing to provide stand-alone technical assistance projects outside the unified scope of the program and in ways that the government has difficulty coordinating. This has resulted in a parallel civil service structure functioning outside the government structure without a clear mandate and accountability mechanism. Donors compete for scarce local human resources, and this generates an inability to develop a coherent and transparent pay framework. A similar pattern is appearing in Somalia.

International experience suggests that a pay policy which is not applicable across civil service is unsustainable and unproductive; in the case of Afghanistan the pay policy framework is still not unified. A similar outcome is manifesting itself in Somalia.

Conclusion and Recommendations:

Building a public administration in the absence of a performing state is illogical and difficult, yet necessary, in post-conflict states. Quick and decisive action is important to restore confidence in the state and allow it to move from crisis to development. Public administration reform in this context requires more pragmatism, and more attention and focus on implementation. The repercussions of seemingly technical administrative decisions impact the nature and the relationship between the government and the stakeholders who, in the aftermath of conflict, will still be engaged in achieving peace and a workable relationship for years to come.

Post-conflict reconstruction is chaotic: acting quickly takes precedence over careful and extended planning. That is not surprising given the lack of available and reliable data on most development dimensions and the overwhelming needs of the population. Nonetheless, more can be done to make the reforms effective.

  • Create a long term vision: The Sustainable Development Goals give a benchmark and an understanding about the meaning of functioning states. We must take these criteria and develop them in the context of a realistic fiscal framework. Only on that basis can sectoral decisions be made. This means modeling reality over a longer period and reworking this model over time as more and more data becomes available. Engaging donors and government in building a joint vision provides and creates a fiscally sound framework to make important sectoral decisions. Additionally, discussions over salary scales become more realistic.
  • Establish effective donor coordination: In public administration reform, especially in post-conflict states, donor coordination is extremely important yet it is difficult to achieve. While donors do cooperate, they have different interpretations of what concepts mean and what actions are needed in order to address them. Under those circumstances, achieving coordination is difficult. Creating an alignment around technical issues would help develop mutual and cohesive understanding. Establishing a multi-donor technical team with a responsibility to follow the process is a must. By going on missions together and working together in assisting the client, there will be a more consistent understanding of what the reform program really entails and how to make pooled resources at multi-donor trust funds more effective.
  • Focus on knowledge transfers: Transferring knowledge is not about carrying out training, it is about making sure that staff are actually performing. For this reason, training providers need to be held accountable for actually transferring knowledge and developing skills; including that element in consultancy contracts will improve outcomes.
  • Be selective about hiring: In post-conflict states, retrenchment is traumatic to a population that has already been tried by conflict; for that reason, it is almost never carried out. Accordingly, it is important to plan new hires. In Somalia and Afghanistan, hiring at the lowest levels of government is almost as significant as hiring at the highest levels. This means that hiring is done to provide employment, not necessarily to build a competent workforce.
  • Head of the government to lead PAR: There are many models on how to manage the reform agenda. Some states give this agenda to the Prime Minister or to the President; others delegate the task to Special Ministers in charge of reforms. Others give the responsibility to specialized ministries such as the Ministry of Public Administration or, as in Somalia, the Ministry of Labor. Yet, there is always a need to arbitrate in carrying out reforms. For this reason, the only way to proceed is to make sure that the highest level of the state, or a level above the ministers, undertakes the arbitrage. This implies being on top of the reforms, assisting the individual ministers, nudging informally when possible, and instructing when needed. This is not always easy, since governments are the expression of a national consensus and each minister has a constituency and an independent power base that can rival that of the President. But at the end of the day, someone has to give clear signals that only success will do. PAR is a multi-sectoral effort, involving multiple ministries, levels, and branches of government. The only institution capable to command that broad-based authority is the highest one. The leadership of governments can explain the importance of reforms to parliament and the public.


Giulio de Tommaso is the President of Consilium Group Advisors, a Washington, DC-based International Consultancy firm. Between 1998 to 2013, he was Senior Public Sector Management Specialist at the World Bank. He is currently assisting the Federal Government of Somalia in drafting its Civil Service Law.

Rohullah Osmani is a Visiting Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and former Director General of the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission in Afghanistan. Between 2010 to 2012, he also advised OECD’s International Dialogue for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding for Fragile States.


[1] Sarah Cliffe and Nick Manning, “Building Institutions After Conflict: The International Peace Academy’s State Building Project” (working paper, World Bank, 2006).

[2] The World Bank, “Critical Administrative Constraints to Service Delivery: Improving Public Services in Afghanistan’s Transformational Decade” (May 2014).

[3] UNFPA, “Population Estimation Survey 2014: For the 18 Pre-War Regions of Somalia (with updated estimates from UN)” (2016).

[4] Richard Lucking, “Lessons on Best Practice in the Approach to Effective Civil Service Training” (working paper, UNDP, 2003), 18.

[5] Sara Lister, “Moving Forward? Assessing Public Administration Reform in Afghanistan” (working paper, AREU, 2006), 12.

[6] There have been several PAR programs/projects since 2003 in Afghanistan. The World Bank’s financed Emergency Public Administration Projects (EPAP I and II), Lateral Entry Program (LEP), Afghan Expatriate Program (AEP), Management Capacity Program (MCP), Capacity Building for Result Project (CSRP), IDA Civil Service Reform Project (CSRP), USAID funded Civil Service Support (ACSS) Project, UNDP’s Capacity for Public Service Project (CAP), and National Institution Building Project.

[7] The World Bank, “Evaluation of World Bank Programs in Afghanistan, 2002-11(IEG World Bank IFC MIGA, December 2012).

[8], last visited June 8, 2016.

[9] “Fact Sheet: Afghanistan Civil Service Support (ACSS),” USAID Afghanistan, last visited June 8, 2016,

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