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The new US fragility strategy can be transformational – but requires careful implementation


Written by Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou, Alina Rocha Menocal, Alastair McKechnie, Marcus Manuel, Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy

Hero image description: Pallets of food, water and supplies staged to be delivered. Photo: USAID (CC BY-SA 2.0) Image credit:USAID Image license:CC BY-SA 2.0

It may seem strange that an outgoing US administration would launch a new strategy in its last weeks in office. And given how tumultuous and divisive former President Trump’s term was, on both the world stage and the home front, any incoming administration might be tempted to make a decisive break. But the new US government strategy to prevent conflict and promote stability, issued in December 2020 as the outcome of the bi-partisan 2019 Global Fragility Act and extensive consultations with over 200 civil society organisations, NGOs, multilateral and bi-lateral agencies, is a solid document that deserves close attention from President Biden’s team.

The strategy could provide a much needed framework to break with some of the most problematic legacies of US engagement in fragile and conflict-afflicted settings over the past two decades. It could help recast the image of the US in a new light, as ready to resume global leadership of a different kind. The strategy may also offer important lessons for other actors re-assessing their own approaches in light of the persistent but changing dynamics of fragility, conflict and violence.

Five key strengths of the new strategy

The strategy has five principal strengths. 

1. Building on established knowledge

The strategy builds on established knowledge and an emerging global consensus of how to engage in fragile settings. This starts with the recognition that change must be locally driven and come from within, which is a much-needed corrective to past attempts to impose regime change from the outside.

Through an implicit emphasis on what the strategy calls ‘promoting stability’, it also builds on widely accepted lessons from 30 years of international engagement on fragility, conflict prevention and peace-building. These are reflected in the UN commitments to sustaining peace and the OECD supported agreements on effective engagement in fragility-affected countries.

These frameworks all acknowledge the need for respecting local knowledge and understanding political dynamics, synchronising rather than sequencing approaches to stabilisation, and fostering peace-building and ‘doing no harm’. Conflict prevention has been undervalued for far too long – but as a recent joint UN-World Bank report highlights, it is clearly preferable to prevent ‘forever wars’ than to have to fight them.

2. The call for a coherent, coordinated approach

The strategy advocates coherence and coordination across government agencies, including some of the more powerful ones. It calls for a complementary whole-of-government approach among US agencies and non-US partners, which deploys all the instruments at their disposal.

Strong congressional and public support is one of the pillars of successful US foreign policy. The strategy’s bipartisan legislative foundation should smoothen inter-agency cooperation and reinforce the central role of the Department of State in its implementation. Given the painful lessons of engagements in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, an integrated, cross-government strategy led in this way could be groundbreaking – even if sceptics might argue that it comes 20 years too late.

Of course, getting US government agencies to cooperate and coordinate will be a challenge. This includes in particular the well-funded Department of Defense, and the operational arms of the intelligence agencies, which can sometimes work at cross purposes (subscription required) with civilian agencies seeking to promote transparency and rule of law.

On the other hand, mandating different parts of the government to budget resources jointly could potentially transform incentives for cooperation. The inclusion of the US Treasury as one of the four institutions that will implement the strategy is especially striking given the role finance, debt relief and countering illicit financial flows can and should play.

Dedicated funding and avoiding competition among agencies over budgets and turf will be critical. The UK has sought to do this through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), while Denmark set up a Peace and Stabilisation Fund (PSF). The US Congress has already appropriated $200 million for the new Conflict Prevention and Stability Fund and $30 million for the Complex Crisis Fund. The enabling legislation for the strategy foresees this continuing at the same amount for four more years.

3. A long-term, targeted approach

The strategy has a long-term time horizon and targets a set of priority countries. As past efforts have been narrowly focused on the short term, the new ten-year approach is entirely right. Given that US (and other) efforts have been far too thinly spread in the past, it makes perfect sense to focus more on those countries recovering from or most at risk of conflict.

If this strategy helps to transform prospects for sustainable peace in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen alone, it will stand as a shining example of how the US used its political weight and resources to transform the lives of some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, living in situations of extreme fragility.

