The Biden administration recently took another step in the years-long adoption and implementation of Congress’s potentially game-changing Global Fragility Act (GFA), sending to Capitol Hill the required 10-year plans for the selected four priority countries — Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, Haiti, Libya — and one region, Coastal West Africa, which takes in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo. Officials publicly released only summaries of the plans. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the plans “represent a commitment to reform how the United States engages with partners,” and that the set “utilizes data and evidence to inform policymaking; and integrates diplomatic, development, and security sector engagement.”
Such reforms, while seemingly obvious, could be revolutionary to U.S. foreign policy and assistance to address the global challenge of violent conflict. However, conflict prevention routinely takes a back seat to immediate crises, and reshaping an entrenched bureaucratic system is hard. Operationalizing these plans to allow for the U.S. government to work effectively and efficiently on immediate crises and conflict prevention will require considerable political will, resources, risk-taking, a breaking down of entrenched bureaucratic barriers, and more than a little patience and several legal fixes from Congress.
The Global Fragility Act (GFA), originally titled the Violence Reduction Act, in early 2016, grew out of bipartisan work in Congress, the administration, and more than 100 peacebuilding, humanitarian, development, and faith-based organizations in the GFA Coalition to address the rapidly accelerating trends of violent conflict and fragility worldwide. (My organization, the Alliance for Peacebuilding, co-leads the coalition with Mercy Corps.) The idea was to significantly change and improve the U.S. government’s approach to foreign policy, development, and security assistance in conflict-affected and fragile States.
Unfortunately, while the law was moving through Congress, violent conflict and fragility hit a new record high globally in 2018, even after the scaling down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then, climate change, democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism, the weaponization of technology, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, have greatly accelerated violent conflict and fragility globally. The Global Fragility Act passed in late December 2019 with overwhelmingly bipartisan support because it was clear the U.S. government needed to change the way it was doing business. As required by the act, the Trump administration issued the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability in 2020. And President Joe Biden stated in transmitting the new plans to Congress on March 24 this year, “We recognize that the best strategy to save lives, build lasting stability, and disrupt the cycle of violence is to prevent conflicts before they happen.”
So far in developing these plans, coordination between the 3 D’s (diplomacy, development, and defense) has been promising, with the establishment of a new interagency secretariat made up of representatives from the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Department of Defense, as well as liaisons with the Treasury Department. Additional coordination entities spanning the interagency include policy committees created by the National Security Council and its Deputies Committee. Still, while the country plans reflect a coordinated interagency effort, this coordination must continue and be strengthened, and that will be a significant test of the GFA. Admirably, officials also regularly consulted with the GFA Coalition and other stakeholders including civil society organizations and governments in the GFA countries, and incorporated their feedback throughout the drafting process, rather than wait until after the plans were drafted to consult.
Progress, But Hurdles Ahead
Each of the implementation plans illustrates progress in the U.S. government’s approach, while also highlighting areas that will continue to require unprecedented coordination and innovation.
In Mozambique, for example, the new U.S. government plan calls for better integration across multiple policy goals by tying counterterrorism/security objectives with governance and the underlying drivers of conflict. The ISIS-Mozambique (ISIS-M) insurgency has displaced nearly a million people, exploited and exacerbated long-standing divisions within Mozambican society, and intensified local mistrust of government and security actors. But U.S. government agencies’ budgets are heavily earmarked to specific accounts, and there is little flexibility to modify them to implement a new holistic strategy for the country that is supposed to focus on peacebuilding and conflict prevention. This illustrates one of the most significant challenges to implementing the GFA. In Mozambique, for instance, the budget is almost entirely earmarked, and 90 percent is allocated to health programming. Without flexibility of funding accounts and integration of conflict prevention across all the existing funding accounts, the country/regional plans will follow the earmarked resources, instead of the funding following the new strategy.
In Coastal West Africa, the U.S. chiefs of mission across the region admirably worked together on the common challenge of preventing and reducing violent extremism (VE). This 10-year regional plan is explicitly crafted to incorporate lessons learned from decades of work on such violence in the Sahel that focused overwhelmingly on military- or other security-force-dominated solutions. The new plan seeks to nurture a more substantial “social contract” between national and local governments, security actors, community leaders, and the public, based on increased trust.
The new GFA long-term goal in Papua New Guinea focuses on empowering communities and marginalized populations, especially women, to prevent and resolve conflicts through non-violent means. This reflects the U.S. GFA strategy’s effort to draw from a growing canon of laws and policies oriented toward prevention, including the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Act and the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act. The WPS policy framework recognizes that women are critical in all efforts to achieve sustainable international peace and security, and requires women’s equal and meaningful participation in peace processes, peacebuilding, and security. But the rollout of the WPS policy framework has been slow globally, and in Papua New Guinea, for the plan to succeed, integrating a robust WPS framework is essential to addressing the epidemic of violence against women.
