Even as much of the world remains at a standstill due to the coronavirus, violent conflicts continue to spin off incalculable suffering of their own. Since the pandemic’s inception, armed conflicts across 19 countries have displaced more than 661,000 people. Warring sides in Libya show no signs of disarming and instead look poised for a prolonged battle, with new arms flowing in from Russia. The Boko Haram insurgency continues to plague northeastern Nigeria, with a recent spate of violence that killed 140 citizens in separate attacks on June 10 and June 14. Rebel groups contest the Myanmar government’s hold on power, resulting in nearly 200 deaths since March.

To address these threats, U.S. officials, even as they try to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections at home and abroad, are developing the first U.S. global fragility strategy. Required by the 2019 Global Fragility Act,(GFA) passed by Congress, the strategy is an opportunity to reduce violence — and vulnerability to it — in a way that positions America to secure its interest in the stability of the countries affected, compete with its geopolitical rivals, restore democracy’s legitimacy, and address the fallout from the pandemic.

Countries with varying degrees of fragility threaten U.S. security and economic prosperity. Terrorist organizations exploit incapable and predatory governments to plan attacks on U.S. assets or allies. Fragile states also pose geopolitical risks for the United States. America’s adversaries prey on weak countries to exert power and expand spheres of influence. China’s landmark Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through opaque deals and false promises, has achieved traction in so many places by exploiting vulnerabilities and the growing cynicism of citizens that fundamental features of democracy – political parties, representative-constituent relationships – are not delivering. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exacerbates underlying causes of fragility, including by corrupting elites, manipulating political processes, and otherwise eroding democracy.

That the global fragility strategy will be effective, however, is not guaranteed. For too long, the United States has viewed its work on fragile or failed states as a technocratic exercise in state building, comprised of constructing schools, standing up clinics, bolstering partner military capacity, and other such efforts at “fixing” various sectors, without a sufficient focus on the political dynamics underlying the poor functionality of these sectors. Education and health are undoubtedly critical components of functional states, but do not address the heart of fragility — that it is a political power problem.

Fragility’s foundations — corruption, armed violence, misappropriation of resources, predatory governance, among others — do not merely happen upon countries. Regimes, either elected or installed via extra-legal means, impose these vulnerabilities on their citizens to protect themselves and their cronies and undercut the mechanisms of political oversight that would temper their access to power and wealth. Corrupt politics fuel violence at the hands of governments seeking to suppress dissent; armed non-state groups endeavoring to displace a ruling regime; or communities expressing tensions rooted in ethnic, religious, or other differences the government is incapable of addressing. Research clearly shows that ineffective governance and corruption are drivers of violence.

To maximize the probability of success, the global fragility strategy must squarely address the political aspect of fragility. In practice, this means using diplomacy to thwart domestic and international actors from enabling violence. It also involves using foreign assistance to support development of institutions capable of delivering for citizens and a vibrant civil society able to hold leaders accountable. All this, in turn, requires a clear goal and theory of success for achieving it.

Want Stability? 

Fragility is the absence or breakdown of a social contract between citizens and their government. It develops when state-society relations fail to produce policy outcomes that citizens view as effective and legitimate, and where the institutions of governance are used to gain from corruption or profit from conflict.

Democratic institutions and responsive governance facilitate positive state-society relationships by providing independent and reliable channels between citizens and their government. Political parties connect citizens to government by aggregating and directing peoples’ views into policy platforms, legislation, and law. Independent electoral bodies help ensure that winning candidates prevail via a free, fair, and transparent process that reflects the will of the people. An independent judiciary helps maintain the rule of law, essential to holding leaders and citizens accountable. Predictable regulations and adherence to them helps attract foreign direct investment and thereby reduces fragile states’ reliance on China’s opaque BRI financing and investment deals, for example.

Further to this equation, civil society organizations advocate for critical reform, uncover graft, and help hold leaders to their promises. Independent media, by providing facts to citizens, serve a watchdog role fundamental to transparency and accountability. Abundant resource endowments, functioning health care, capable militaries, and viable education systems will not matter if institutions are vulnerable to elite capture, and if the resources of the state are channeled in unfair ways that favor specific groups.

Strengthening Democracy and Governance to Reduce Fragility

Based on our organizations’ decades of experience supporting democratic governance and rights worldwide and on broader evidence, the U.S. global fragility strategy should support six key categories of initiatives to bolster the supply (government institutions and representatives) and demand (civil society) sides of governance:

