The traditional U.S. approach to foreign assistance and diplomacy is clearly insufficient to quiet the wave of violent conflict rolling across the globe. Since 2010, the number of major armed conflicts have tripled. In 2019 alone, one barometer counted 196 violent conflicts, 38 of them either full-scale or “limited” wars. In mid-2020, experts forecast that the pandemic’s devastating impacts could plunge 13 more countries into conflict through 2022, a 56 percent increase compared to pre-COVID forecasts. The gauge predicted that an additional 35 countries would “experience instability between 2020 and 2022, more than at any point over the past 30 years.”
But a path to turning that tide might be around the corner. Congress passed the bipartisan Global Fragility Act (GFA) in December 2019 in a bid to fund, develop, and test new ways of reducing and even preventing violent conflict by addressing political, economic, and social grievances that so often lead to it. The GFA must be piloted in at least five countries/regions, two of which must qualify specifically for prevention strategies. (Full disclosure: the Alliance for Peacebuilding, where I serve as acting CEO, co-leads with Mercy Corps the GFA Coalition that worked for passage of the law and advocates for its implementation.)
In December 2020, the Trump administration submitted a Global Fragility Strategy (GFS) required under the act. While it needs to be revised to be effective, the Biden administration has an example to look at – an earlier comprehensive strategy developed by the Obama administration for the Northern Triangle countries in Central America. Not only will the Biden team have to act quickly, but Congress will also need to back its 2019 law with sufficient funding to ensure its success.
In championing the GFA at a recent event, the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY), called for halving the number of chronically unstable countries by the year 2030. But he acknowledged the difficulty. “For the past two decades, we’ve had the same security-focused approach,” he said. “So, we need to focus on upstream conflict prevention in line with the recently passed Global Fragility Act, and fundamentally reframe the manner in which we approach these issues.”
Despite the many competing crises at home and abroad confronting the Biden administration, successful implementation of the GFA would significantly improve elements of the U.S. government’s foreign assistance and diplomacy by coordinating and integrating a conflict prevention and peacebuilding strategy. While the U.S. government has excellent conflict analysis tools to understand the drivers of violent conflict, it has never had an overarching strategy for reducing such conflicts or preventing them from breaking out in the first place. And its foreign assistance hands have been tied with siloed, inflexible programs and restricted funding based on congressional earmarks rather than its own expert analysis.
The GFA also requires sharing costs with international partners and strengthening evidence-based learning to identify the foreign assistance programs and diplomatic approaches that are most effective at resolving and preventing conflict. Today, U.S. foreign assistance is locked into short-term, five-year strategies with programmatic workplans that are difficult and time-consuming to modify. By the time programs get up and running and start producing results, they have approximately two years before they are in closeout mode. Sustainable and long-term development cannot take hold in this unrealistic timeframe. The GFA would require U.S. foreign assistance to be adaptive and flexible over a longer-term period of 10 years that is based on identifying opportunities of what is working and, more importantly, learning from what is not working. These concepts, while seemingly obvious, would revolutionize U.S. foreign assistance.
An Example in the Northern Triangle Experiment
Considering the degree of difficulty changing a bureaucratic system, it is not easy to imagine how the GFA will work in practice. Fortunately, the Biden administration can draw in part on an example from the Obama administration: a similar overarching strategy for the Northern Triangle region of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The three countries have long suffered significant violence and political and social instability, threatening U.S. national security with threats such as narcotics- and human trafficking and driving migration to the United States.
Previous U.S. interventions in the region had focused on a single objective such as economic growth or crime reduction. But by the beginning of President Barack Obama’s second term, the administration had developed the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America, a whole-of-government, integrated effort that provided a framework for all U.S. government interactions in the region, with a focus on ensuring that prosperity, security, and governance are “mutually reinforcing and of equal importance.” The National Security Council (NSC) approved the strategy, rendering it binding on all U.S. agencies.