4. The move from analysis to action

The strategy reaffirms the need for investing in what it refers to as “data driven” analysis to deepen understanding of context, and for turning analysis into action. It recognises the relevance of data on injustices and perceptions of grievance in fuelling conflict and fragility. This is certainly welcome. But recognition alone will not be enough to guide action to address the root causes of conflict and fragility.

Few international development players have been effective at both predicting and preventing conflict, as seen for example in the Middle East, western Myanmar and Mindanao in the Philippines. Moving from analysis to informed action will also continue to be challenging, because of the prevalence of the prevailing view that fragility is essentially a security problem. Socialising the strategy across government departments will be critical to ensuring security-driven approaches are replaced with prevention-centred ones, focused on root causes.

5. An emphasis on country level compacts

Finally, it is encouraging to see the stress placed on country level compacts, which will be the key instruments for implementing the strategy. These compacts will also help to bring in other international partners which the strategy also calls for. Our own research suggests such compacts do make for more effective external support, such as in Somalia, and can help with the development of innovative and pooled approaches. Hopefully at least one of the compacts will be a regional one, as many conflicts spill across borders.

How the strategy should be implemented

So far so good. But while the strategy provides a robust overarching framework, it could be implemented more effectively if consideration is given to the following.

Embrace risk and failure

The strategy commits the US to thinking more analytically and understanding the political context to find opportunities for productive engagement. It highlights the need to work differently as a result, in ways that are adaptive and anchored in learning. This is very welcome and aligns closely with the work USAID has championed on Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) through applied political economy analysis and the Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) framework.

But the emphasis the same strategy places on measurable results “to demonstrate accountability to the… taxpayer and ensure impact” may be at odds with this commitment. An underlying premise of TWP and adaptive management is that processes of change are complex and uncertain. Progress is non-linear and likely to entail setbacks. This means that international development actors may need to become more tolerant of risk and even failure.

Clearly, showing the results of aid is essential. But this may be less straightforward than it sounds. As former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios has argued, a narrow focus on short-term and visible results does not always provide the foundations to support effective, resilient and responsive states and institutions in the long term. This is by nature more difficult to quantify and measure (e.g. issues about state legitimacy or trust), and more uncertain.

Expectations that aid should prove its value by generating consistently high returns may also not be in line with how to improve practices. Innovation – which inevitably entails risk – cannot happen without allowing for (some) failure, and some investments may not pay off (at least not immediately or directly). There must be more willingness and honesty to learn collectively, not only from what has worked but also from what has not.

Put justice front and centre

References to rights, accountability and the rule of law throughout the strategy, although buried beneath references to security, are to be welcomed, but explicit references to ‘justice’ are limited.

Yet we know that injustice fuel conflicts, as articulated by the Black Lives Matter movement and the g7+ group of fragile and conflict-affected states that successfully argued for justice to become an explicit element of what became the SDGs.

To avoid overly ‘technocratic’ interpretations of rule of law questions, explicit references to ‘justice’ should be included in the strategy to bring it in line with the text and spirit of SDG 16. This acknowledges that peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms, access to justice and legal accountability and rule-bound governance are key to preventing conflict and escaping violence. These are also all important factors in building inclusive political settlements and a rights-based social contract, which addresses fragility and enables inclusive development.

Strengthening actions in support of justice in the strategy would be particularly welcome at a time when the new administration has categorically stated that promoting justice, accountability and equality under the law as a means of ‘ending the two systems of justice’ and ‘ turning the page on hate’ will be a top priority.

Address underlying drivers of conflict

The strategy correctly acknowledges the importance of underlying grievances as drivers of conflict and fragility (lack of both political and economic inclusion, injustice). This may clash with other foreign and domestic policies, particularly global issues of great power contestation, and post 9/11 homeland security and regional policies that are strongly influenced by US political, religious and commercial interests as in the Middle East.

If the new strategy is to improve practice, the US will need to address its overly securitised approach which means that underlying grievances often get overlooked. The US counter-terrorism and sanctions regime is one example.

