In recent years, policy makers in the North have become all too aware of the security threat posed by fragile states, so much so that development and poverty reduction have, rightly or wrongly, increasingly come to be viewed through a national security lens. Canada is no different. Security is the reason why Afghanistan and Haiti are the two test cases for the "whole of government" approach to engagement in fragile states and the two largest recipients of Canadian aid; security is also the reason why comparable fragile states in Africa have received nowhere near the same attention.

While national interests have determined where and why Canada has focused its efforts, values have helped to shape what it is that we are trying to achieve, and perhaps to a lesser extent how we wish to achieve it. Call it enlightened self-interest.

In reality, however, it is no longer enough to simply contain or eliminate immediate threats: comprehensive security in the 21st century can only be realized if international actors are equally prepared to confront the root causes of state fragility by investing in state-building. The only remaining question is whether we as Canadians have both the ability and fortitude to help transform ailing states into healthy ones. The answer is far from obvious.

Really, what choice is there? Predatory states - states in which holding public office is synonymous with a licence to grab as big a piece of the pie as possible - tend to be relatively stable, but only in the short term. By their very nature, they lack popular legitimacy. Eventually, their sins have a habit of catching up with them. Over time, they tend to become highly susceptible to displacement, often by the disaffected elements of their own society who have acquired access to arms.

Authoritarian regimes are no more palatable. Questions of morality aside, propping up stable but dictatorial governments that have a monopoly on violence may in some cases be politically expedient. But governments that use repression as a means of suppressing opposition and discontent tend to have a detrimental effect on their neighbours. Too often, their policies trigger a humanitarian emergency such as a refugee crisis; too often, these emergencies place tremendous strain on neighbouring states (who may themselves be fragile) and even entire regions.

The ideal - and it is just that - is a liberal democracy: a political system with strong checks and balances, a separation of branches of government, and an apolitical civil service; a strong central government that is able to meet the basic needs of its citizenry, and that operates on the principle of rule of law, due process, and the basic respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all citizens; and a political culture in which resolving disputes occurs through non-violent means, and transitions of power are decided at the ballot box, and not through the use of force.

Recently, promoting democratic governance in fragile states has become a major priority for the Canadian government. Perhaps the most notable example of this policy shift has been the creation of the Office for Democratic Governance within the Canadian International Development Agency in October 2006, a body whose purpose is to promote "freedom and democracy, human rights, the rule of law and open and accountable public institutions in developing countries."

More recently, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, in its July 2007 report entitled Advancing Canada's Role in International Support for Democratic Development, recommended that Canada strive to become a world leader in the promotion and advancement of democratic governance in the developing world, a recommendation that the Harper government subsequently accepted without reservation in the response it issued four months later.

But does Canada (or any other donor country for that matter) really know what it's doing when it comes to promoting good governance abroad? Canada does have extensive experience in areas such as the security sector, judicial and electoral reform. The need for exactly these sorts of expertise is, to say the least, substantial. Through these and other types of state-building activities, Canada has made, and likely will continue to make, an invaluable contribution to the betterment of fragile states specifically, and the international community generally.

There is, however, reason to be sceptical about what Canada is actually capable of accomplishing. "Governance" is a relatively new program area for CIDA, the first attempts at linking foreign aid and good governance coming only in the mid-1980s. Moreover, a recent book, Exporting Good Governance: Temptations and Challenges in Canada's Aid Program (2007), co-edited by Oxford scholars Jennifer Welsh and Ngaire Woods, suggests that Canada's track-record in the area of good governance promotion has been mixed at best.

The now infamous "Washington Consensus," the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 1990s that forced governments in the South to cut spending on social programs to be eligible for development assistance, not only failed to produce economic growth but in many cases undermined development (and probably security) as well. And as Welsh and Woods note, governance programs have traditionally been driven by a whole host of domestic factors that have taken precedence over the needs of the recipient. Throw into the mix that they have often been poorly coordinated, inconsistent, and lacking in coherence and it is little wonder why many governments in the South have grown leery of the North's prescriptive governance reforms.

Further complicating matters, there is the widely-held view in the developed world that many of the problems ailing fragile states are intractable, and that governance reforms are little more than an exercise in futility. Without question, strengthening fragile states is a formidable and arduous task that is not for the faint of heart. Progress is often slow. Agreeing on priorities is difficult. Missteps and setbacks are virtually inevitable.

For their part, governments in the North - which are accountable to domestic taxpayers - have in the past shown little appetite for the long-term commitments that are necessary to ensure that states emerging from periods of violent conflict are not permitted to regress. In cases where signs of tangible improvements have been difficult to see, the North has on occasion succumbed to "donor fatigue," and has scaled-back (and sometimes withheld altogether) much needed funds. Often, the result has been disastrous but not unexpected. When weak governments lose the ability to deliver services to their citizenry, their legitimacy is undermined. So too is stability. In such instances, intractability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To be sure, dialogue with weak governments in fragile states is no easy task, especially in situations where order and more basic forms of security are missing. Promoting good governance in fragile states is ultimately an experiment in political, economic and social reengineering. There is no formula or recipe for "getting it right." Each weak state poses a unique set of challenges to policy makers, and each requires a unique set of solutions.

Increasingly, those in the aid community are subscribing to the axiom "do no harm." While this works well at the rhetorical level, it offers little substantive guidance to those charged with implementing reforms. Donors face the unsavoury possibility that recipient governments will use foreign aid to strengthen their hold on power. But if they do not push for making governance work on the ground, they risk contaminating their larger goals by placing short-term interests over long-term objectives.

So what are donor governments to do? Welsh and Woods suggest that at least a partial solution would be for them to devolve more ownership and leadership of their governance programs to recipient governments. In essence, what they are calling for is more listening, for a dialogue that places the needs of the recipients at least on par with those of donors.

Whether governments in the North are prepared to make such a major concession remains to be seen. But given the stakes it just might be a risk worth taking - for not only are a fragile state's chances of becoming stronger at stake, but ultimately our own security as well.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.