As required by the Global Fragility Act (GFA), the White House recently released the long-awaited four priority “pilot” countries — Haiti, Libya, Mozambique, and Papua New Guinea — and one region, Coastal West Africa, and updated the Global Fragility Strategy. The bipartisan GFA was enacted by Congress and signed into law in December 2019 and is a potentially game-changing framework for U.S. foreign policy, assistance, and security in countries affected by conflict or otherwise fragile. The GFA provides the United States with a radically different approach to preventing and reducing violent conflict globally, away from the current slow, siloed, and non-adaptive approach to a sustained, long-term investment.
Prior to the GFA, the U.S. government did not have a comprehensive, coordinated interagency strategy to reduce and prevent violent conflict globally. The GFA requires the U.S. government to make peacebuilding and conflict prevention central to foreign assistance and diplomacy, starting with five priority locations to pilot a new strategy. The law calls for the development of a whole-of-government, multisectoral, and integrated strategy to prevent and mitigate conflict and build sustainable peace, an approach long advocated by U.S. organizations and advocates working in this field, including the nearly 70 member-strong GFA Coalition. (Our organizations, the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Mercy Corps, respectively, co-chair the coalition.) With the announcement of the pilot locations, the law is no longer theoretical, and implementing the GFA can finally move forward in practice.
The release of the priority countries/region is a crucial step forward. The law required the countries/regions be selected by September 2020, but that timeline coincided with the impending transition of presidential administrations. Once in place, the Biden administration contended with not only the pandemic, but the withdrawal from Afghanistan and now the war in Ukraine. Even before the crisis in Ukraine, violent conflict globally was at a 30-year high. Unfortunately, the delay in implementing the GFA has stymied the U.S. government from starting to work in a more coordinated and proactive approach to prevent conflict.
The GFA calls for flexible U.S. foreign assistance and diplomacy in these contexts over 10 years and integration of conflict prevention and peacebuilding in an aid system where different development sectors are siloed. It requires evidence-based metrics to ensure data guides policy and assistance decisions, and bi-annual reporting to Congress on its findings. The GFA also stipulates the administration must regularly consult with civil society on best practices and implementation and elevate local leadership. These concepts, while seemingly obvious, could be revolutionary to U.S. foreign policy and assistance.
While the merits of the priority countries/region list could be debated endlessly, the selection process included a thorough review of independent conflict watch lists and U.S. national security interests, while targeting contexts experiencing a range of challenges — from violent extremism threats, political transitions, food insecurity, and climate change vulnerability. There were also other, not-so-obvious criteria, including opportunities to have a positive impact and the need for robust buy-in from the U.S. diplomatic and aid missions in the relevant countries, which is critical so the GFA is not seen as a new demand being imposed by Washington bureaucrats. The 10-year sustained, strategic approach is vital to address the challenges posed by frequent turnover in mission staff, which makes it hard to forge substantial and sustained progress toward conflict prevention.
Pilot Countries and Region
The countries and region selected are ripe for a new strategy based on current conditions. Haiti, for example, leads the Western Hemisphere on fragility indexes due to chronic economic, political, and environmental stressors, including the recent devastating earthquake and the assassination of its President. In Mozambique, the extremist group ISIS-M is destabilizing the north, and in Coastal West Africa, violent extremism continues to spread from the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. The current political situation in Libya provides good opportunity and opening that the international community must quickly seize to promote peace and stability, as all too often, these opportunities are missed.
Originally, countries like Ethiopia were high on the list of potential countries for pilot programming, but throughout the more than five years it took to get the law passed and the countries announced, Ethiopia devolved into a deadly civil war and humanitarian crisis. Other leading contenders throughout the selection process also experienced worsening conflict dynamics and were ultimately deemed not good candidates for conflict prevention. The countries and region chosen had good prospects for the new strategy to make a positive impact — something unlikely in a context already experiencing the throes of full-blown war.
On the overall strategy, the Biden administration’s changes are welcome, including the focus on climate change, given it is increasingly leading to competition over resources and economic hardship. These stresses fuel and compound conflict, so it would be impossible to prevent and reduce violent conflict without tackling these issues together. While the GFA Coalition advocated that the responsibility for the GFA at the State Department be at the under-secretary level, we are confident that the leadership at both the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and at the assistant secretary level at State, with coordination by the National Security Council, will ensure robust leadership and the requisite accountability. But this issue is one the GFA Coalition will be monitoring closely because better interagency coordination is key to the GFA’s success.
The Work Ahead
Significant work lies ahead to implement the GFA. First, the chronic underfunding of conflict prevention and peacebuilding programs will need to be addressed through full funding of the authorized GFA levels. Foreign assistance constitutes less than 1 percent of the federal budget, and of that, only 11 percent is spent supporting political stability, democratic institutions, justice, and peacebuilding. Of these already paltry resources, a small and diminishing portion is spent on peacebuilding efforts. For each year over 10 years, the GFA authorizes $200 million for the Prevention and Stabilization Fund and at least $30 million for a Complex Crises Fund, as well as $25 million annually for a separate Multi-Donor Global Fragility Fund.
But the overwhelming bipartisan support of the GFA’s authorization must still be met with the full annual appropriation by Congress. However, there is concern that since the GFA was delayed, Congress may not fully fund it. The Biden administration will need to begin implementing the act quickly by obligating funding this fiscal year, even before the 10-year country/regional plans are completed. Additionally, with the implementation of the law already more than a year and a half delayed, the risk is high that more countries, including those on the priority list, might slip from fragile into active conflict. Failure to start programming by the Sept. 30 end of this fiscal year could result in opportunities lost and conflict increasing in the priority countries/region.
Finally, Congress made it clear in the law that the administration must request changes that USAID and the State Department require to implement the forward-leaning and comprehensive conflict prevention and peacebuilding strategy. This request must include funds for hiring new staff and the creation of quick, adaptive, and agile procurement mechanisms to effectively get ahead of crises and pivot if strategies and programs are not working. The administration must be forthright and ask Congress for what it truly requires to implement the GFA, as failure to break a “business as usual” approach will likely doom the law. For example, successful implementation may require that Congress give relief from earmarks so funding can be used to address conflict drivers. Often, missions receive annual funding that is already locked into programming sectors, leaving little funding for or flexibility to invest in conflict prevention. Procurement reform also would offer flexibility to issue program contracts more quickly and with fewer restrictions. However, these reforms would require more trust from Congress and greater acceptance of risk.
The GFA strategy could become the norm, and not the exception, in U.S. foreign policy interventions and, if successfully implemented, will help save lives and prevent costly, destabilizing, and deadly conflict. The positive momentum in realizing the vision behind the GFA must continue — too much is riding on it to fail.