Planning teams from across the U.S. government are racing to begin implementing the long-awaited Global Fragility Act (GFA), after the White House earlier this month announced the four countries (Haiti, Libya, Mozambique, and Papua New Guinea) and one region (Littoral West Africa) that will be the priority areas of focus based on the administration’s updated strategy. The new law, which Congress passed more than two years ago, and the U.S. strategy to carry it out were eight years in the making, and aim to prevent the kind of armed conflict that has engulfed 32 countries around the world and driven more than 80 million people from their homes worldwide, even before the 11 million seeking shelter from Russia’s war on Ukraine that escalated in February.

While cast as a “prevention and stabilization” response to the security threats posed by fragile states, the GFA at its core is a political strategy: the goal is to transform weak institutions and predatory political networks that cause states to become fragile with governance that is inclusive and responsive to citizens. Ensuring the leadership of local civil society and governance leaders in this political transformation will be key to the GFA’s success — after all, a political system can’t be inclusive by sidelining those whose political participation is central to that objective.

The GFA thus can become an integral part of the Biden administration’s strategy for global democratic renewal. The on-going “democracy” recession is not just a crisis for democracy. It is a critical national security threat for the United States, which relies on the community of democracies for strategic alliances, for its geo-political and economic position, and to preserve the international rules-based order.

But in testing new approaches with these pilot countries, the United States will have to carefully consider local contexts and take a fresh look at the factors driving violence. U.S. planners would do well to consider lessons already learned from previous successes and failures in supporting democratic development in areas affected by conflict.

Political Transformation: Proven Approaches and Program Options

The April 1 White House announcement updating the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability rightfully makes “elevat(ing) democracy, human rights, and governance” a guiding principle. The United States will “work with partner governments and communities to foster legitimate, inclusive, transparent, and accountable political systems that reduce fragility.”

Recent research and experience on the ground with programs our respective organizations have carried out to support democracy abroad points to several lessons the U.S. government should apply to strengthen governance in a way that will be sustainable. Four lessons in particular stand out.

First, embrace working with non-state actors. This includes customary and traditional leaders, and informal institutions, such as village councils or local dispute resolution processes, that the local population views as legitimate and that can be effective governance providers in areas affected by conflict. U.S. foreign policy tends to privilege engagement with a state’s central government. Yet the elites who occupy the centralized halls of power often capture public resources and deliberately weaken institutions of democratic oversight. These patterns perpetuate the grievances – from corruption to abuse – that fuel the cycles of violence in fragile states. In these types of settings, and especially where state presence is weak or state actors are perceived as corrupt or prejudicial, non-government organizations and leaders or informal systems have filled a void by providing services and dispute resolution.

The United States must identify and support these kinds of natural leaders and systems that deliver for citizens, rather than always focusing resources on strengthening central government institutions that would seek to supplant informal systems long before they are ready, if they ever are. In countries in Africa’s Sahel region, for instance, the U.S. supports the training of local parajuristes (paralegals) to advise citizens on how to pursue justice within both customary and state systems. In most cases, it is unwise to bypass the central government entirely because doing so would risk creating parallel “states” as well as undercutting, or further weakening, overall state legitimacy. Therefore, giving citizens choice and agency in how they access justice and exercise their rights reinforces the principle of citizen-responsive governance, and reminds local justice authorities where they get their legitimacy – the citizens.

Second, avoid narrow institution-building approaches. Instead, embrace comprehensive assistance strategies that combine a range of programs with clearly defined strategic outcomes that are specific to the political context and conflict situation. For example, in the event of democratic “opening” in an  authoritarian regime like Tanzania, degrading the power of the one party-state requires a complex mix of support for independent media, civil society advocacy, social movement mobilization, and opposition party strengthening to expose state corruption and abuse, peel away its pillars of political support, and prepare legitimate political alternatives. Meanwhile, assistance in building and developing political parties in countries like Senegal, with around 25 political parties, would involve transitioning from personality-based to constituent-focused leadership: reinforcing local-national political party ties as well as aggregating and communicating constituent interests and needs, among other aims. 

Third, listen to and follow the lead of local democracy advocates. The GFA rightfully calls for consulting local organizations in strategy design and implementation. Since its inception as a field in the late 1980s, U.S. democracy support has undergone a significant evolution in its approach to such work in other countries. What began as transmitting knowledge and expertise on Western political institutions to Eastern European and post-Soviet countries seeking integration with the West, today involves democracy support organizations, including our own, following the lead of those countries’ own democracy champions and supporting their vision and their innovations for how democracy can work best in practice in their contexts. Democracy innovations by other countries, include citizen assemblies (Ireland), participatory budgeting (Brazil), and radical transparency (Taiwan), where citizens are involved in shaping how the government delivers services. The U.S. also should consider updating funding and capacity-building mechanisms to put partners on the ground at the forefront of democratic change by working more closely with them to identify, test, and scale new approaches.

Finally, embrace political transformation as a prerequisite to achieving long-term peace and stability, but plan for the risks such change can pose. It would be easy for the U.S. government to work on the margins of governance deficits affecting GFA priority countries and not try to disrupt the political power systems at the core of power disparities and fragility. To rollout the same shop-worn playbook, however, would be to miss an opportunity to support local democracy advocates’ efforts to transform their political system in a way that lays a foundation for long-term stability.

