The Fragile State Index shows that in the last decade, the general trend around the world is that states are improving and therefore they are becoming more stable. However, this does not imply that there are no countries which regressed, the most notable examples being Libya, Syria, Mali and Yemen. Moreover, even for the ones which are progressing, their current state might be far from ideal. When coming from a lower start point, significant gains are more visible, and in some areas even the lack of conflict is a considerable improvement.
There are many different reasons why countries can enter a crisis and damage their stability, such as civil war, conflict with other countries, natural disasters, or political changes. It is only natural, then, that there are distinct ways in which a country needs reconstruction – from establishing the right institutions and restoring effective governance, to ensuring safety and security, the protection of human rights, stabilizing the economy, reconstructing infrastructure and restoring services, or making justice and improving social cohesion and reconciliation.
There is no universal recipe for recovery. Each country has a unique set of characteristics, and one key aspect when it comes to successful reforms is recognizing first the needs of that country and people. If we take a look back in our recent history, the world has gone through plenty of changes. Some countries weathered the storms better than others, or at least recovered better after the storm was over. Former Soviet states have been at the top of the list of improved countries, with Georgia, Uzbekistan and Moldova quietly progressing over time. South Africa and Chile, among many other countries, are also examples of transitions from authoritarian to democratic regimes. Rwanda and Bosnia have recovered from ethnic civil wars, which indisputably left deep emotional scars, but after which people learnt to live together again. Singapore’s illiberal regime is proof that not only through democratization can countries recover and achieve stability and prosperity. Japan recently marked 10 years since the earthquake and tsunami killed many people and triggered the Fukushima nuclear meltdown; the country continues to be an example of resilience and of how to come back from a deep crisis.
In the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected most countries around the world and worsened the situation of already fragile states. This has revived the question of how countries should reinvent and reconstruct themselves and build back better, as well as how the international community can help the Global South in this manner. Rebuilding a country has a lot to do with implementing the necessary reforms, putting good institutions in place and fostering inclusive economic growth. However, strategic communication is essential to ensure these measures are correctly implemented, gain popular tractions, and bear results. I will briefly present below some areas in which governments can use strategic communication in improving resilience and reconstructing states.
Rebuilding state-society relations
In the state-building process, it is of utmost importance to focus on rebuilding the relations between state and society. It often happens that after a crisis or internal instability citizens have low trust in government. Strategic communication, coupled with increased transparency, has the role in opening a dialogue with people, listening to their opinions and feedback, while also providing explanations of what will happen in terms of their and their country’s future. This will ensure officials’ accountability and citizens’ oversight of state institutions. In order for reforms to work and for people to change their behaviour accordingly, citizens need to trust that the government’s decisions are in their best interest. Obviously, this cannot happen overnight, but small, positive examples can do the job and start a virtuous cycle.
Another important aspect is managing expectations. Rebuilding a state takes time and reforms can come at the expense of other things. Citizens need to know what the real situation is. If they expect results in the near future, they will be disappointed when they do not see results fast and will lose their trust. In order not to become disillusioned with the process, people need to be told, in an emphatic, simple and honest way, what to expect. Celebrating small accomplishments, as well as being direct with difficulties encountered on the way, will keep citizens engaged in the process.
The relation between the state and society must not be a constant monologue on the officials’ side. The government needs to be responsive to what people say and foster a participatory and engaged citizenry. Regular public conversation in the form of town-hall meetings or citizen assemblies could be of help. Therefore, mechanisms to make citizens’ opinions heard and taken into consideration must be put in place.
Enhancing social cohesion
In order to create and improve societal resilience, there needs to be solidarity, acceptance and healing amongst people. After a crisis, especially one marked by tensions and even violence between different groups, it can take a long time for people of a country to come together, feel unity or even accept each other. The state must foster a space for citizens to interact in a constructive and healthy way. Sometimes, it might even have to aid reconciliation. For example, Rwanda, a country marked by genocide, where neighbour turned against neighbour, is oftentimes given as a positive example of national reconciliation: the Rwandans arguably managed to close one chapter of their lives and open another. However, it took many years of social re-engineering to get to this point.
Moreover, the nation-building process involves the promotion of an authentic national narrative. For example, one country which is still on its nation-building journey is Ukraine. Despite what the government has done so far, citizens still hold different interpretations and opinions about the Euromaidan revolution, a defining moment in modern Ukrainian history, placing the event in an ambiguous place in the collective consciousness. Due to the protracted conflict with Russia and the lack of justice after the mass killing of protesters, Ukraine is still working in its endeavours of strengthening societal resilience and the formation of an inclusive national identity.
Relation with foreign actors
Strategic communication in state-rebuilding must also be used in connection with the international community. Countries must promote the reconstruction narrative not only internally, but also abroad. By showing others that your desire is to build better, more partners will be willing to help and support. Moreover, especially for countries coming from emerging markets, it is important to find what economic sectors are the most profitable, and work towards attracting foreign investment.
By showing a serious intention to support economic development and having a future-oriented mindset, governments can aid the economic recovery process. From another perspective, when helping another country in its reconstructing process, international partners must also place strategic communication at the centre of reform efforts. Best practices have to be shared, and sometimes they are even more important than traditional economic help.
It is difficult to conduct successful reforms and rebuild a country if radicalization is taking place. Violent acts are only one side of the coin of what terrorism does. These actions are meant to inspire fear and therefore seek attention to what terrorist groups want to promote, namely their values, ideology and competing narratives, in order to trigger some sort of social change.
States must use strategic communication in counter-terrorism policies, but also in the prevention phases of radicalization. By working on a local level with all relevant stakeholders, a state can target specific communities which are more vulnerable to radicalization, and use community leaders, such as teachers and religious figures, to engage in a dialogue with people in need, provide support and an alternative set of values and ideas, aiming to increase social cohesion