The urgent challenges of rising authoritarianism, rampant corruption, and human rights abuses prompted President Joe Biden at his Summit for Democracy to launch the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, which dedicates $424.4 million of new and repurposed funds to defend and strengthen democracy at home and abroad. Nowhere is this more pressing than in fragile settings, which are characterized by breakdowns in state legitimacy and public service delivery, from Haiti to Zimbabwe. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, violent conflict seems even more intractable across the globe — according to the OECD, 57 countries are characterized as fragile, and many of these are high priority countries for the United States.

But complex challenges impede the provision of effective support to places riven by or trending toward conflict. Unique challenges and considerations include not only violence, which tends to be a symptom, but also underlying public lack of trust in institutions and deep societal divides. These factors and more can create hurdles to gathering accurate information about community needs and bolstering democratic institutions and governance – without inadvertently endangering the very people the United States is seeking to support.

Drawing on Evidence for Effective Support

Although the new Presidential Initiative holds promise, there is a need to tailor its approach to fragile settings in order to ensure assistance helps rather than harms democracy and governance. Experience and research show that the United States must account for three critical issues as it tries to advance its democracy agenda in places wracked by conflict and fragility.

First, policymakers and practitioners should carefully consider the interaction between state and non-state governance institutions—and which have legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Democracy and governance assistance often relies on Western models of political institutions and groups. Yet formal political institutions are often predatory or widely perceived as illegitimate in fragile settings. Given these breakdowns in state legitimacy, the full spectrum of governance actors expands—ranging from civil society to traditional or customary leaders – with nonstate groups exercising authority and responding to community needs in lieu of the state. In places as diverse as Bangladesh, Burundi, Iraq, and Mozambique, nonstate actors resolve disputes, provide services, and protect communities from harm.

To account for a wider spectrum of governance actors in fragile settings, policies and programs should be designed with careful consideration of complex governance and legitimacy dynamics, and, where possible, should link state authorities with informal actors to foster collaboration instead of competition. For example, in Saaba, Burkina Faso, dialogues between citizens, local leaders, state security forces, and non-state security providers have increased the willingness of local police to coordinate with the koglweogo self-defense groups provided that the groups refrain from vigilante activities.  Above all, it is essential to coordinate foreign assistance to ensure it complements long-term strategy and policy decisions in each context – ensuring that diplomatic, development, and security assistance work in tandem rather than in isolation. Failing to do so will lead counterterrorism and other security operations to undermine long-term efforts aimed at strengthening rights-based governance—as they have in places like Afghanistan and Syria.

Second, the U.S. government should integrate anti-corruption practices across foreign assistance in fragile contexts. The U.S. government has rightly established anti-corruption as a national security priority. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration recently launched the first U.S. strategy on countering corruption. But in fragile contexts, anti-corruption efforts must be carefully tailored to avoid exacerbating instability.

The insidious impact of corruption is especially pressing in areas affected by violent conflict, where corrupt networks often dominate political life. The top 10 most corrupt countries in the world also rank high on the Fragile States Index – Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria among them. Corruption contributes to inequality and exclusion, exacerbates citizen grievances, creates incentives for illicit economies, fuels discontent that leads to violent extremism, and hampers effective security approaches.

Because corruption is so deeply entrenched in many conflict-affected contexts, anticorruption and transparency policies and programming risk causing further instability in the short term; they may even unintentionally support corrupt practices. To avoid this outcome, programs must not only assess vulnerabilities to corruption and promote transparency, but also incorporate safeguards against corruption, identify trusted, sometimes nontraditional partners, and evaluate the footprint of an intervention to identify its impact on corruption—including whether it reinforces corrupt incentives.

Third, policymakers and practitioners should take a politically informed approach in order to mitigate against potential backlash from interventions. In some settings, partners and participants risk their reputation, resources, or even lives when they are involved with U.S. government-funded research and programs, particularly if the programs are focused on political participation, conflict mitigation, countering violent extremism (CVE), or human rights. If policies and programs are not attuned to  local conflict dynamics, they risk damaging trust and harming the communities they seek to support. For example, participants in CVE projects or research may be stigmatized because their involvement may be interpreted to imply they are vulnerable to violent extremism.

Similarly, efforts to promote social cohesion can easily backfire, especially if assistance is provided to one group and excludes another. If such initiatives are not implemented carefully, they can increase mistrust within communal groups, reinforce prejudice, and introduce new divisions. Some social cohesion efforts have attempted to promote integration between communities and increase the number of opportunities for community members to interact through platforms such as joint projects, sports, or cultural activities. However, merely increasing the number of interactions can be ineffective or counterproductive. Research in Niger showed that high quality engagement between groups, including efforts to create and implement initiatives toward a common goal, is more effective at reducing violence than solely increasing the number of interactions.

To this end, it is critical to anticipate how the local population will perceive and respond to democracy strengthening activities. Piloting and testing smaller scale initiatives can be an effective way of understanding nascent results, which can then be adapted and scaled. Learning should also be integrated throughout policy and planning, including by utilizing nontraditional approaches to gathering data, such as observational techniques and conducting conversational interviews to uncover key insights. Close collaboration with local actors – including non-state governance actors, as noted above – should take place throughout the design, implementation, and evaluation phases to understand and adapt to local political dynamics.

An opportunity to address the root causes of fragility

The new Presidential Initiative presents an opportunity to address the core democratic deficits that lead to conflict. However, there is still more to be done to ensure that U.S. government efforts to reinvigorate democracy globally are meaningful, particularly in fragile settings.

Addressing the governance drivers of conflict and strengthening political institutions require a strategic vision that often lies outside of short-term technical assistance. In order to ensure the new $424.4 million in funding does not go to waste, U.S. policies and programs must be sensitive to existing and brewing conflicts if they are to achieve their intended impact. Leveraging the Global Fragility Act (including fully implementing the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability and selecting pilot countries), infusing evidence-based lessons from previous U.S. policies and programs, and incorporating conflict considerations, would pay dividends for the U.S. Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal.

Image: Fragile democracy across continents. Clockwise from upper left:
BEIRUT, LEBANON – Members of Lebanon’s Order of Engineers and Architects gather to elect a new president in the capital Beirut on July 18, 2021. – Aref Yassine, 58, who ran on the anti-establishment “The syndicate revolts” list, won the syndicate’s Presidency. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)
LIMA, PERU – JUNE 19: Supporters of presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori wave a large Peruvian flag during a demonstration on June 19, 2021 in Lima, Peru. The two political groups of the presidential candidates Peru Libre of Pedro Castillo and Fuerza Popular of Keiko Fujimori called on protests due to uncertainty over elections. (Photo by Marcos Reategui/Getty Images)
MANILA, PHILIPPINES – OCTOBER 08: Philippine Senator Ronald dela Rosa arrives to file his certificate of candidacy for the 2022 presidential race at Sofitel Harbor Garden Tent on October 8, 2021 in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines. The Philippines’ election commission accepted candidates for thousands of political posts for the May 2022 general elections. More than 18,000 political posts, from president down to municipal councillors, are up for grabs in what is expected to be a hotly contested election season. (Photo by Aaron Favila – Pool/Getty Images)
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA – Supporters of Zambian presidential candidate for the opposition party United Party for National Development (UPND) Hakainde Hichilema celebrate his election as Zambian President in Lusaka, on August 16, 2021. – Zambia’s opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was on August 16, 2021 declared winner of the hotly contested presidential election after capturing more than 2.8 million votes. (Photo by SALIM DAWOOD/AFP via Getty Images).