Disrupting power systems and the associated transformation of a country’s political architecture, however, can increase the possibilities for violence in the short term. Transformation almost always requires certain groups ceding their monopolies on power — and quite frequently these groups use armed violence to prevent such profound changes. The United States, with its local partners, must use evidence-based and well-tested remedies to reduce tensions and mitigate violence. (The evidence-based conclusion, for example, that women’s participation in conflict resolution delivers sustainable peace outcomes before, during, and after conflict has driven a raft of strategies, programs, and additional research to break patriarchal holds on power.)   Diplomacy and foreign assistance both have a role to play. On the former, the United States must push for enforceable term limits, be ready to negotiate off-ramps for longstanding authoritarians, and punish leaders who foment violence or seek to subvert democratic progress. Evidence shows that foreign assistance can help mitigate risks for violence surrounding contentious elections; work to integrate armed groups previously employed by sets of predatory elites, and promote accountability around any war-to-peace transitions.

Reforming Democracy Assistance 

The Global Fragility Act is an opportunity to make critical improvements to the way the United States promotes democracy in fragile states. For too long, the U.S. government has approached democracy support in conflict-affected countries the same as it would in a peaceful middle-income nation. If the Biden administration is truly committed to increasing the impact of the still meager U.S. budget for democracy assistance – at $3.2 billion, it pales in comparison to the $773 billion defense budget and is the equivalent of one-fourth the cost of a single aircraft carrier – it would move away from a preconceived U.S. perspective on what democracy and governance should look like. Instead, U.S. assistance must respond to the unique political challenges of state fragility: exclusionary, informal elite political power systems; “unique” governance capacities; and the political marginalization and alienation of significant parts of the population – youth, women, and ethnic and religious groups.

Disrupting predatory and corrupt elite networks: Country work through the GFA is meant to break the mold on how the United States approaches conflict. This means prioritizing diplomacy as a tool to tackle fragility and giving it equal pride of place to what the United States has historically approached as a problem for foreign assistance to solve. Disrupting the predatory elite networks at the core of violent conflict requires combining the standard U.S. support for strengthening institutions and civil society–the bread and butter of foreign assistance for democracy and governance –with forceful, pointed, and unapologetic diplomatic engagement with elites who enable fragility and, in many cases, orchestrate violence. The U.S. must make clear in words and deeds that such behavior is no longer tolerated.

The International Monetary Fund’s conditioned disbursements in Ukraine in the years before the war escalated in February provided a promising model. Ukraine’s civil society identified anti-corruption measures that were imperative, and the IMF required the government to implement them. Once civil society verified compliance, the IMF would release its funds. The arrangement empowered civil society and established its all-important role in monitoring government, including in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s first years in office. Because Ukraine’s elites needed the IMF funding to keep the economy stable and thus maintain power, it was influential leverage for systems and behavior change. Diplomacy must go beyond the standard playbook of sanctions and statements, and include new carrots and sticks that will change elite behavior and strengthen the alternative points of political power that will deliver citizen-responsive governance.

Ending Marginalization: If citizen-responsive governance is the holy grail of political transformation for fragile states, U.S. development and security organizations that deliver in fields critical to citizens in those aid-receiving countries – security, health, education – must ensure those program are participatory and inclusive.  That means, for example, strengthening the principles of democratic governance of the security sector that incorporates citizens’ security needs, reinforces civilian oversight of security institutions, integrates the principles of  human rights and rule of law into security sector operations, as the U.S. government has done previously. That, in turn, would contribute to the necessary larger political and governance transformation. U.S. democracy- and governance-support organizations currently prioritize inclusion and participation in their programming. However, including women, youth and marginalized groups in political party training or in election-observer missions has not added up to citizen-responsive governance. The GFA must deploy democracy and governance programming more strategically so that political power systems (and not just programs) are more inclusive of citizens and their interests. For example, the success of election-observation missions that employ data and statistical analysis to secure election outcomes even in instances of substantial electoral fraud have preserved the integrity of elections. Deploying this same data-driven, transparent monitoring to assess government compliance and corruption in the delivery of services such as health care has similar power shifting effects – government reform responsive to citizen interests, and service delivery based on objective criteria rather than political or personal patronage.

Governance Resilience: Because governance structures and systems in fragile states don’t look the same as formal state structures in Western countries, it is often difficult to identify their strengths. This includes identifying and reinforcing their points of resilience – those elements that make local or national systems better able to absorb shocks and address grievances – which may lie in customary systems, cultural traditions, or highly local political balancing systems. The GFA must adopt partner-led democracy-support approaches to harness and disseminate local innovation and success. To do so means taking the time to identify governance resilience and participatory processes in all forms, elevating good-governance champions within both formal and informal systems; and finding innovative ways for governance and civil society actors to diffuse and integrate locally legitimate and inclusive governance approaches.

Looking Forward

The conflict in Ukraine has made clear that democracy and the rules-based order that underpins its global survival is now under threat on multiple fronts. Authoritarian regimes like those in Belarus or Azerbaijan seek to undermine these systems from within and to attack them directly and offensively. Populist and predatory regimes – from Brazil to Hungary – exploit democratic norms and institutions to secure their own self-interests, further degrading democracy’s popular legitimacy.

The U.S. Congress developed the Global Fragility Act to ensure success in preventing and ending violent conflict in other countries. But if successful, it also can be integral to the U.S. goal of democratic renewal — to support citizens’ demands globally for more and better democracy.

IMAGE: Ndambi Guebuza (C, standing) wearing the orange prison uniform, talks to his father Armando Guebuza, former president of Mozambique, in the facilities of the maximum-security prison in Maputo on February 17, 2022, where a trial for corruption and financial fraud was being held. Ex-president Armando Guebuza took the witness stand in Mozambique’s biggest corruption scandal, defending the government’s decision to contract huge secret loans that triggered an economic crisis during his tenure. (Photo by ALFREDO ZUNIGA/AFP via Getty Images)