The Central America strategy began to show results within two-and-a-half years. Security conditions began to improve, economic growth remained steady, and attorneys general in the region took on corruption cases that implicated high-level government officials. Unfortunately, the Trump administration cut assistance under the program as a scapegoat in America’s politicized immigration debate. While some funding eventually was reinstated, significant damage had already been done to the program. President Joe Biden on Feb. 2 issued an executive order mandating the development of two strategies that will address the root causes of migration in the Northern Triangle and collaboratively manage the issue, including by ensuring the coherence of U.S. government programs.
While this new strategy is exactly what is needed in the Northern Triangle, it is also exactly what is needed in other fragile states and regions. Before the GFA can be implemented, though, the administration must establish new timelines with Congress to revise the Trump administration strategy. While that GFS rightly makes conflict prevention and peacebuilding the central focus, it also must account for climate change as a threat multiplier to fragile states, and enable better coordination of security sector reform programs at the State Department and the Department of Defense.
Furthermore, the GFS must once and for all require integration of humanitarian, prevention, and development programs — the “triple nexus” — so that a health program, for example, not only does not cause harm but also promotes conflict prevention and stability when relevant. The previous administration’s approach to COVID-19 globally was a classic example of a siloed strategy that disrupted health systems as well as countries’ governance, economies, and food security, and stoked violent extremism globally. The reason for that failure is that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department’s joint COVID-19 strategy prioritized three of four pillars: protecting American interests, bolstering health systems, and addressing complex humanitarian crises. The fourth pillar required preparing for, mitigating, and addressing second-order impacts to economies, civilian security, stabilization, and governance. That approach essentially treated stability and prevention as second-order priorities after the pandemic response, rather than understanding that all of these elements were connected.
Authorities, Staffing, Resources
The Trump administration’s strategy also did not contain a report required by the GFA that would outline the necessary authorities, staffing, and resources needed to implement the law. Congress had made it clear that it wants the executive branch to calculate what funding and authorities it needs to effect the changes required under the law. The strategy is a critical opportunity to ask Congress for a release from funding earmarks or, for example, authority to grant relief from strict and lengthy procurement regulations needed for quick and adaptive programs.
Nor did the Trump strategy specify pilot countries/regions, as it was to have done by September so that 10-year country/regional plans could be submitted by December. These and other deadlines need to be revised and agreed on with Congress.
While most think the GFA is only about more funding for programs, the law also requires resolute and agile diplomacy. An example of when diplomacy and assistance were not aligned was the Trump administration’s announcement halting essential foreign assistance to Ethiopia due to its Nile River dam dispute with Egypt. The foreign aid that was cut had been aimed at advancing crucial democratic reforms in Ethiopia and preventing increasing community and regional ethnic-based violent conflict.
Similarly, interagency cooperation and coordination are critical to the GFA. Over the last year, the NSC, USAID, the State Department, and DoD have struggled to coordinate effectively. Under the Northern Triangle Strategy, the NSC led and coordinated that process and ensured all agencies were bound by it. Ownership of the GFA must be coordinated at the NSC, and the Biden administration is showing signs of recognizing that. Additionally, the GFA must be elevated at the State Department to the Deputy Secretary or Under Secretary level so they can mobilize all critical parts of the department and as a signal to Congress of the administration’s commitment.
Most importantly, Congress must robustly fund the GFA at the full $200 million per year, as authorized and appropriated by the GFA. Each GFA country must receive no less than $10 million of new and flexible funding that is not already tied to sectors, so that U.S. country teams can effectively identify the causes of instability and violence and develop new programs to address them.
The incidence of violent conflict in the world is increasing, and existing foreign assistance and diplomatic interventions are insufficient. The GFA, while not perfect, provides an unprecedented opportunity for much-needed foreign assistance and diplomatic reform in selected pilot regions, while also allowing findings and evidence to be transferred to locations outside of GFA regions. The Biden administration should draw on the practical roadmap from the Obama administration’s Northern Triangle experience, so that effective assistance and diplomacy strategies can prevent and reduce violent conflict and extremism, as Congress intended.