This month the US government designated the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). This effectively prohibits access to finance for Yemenis, like Somalis. It will have dramatic consequences on food insecurity in countries reliant on commercial traders for imported food. It increases the likelihood that desperate populations will resort to illicit activity and violence to survive. The knock-on effects of the regime on conflict-affected contexts and humanitarian crises include expanding black markets, the rise of money brokers and the weakening of transparent ways to transfer money safely (Somalia, Yemen and Syria are all examples). Local authorities are using this regime to enforce their own restrictions, and civil society has been hit hard by this.

If the strategy is to make a real difference, the idea it acknowledges that prevention and peace-building are part and parcel of stabilisation needs to be understood and owned by the agencies with security responsibilities, e.g. the National Security Council, Department of Defense, Homeland Security, CIA and the Treasury.

‘Do no harm’ and avoid unintended consequences

The strategy should apply a ‘do no harm’ principle to all types of engagement, including trade and investment, sanctions, security and justice. Traditionally it has only been applied to development assistance to avoid the ‘law’ of unintended consequences.

The development community has established a body of knowledge and practice around the ‘do no harm’ principle, but these practices are not well established in other engagements. The strategy could do more to address the trade-offs and risks that well-intentioned interventions could be damaging or have unanticipated consequences.

Almost any development support can positively or negatively affect incumbent authority or its challengers, and the same logic applies to other policy actions. Security-driven engagements can provoke learning and adaptation by opponents (subscription required) that worsen the threat. Assessments and mitigation of risks (the known unknowns), and robust mechanisms to deal early with the unknown unknowns (or ‘black swan’ events when they become manifest), should be part of any fragility and stabilisation strategy.

Recognise that requiring political will for US support is challenging

The need for political commitment as a condition for US strategic support is highlighted throughout the strategy. While the acknowledgement of local agency is welcome, using ‘political will’ as a criteria for selection could also be challenging.

The nature of conflict and fragility often means that the political will or authority of ‘local partners’ may be contested (by citizens or sections of citizens) or split (over territory), often as a result of engagement by external actors. This is the case in the Middle East, notably Yemen (the site of a proxy war between Iran and Gulf States, currently backed by the US). Recognising national and subnational variations (with respect to political authority) will be essential.

Encourage private sector investment

The private sector will not necessarily contribute to less fragility and more peace without serious investment in impact analysis and monitoring, not just upstream (i.e. before financing is secured) but downstream.

More job-creating private investment is certainly needed in places affected by fragility, but ill-considered trade and investment, particularly in the natural resources industries, can be a source of conflict. Questions of how resource revenues are managed and used and who gets what in terms of jobs and investment can determine whether investment can help countries escape poverty and violence or make them worse.

De-risking is advocated as a way of financing private investment in fragile contexts, but research shows that businesses (multinationals and domestic companies already operating in fragile settings) tend to contribute more effectively to peace when most exposed to risks (i.e. when their bottom line is threatened).

While many companies are adjusting to customer pressure for social and environmental sustainability, producers of industrial commodities and extractives face less pressure. Serious investment in metrics and mechanisms (which include civil society) for downstream monitoring of business impacts on fragility and peace is essential.

The range of US government formal tools to influence private sector activity in fragile settings is limited and mainly consists of financial instruments that mitigate political risks. Ensuring a positive role for private investment in the transition from fragility to resilience will be a challenge for US agencies. Positive impacts could potentially be multiplied with multilateral development finance institutions.

Form effective partnerships

As well as working closely with national partners, the strategy endorses effective partnerships with other bilateral and multilateral partners, both of which should be welcomed.

While US officials may have good intentions, the US government system has struggled to share information and delegate activities to other partners. Conflict prevention will require more collaboration with partners that makes use of their decades of regional knowledge, and entrusts them to engage with governments and local partners which may not be favourably disposed towards the US. Incentives to cooperate with non-US organisations might be strengthened if the institutions responsible for monitoring collaboration of US government agencies were to also assess US interaction with outside organisations.

The moment is ripe for bold implementation of the Global Fragility Strategy in ways that are truly transformational, both for the US and its role in countries most affected by the worst effects of fragility in all its forms.