A Promising US Fragile States Strategy is Taking Shape, but Key Questions Remain

March 28, 2019


August 13, 2018

Earlier this month, bipartisan coalitions in the House (H.R. 1580) and Senate (S. 727) introduced legislation to improve the coordination of US government efforts to tackle the root causes of state fragility and violent extremism. While not identical, the two bills are similar in calling for long-term interagency strategies for US engagement in fragile states and in authorizing a new Stabilization and Prevention Fund to support the US government’s investments in stabilizing conflict-affected states and preventing the escalation of violence in other fragile contexts.

The bills exemplify evidence-based policymaking, reflecting many critical (and hard won) lessons learned from the United States’ involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other fragile and conflict-affected environments over the past 15 years. They also incorporate recommendations proposed by the United States Institute of Peace’s recent Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. Providing flexible, longer-term funding; requiring long-term planning; emphasizing the importance of local ownership and accountability; encouraging policy coherence among development, diplomatic, and security objectives; thinking politically about power dynamics and political will; and focusing on monitoring, evaluation, and learning are prescriptions aimed at overcoming constraints that have limited the effectiveness of past US efforts to address fragility.

If the bills advance, the House and Senate will need to reconcile a few key differences, related to funding levels (the House bill provides numbers, the Senate bill doesn’t); which funds to establish (the Senate bill spells out the creation of an additional Partnership Development Fund that would unite US efforts with those of other donors to support compact-style investments to address the root causes of fragility); and how to select focus countries, among other things. There are also some bigger picture questions that Congress and the implementing agencies will need to grapple with as the legislation (hopefully) moves forward.

  • How will the initiative ensure prevention objectives are not overshadowed by stabilization needs? Prevention efforts have historically gotten short shrift. Even though the US government has long recognized the importance of prevention—as well as its cost effectiveness—funding commensurate to the task has failed to materialize. Urgent, high-profile crisis response needs have tended to suck all the air—and resources and political attention—out of the room at the expense of prevention efforts.

    While the widely recognized need to elevate prevention seems to be a key motivating factor behind the legislation, the two versions of the bill each take a different approach. The Senate version proposes a specific fund, the Partnership Development Fund, to support prevention efforts. The House doesn’t mandate a separate fund but does require that at least three of the priority countries/regions for its proposed Global Fragility Initiative be “prevention countries.” Both bills are silent on the appropriate level of funding for prevention, though, so this must be a focus of future funding conversations.

  • Will prevention be integrated into stabilization? Key opportunities to lay the groundwork for prevention often emerge in post-crisis and stabilization environments. The fact that the bills address both prevention and stabilization recognizes that these two phases represent points along a common continuum. But it will be important to avoid creating too much of a conceptual separation between prevention and stabilization (e.g., the House bill’s requirement for separate prevention and stabilization focus countries), even if unintended. The Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR), a new interagency framework released last year, may have laid the groundwork. The SAR filled a critical gap by defining stabilization in order to map out the distinct roles of each department and agency in pursuit of stabilization objectives. But while it defined stabilization as a transitional, distinct, short-term phase, the SAR was short on discussion of how strategies and programming should be integrated across phases, from stabilization through recovery and to supporting longer-term resilience and development. The bills largely skirt around this issue too. Too often, crisis response has been an intervention unto itself, with planning for follow-on programming taking place only as urgent response activities begin to phase out. Moving forward, language that specifies the need to bridge stabilization and prevention phases could help set expectations for more synergistic programming that can better capture opportunities to address prevention at critical junctures in the stabilization process.

  • What does leadership look like and will lead agencies have the authorities they need to be successful? The nature of leadership and coordination often contributes to the success or failure of an interagency initiative. The State Department’s former Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) was set up to lead interagency planning and coordination in fragile and conflict-affected states, but limited authority and bureaucratic turf battles hampered the unit’s effectiveness and contributed to its eventual restructuring. The now defunct Global Health Initiative (GHI), initially led by State—then slated to be transitioned to USAID—also struggled to unite various US government agencies, which had different strategies and their own relationships with partner country governments. The planned separation of initiative leadership (to be at USAID) with leadership of the initiative’s largest funding stream (PEPFAR, which remained at State) also became a sticking point. PEPFAR, on the other hand, which has been comparatively successful and long-lived, has benefitted from a politically and financially empowered leadership at State. Even so, it has not been immune to the time and administrative burden of coordination, duplication of programs, communication challenges, and interagency infighting.

    How can the lessons of past interagency efforts inform how future leadership of the Global Fragility Act should look? Though the roles and responsibilities outlined in the two bills don’t match exactly, their visions are broadly similar: State would be the strategic lead focused on diplomacy and foreign policy, USAID the lead implementing agency for development and humanitarian policy, and DOD a supporting actor that undertakes security activities with concurrence of the civilian agencies. This designation logically mirrors that laid out in the SAR. But addressing the question of who should lead is very different from answering the question of what leadership will look like in practice. Where will budgetary, policy, and legal leverage lie? How will disputes between agencies be resolved? How will complementary funds or efforts (e.g., humanitarian relief) with separate leadership be integrated into the overall effort? And how can integration/coordination be structured so that it works, practically, for the different cultures of each agency? The latter may be an especially key question with both bills’ (welcome) emphasis on adaptation; what does coordination need to look like when strategies and programming are more fluid in response to contextual shifts and emerging evidence? 

  • Will monitoring and evaluation focus on both learning and accountability? The two bills’ focus on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is a welcome push for implementing agencies to better track and understand their results; it will also provide better accountability for how funds are used. But, fundamentally, what we can learn about success comes down to the types of M&E processes used and the types of questions they seek to answer. Some types are useful for understanding whether a program was implemented well; others are important for testing a theory of change (i.e., does this intervention yield the result we expect it to). Both are important, but the legislation’s particular emphasis on targets, metrics, and indicators ends up, intentionally or not, stressing the former more than the latter. Setting clear expectations that M&E should also be used, where possible and relevant, to test theories of change can help agencies understand attributable impact, leading to better, more-informed programming decisions.

  • How should the USG manage expectations for success? Building resilience is a long-term pursuit. Too often US government efforts in fragile states have operated on short time frames and focused on delivering quick and visible—but often unsustainable—wins rather than longer-term development. The legislation clearly recognizes these past missteps and seeks to reorient the US government’s approach by asking agencies to take a long-term, 10-year strategic view. This encourages greater focus on efforts, like supporting good governance, whose results may be slower to materialize but are foundational to building resilience. That said, while 10 years is a more appropriate lens than one to three years, building resilience is a generational pursuit with a nonlinear trajectory. It is fair to expect headway within a decade but implementing agencies and their congressional overseers should be wary of saddling long-term plans with unrealistic (i.e., even longer-term) goals.

Like so many others, I commend the sponsors of the two Global Fragility Acts for their evidence-informed vision and commitment to improving US stabilization and violence prevention efforts. For more ideas about improving US development assistance to fragile states, watch this space. In the coming months, CGD will release a working group report that will build on and complement recent advances in thinking about more effective development policy in fragile states.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.