Last December, Congress overwhelmingly adopted the Global Fragility Act (GFA) to end the U.S. government’s outdated, reactive approach to global violence, conflict, and extremism and replace it with a new preventive approach. The first requirement under this innovative law is for the U.S. government to develop a whole-of-government Global Fragility Strategy by September 15, 2020. Unfortunately, the report the Administration delivered to Congress this week fell short of the law’s legal requirements, and the delay threatens to disrupt its implementation at precisely the moment it is needed most to confront global violence resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Passed and signed into law with strong bipartisan support last December, the Global Fragility Act requires the U.S. government to identify countries and regions most at risk of violence, conflict, and extremism and then align diplomatic, development, and defense resources to mitigate these threats. The GFA dedicates new authorities and resources in at least 5 high-priority, fragile countries over a sustained 10-year period. The bipartisan United States Institute of Peace Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, successor to the original 9/11 Commission, endorsed this law last year as a critical strategy for repairing “the broken social contract between citizens and their governments, rather than just respond[ing] to terrorist threats.”
Nearly 80 million people around the world have already been forcibly displaced and are on the run from violence, persecution, and war. The global COVID-19 pandemic threatens to drive humanitarian need higher as it amplifies existing conflict drivers and accelerates a spiral into deeper instability in already fragile states. The University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies forecasts the pandemic will ignite conflict in 13 more countries through 2022, pushing the total of countries experiencing conflict to 35, more than at any point over the past 30 years. Earlier this month the Defense Department’s Inspector General issued a similar warning, reporting that COVID-19 has “exacerbated many of the underlying conditions that foster VEO [violent extremist organization] growth, including economic and food insecurity.” A newly released brief from the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps outlines how COVID-19 and government responses to it are fraying social cohesion, deteriorating state-society relations, proliferating dis/misinformation, expanding armed groups’ influence, and increasing economic scarcity and resource competition.
We recognize the complexity of developing a comprehensive new U.S. government strategy and the operating constraints due to COVID-19, but the Administration did not submit a “report setting forth the [global fragility] strategy” as mandated by Section 504(c) and described in the law but rather an outline of what a future strategy will include. While we commend the focus of the U.S. government summary report’s focus on the four goals of prevention; stabilization; burden-sharing, or multilateral coordination; and management, or internal coordination, it lacks detail for how to achieve these goals and objectives.
If the U.S. government had delivered the comprehensive new plan that Congress mandated, these are some of the core provisions it should have prioritized:
- Select priority countries based on rigorous research and analysis. Leveraging data and evidence will help determine the contexts most at risk of violence and conflict and where the U.S. government may be able to make a significant difference. The Global Fragility Act provides a list of criteria to guide country selection and requires the U.S. government to choose countries from at least three regions to learn which types of preventive activities are most effective in different contexts. While our coalition has not advocated for any one country, we developed a data-driven approach for identifying stabilization countries and regions. We urge the U.S. government to abide by the criteria codified in law in selecting the countries and regions and quickly identify them, a critical and necessary step for completing the ten-year country plans due to Congress on December 20.
- Ensure a multisectoral approach that includes diplomatic engagement. A key component of the Global Fragility Strategy is the use of innovative foreign assistance programs across a variety of fields, including good governance, community dialogue and conflict resolution, and justice and security sector reform among others. The Global Fragility Strategy must articulate a theory of change for linking and aligning multiple programmatic initiatives, and the strategy must also explain how U.S. government agencies will buttress assistance activities with diplomatic engagement.
- Outline the coordination and leadership structures within the U.S. government. To achieve the transformative multisectoral programmatic and diplomatic approach Congress called for in the law, sustained senior leadership will be required to break through bureaucratic inertia and parochial interests within the interagency. The Global Fragility Strategy must develop a clear leadership and bureaucratic organization plan that articulates the decision-making process, including for foreign assistance. Earlier this month, the President delegated his authorities under the Global Fragility Act to the Secretary of State. While the summary report names some of the officials who will lead the law’s implementation, not all meet the law’s requirement that they hold the rank of assistant secretary, and it does not name officials at all relevant U.S. government agencies.
- Elevate local ownership and accountability to affected populations. Congress made clear its intent that the GFA “address the long-term underlying causes of fragility and violence through participatory, locally led programs…” The Strategy should articulate how U.S. government agencies plan to identify, partner, and seek input and evaluation from the communities where the strategy activities are taking place. The strategy must include not only a plan for sustained consultation and engagement over the entire life of the decade-long initiative but also smaller and more flexible procurement mechanisms that are tolerant of risk.
- Prioritize research and learning. One of the long-term benefits of the Global Fragility Act is it offers an opportunity to study the value of preventive action and refine our foreign assistance and diplomatic models to become most effective. Across the five or more priority countries, the U.S. government Strategy must go beyond traditional aid program monitoring and evaluation and support larger-scale research studies to document and study how the diplomatic, development, and defense efforts work in tandem in differing contexts to understand solutions to violence.
For a more complete set of recommendations on Global Fragility Act implementation, our respective organizations have also published comprehensive reports, including Mercy Corps’ Implementing the Global Fragility Act: From Policy to Strategy and Alliance for Peacebuilding and One Earth Future Foundation’s Getting from Here to There: Successful Implementation of the Global Fragility Act.
In a COVID-19 world, the U.S. government will face greater levels of violence and conflict globally and have fewer discretionary resources to address them. That is why it is more urgent than ever for the U.S. government to implement the preventive approach to conflict as required by the GFA. Last year, through enactment of the Global Fragility Act, Congress provided the foreign affairs agencies with the authorizations and resources to develop this new strategy. Now it’s time for them to seize it.
Elizabeth Hume is vice president of the Alliance for Peacebuilding and has 20 years’ leadership experience in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Follow on Twitter @Lizhume4peace.
Richmond Blake is director of policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps. He previously served as a foreign service officer and policy adviser to the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights. Follow on Twitter @richmondpblake.
Together they lead the Global Fragility Act coalition of 65 humanitarian, human rights, and peacebuilding organizations.