  1. Strengthen the core institutions of democracy that serve as the backbone of the state-society contract. Deficiencies in these institutions, from electoral bodies to the judiciary and security and the vulnerabilities they pose to stability, will vary by context. The U.S. approach must prioritize shoring up those institutions that citizens prioritize and doing so in ways that demonstrate concretely and symbolically that political reform is genuine and sustained. After the second Liberian civil war, the military was substantially reduced. A smaller force ensured stronger governing oversight, which reduced the likelihood that the military would prey on citizens to sustain itself.
  1. Implement policies and programs that fundamentally shift power systems that are undemocratic and predatory. In conflict-affected and fragile countries where institutions are weak, power is often exercised informally and exclusively. In these contexts, the United States, which often concentrates on institution-building and development assistance, should focus as much on supporting political relationships among parties affected by a conflict that would sustain inclusive governance and balance political power. After the 2002 ceasefire in Sri Lanka, the political settlement relied too heavily on economic incentives without resolving the underlying exclusionary politics. That vital inclusion could have been accomplished by expanding the peace dialogue to include Tamil political parties other than the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), southern Sinhalese leaders beyond the government party in power, and the Muslim community. This failure led to the re-ignition of the civil war, including war crimes and ethnic cleansing, which did not end until the brutal routing of the LTTE in 2009. 
  1. Support traditional structures that local populations view as legitimate to address tensions and grievances while enabling them to become more inclusive and representative. In many fragile contexts, citizens outside a country’s capital look to traditional systems or leaders as the problem-solvers for daily needs or to resolve tensions that could, if unaddressed, lead to armed conflict. The U.S. government, in releasing the Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) in 2018, now embraces supporting such “locally-legitimate actors and systems” as a means to stabilize conflict-affected areas. With a rising extremist threat on its border with Mali, the Nigerien government conducted military operations and used community-based militias to combat jihadist groups, a strategy that produced a rise in inter-communal and extremist violence. A 2019 negotiated settlement among 18 Niger traditional leaders in the Diffa region represented a new approach to resolving the farmer-herder conflicts that extremist groups were manipulating. The U.S. global fragility strategy should articulate guidelines on an acceptable spectrum for local legitimacy, so that U.S. policymakers and practitioners working in those contexts know which are permissible to engage. The strategy also should mandate that country plans involve working with and through those traditional actors or systems that local populations view as legitimate, but also work to make these structures more inclusive and representative of local citizens’ needs.
  1. Improve the functioning and legitimacy of political parties as the most viable means to mediate power relations in conflict-affected states, adopting an evolved approach that recognizes local power dynamics and community-level legitimate actors, and addresses the effectiveness of the party system and not just individual parties. There are no perfect solutions or perfect arbiters of interests in fragile contexts. All potential interlocutors with U.S. assistance programs have flaws, and political parties are not immune. Certainly, political parties in conflict zones have the potential to negotiate an end to violence, adjudicate the distribution of power in the political system in ways that lessen the risk of violence, give expression to citizen grievances, and provide avenues for citizen participation in peace negotiations. In reality, however, elites exploit or skirt local traditional structures that could otherwise be used to support peace and effective governance, and hijack political parties to advance their own personal and political interests. The Communist Party of Nepal’s commitment to transition from an insurgent group to a political party and support the establishment of a multiparty political system to end the country’s civil war was a highly successful party-based peace transition. Yet, recently, Nepal’s biggest political parties have engaged in political feuding rather than governing, leaving room for geo-political competition between China and India, and feeding a constitutional crisis. Although social movements and robust civil society systems have been proposed as possible substitutes, no other working alternative to political parties has emerged in pluralistic systems. The U.S. strategy should include a longer-term view that broadens the focus beyond party development. Nepal and other post-conflict countries demonstrate the need to alter how power is distributed in the broader political party playing field. This requires a multi-sectoral approach including diplomacy, media, and human rights monitoring, in addition to democracy and governance assistance.
  1. Prioritize gender equality by supporting and cultivating women political leaders and creating avenues for their political participation. A growing body of evidence indicates that women’s political participation results in demonstrable democratic reforms, including greater political stability, the prevention or mitigation of violent conflict, and more policy responsiveness. The Women of Liberia’s Mass Action for Peace and women’s coalitions in Kenya and Afghanistan are demonstrable cases of women delivering peace and stability from violent conflict – cases backed up by evidence that peace is more viable and sustained when women participate in the negotiation, management and implementation of peace processes. The U.S. should incorporate gender equality in its programming and take the opportunity that peace and political transitions offer to advance women’s political participation.
  1. Help countries increase their resiliency to attempts from the CCP, the Kremlin, Iran, and other malign actors to exploit state fragility. Fragile states are vulnerable to outside influence. The CCP has endeavored to popularize its authoritarian model of governance in fragile states. Increasing countries’ resilience to such attempts starts with legitimate and capable parties, electoral institutions, and judiciaries that protect against outside interference. Strong governing institutions are necessary to preempt and expose such malign influence, but often are not sufficient. U.S. assistance programs must include initiatives to equip civil society actors with tools to identify, expose, and counter malign influence. This could include support to uncover and expose details of opaque deals hatched with Chinese state firms, combined with advocacy to press leaders to withdraw from such contracts or negotiate more favorable terms.

Collectively, these elements of democracy and governance serve as the foundation for a resilient state-society contract. When that breaks down, the consequences can lead to violent conflict and/or leave countries vulnerable to a range of malign influence — Chinese, Russian, or Iranian, for instance. Effective democratic governance should therefore be the keystone to a successful fragility strategy.  

IMAGE: Marchers on the streets of Abuja during a demonstration for peace and security in Nigeria on March 1, 2020. The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria organized the gathering with people of other faiths to pray for security, and to denounce killings by Boko Haram insurgents and frequent incidents of kidnapping for ransom. (Photo by KOLA SULAIMON/AFP via Getty Images)