Tough Roads for Libya and Haiti
Libya and Haiti will be the hardest to stabilize. The United States selected Libya as a priority country to build upon the October 2020 ceasefire and to advance the United Nations’ Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). Libya has experienced deep division, violence, and instability since the fall of Muammar Qadhafi in 2011, which has resulted in competing political factions and significant hybrid armed groups. The goal of the GFA plan is to develop an “incremental” and “scalable” approach so that Libya can be “governed by a democratically elected, unified, representative, and internationally recognized authority.” The plan lays out a promising framework to achieve political stability, inclusion, a civilian-controlled security apparatus, and sustainable economic growth through a robust top-down and bottom-up diplomatic effort. But tackling the armed groups is critical to stabilizing Libya, and success will rely on the part of the plan that focuses on ensuring there is a controlled, legitimate, unified military and security force.
Haiti was selected as a priority country when it was one of the most-improved countries on conflict watch lists before 2021. But the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 resulted in a destabilizing acceleration of violent gang activity tied to the government and to more generalized instability. The U.S. government’s plan in Haiti outlines a phased approach, first seeking to address security and justice, followed by a second phase that tackles the root causes of instability, and a third phase to build sustainable impact and fundamental institutional change. This phased approach is a departure from current U.S. foreign policy that instead has been more reactionary, focusing on the migration crisis and humanitarian assistance. Haitian civil society leaders stress underlying political and governance issues must be addressed alongside security issues because they go hand in hand. Consequently, strong diplomacy that addresses the political crisis must be a critical part of phase one.
In both Libya and Haiti, the key will be for the U.S. government to ensure it has legitimate, stable government partners and a certain level of security, which is inherently a political issue. While the GFA process has paid considerable attention to reforming how the U.S. government provides assistance, reforming the process of foreign policy decision-making and diplomacy to segue with the GFA is essential, too. The State Department must mainstream conflict prevention and peacebuilding standards for all U.S. diplomatic staff and provide them with ongoing technical assistance on these issues. The new Negotiations Support Unit in the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations is a tremendous resource for diplomats, but more technical assistance modeled on this unit is needed, and it can’t be optional. Improved evidence-based dashboards are also vital, so that complex, local, national, and regional political information is accessible to better target and adapt diplomacy to meet the rapidly changing nature of conflict and extremism in volatile contexts like Libya and Haiti today.
Reforming the entrenched bureaucratic and siloed systems and ensuring priority is given to prevention will be extremely difficult. Remedying legal and bureaucratic barriers and ensuring sufficient resources from Congress are key to success. Congress and the administration must work together to provide flexibility in earmarks and procurement mechanisms to allow for quick, adaptive programs and local leadership. In Mozambique and Coastal West Africa, where preventing and reducing violent extremism is central to the plans, Congress should codify the Treasury Department’s recent issuance of General Licenses that provide exceptions to the “material support” prohibition for peacebuilding and humanitarian organizations, so that implementing partners can address the drivers of radicalization without the threat of criminal and civil penalties.
Funding and Flexibility
Additionally, sufficient resources are critical to success. In Fiscal Year 2024 and throughout the 10-year period covered by the GFA, Congress must provide substantial funding for GFA accounts to ensure agencies have the resources needed for it to succeed, including flexible funding for much-needed personnel so U.S. agencies can get the right people into the right jobs at the right times. Specifically, in FY24, Congress should appropriate at least $200 million for the Prevention and Stabilization Fund (PSF); $75 million for the Complex Crises Fund; and $25 million for the Multi-Donor Global Fragility Fund, separate and distinct from the PSF. It’s important to remember that such funding is still a drop in the bucket for four countries and a region that encompasses five more, all of them in various states of conflict and crisis.
Reforming the security sector – clarifying the roles of militaries, police, etc., and training them to serve their publics rather than seek to control them — is also vital in conflict-affected and fragile states, and DoD’s work in this sector will be instrumental. Congress should provide DoD with dedicated, flexible, and multiyear funding to specifically support GFA implementation, so that it remains a priority in the department, including through the Defense Support for Stabilization Activities, as outlined in Sec. 1210A of the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and Sec. 1333 of the FY22 NDAA. Congress should concurrently remove the restriction on DoD to undertake Sec. 1210A activities, so that it can quickly partner with the State Department and USAID. To ease concerns about this assistance, Congress could establish safeguards so that any assistance that DoD provides is conducted only at the request of the State Department and USAID, and that Congress must be notified in advance. But DoD will also have to ensure that its other strategies and funding, including its train-and-equip program, do not undermine the plans by supporting security forces that contribute to human rights abuses and extremism.
To succeed, the Global Fragility Act requires taking risks and learning what works and how to scale it to the levels needed to make a lasting impact. But Congress must exercise patience so the U.S. government can innovate and not be afraid to fail. The GFA is not the only solution that will be required to address the dangerous increase in violent conflict and fragility, and lessons from these pilot countries and the Coastal West Africa region be transferred quickly to other conflict-affected and fragile states where they apply.
Still, the GFA is a powerful new approach to meet mounting geopolitical challenges, save lives and taxpayer dollars and build global security. Now, the real work begins to ensure a fundamental shift to more effective U.S. foreign policies and assistance, to begin curbing violent conflict, at least first in GFA countries and ultimately beyond, so that the most effective elements of this approach become the norm globally, rather than the exception.