The Future of US Government Development Assistance to Fragile States

August 13, 2018

By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s poor will be concentrated in fragile states, a shift that has prompted the United States to rethink how to confront the particular challenges of these environments and support a path to greater country resilience. Fragile states are where extreme poverty is increasingly concentrated, humanitarian relief is often most needed, and threats to US national security are most pressing.

As the top donor to fragile states, the United States has an important role to play in helping these countries confront their pressing development challenges. The US government‘s response to the challenge of fragility is managed by multiple agencies. The State Department, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Defense all play significant roles, each with their own remit.

Even as US government engagement with fragile states has grown in prominence over the last decade, development success has been mixed. Several new initiatives and proposed reforms seek to learn from the lessons of the past and address shortcomings in how the US government delivers aid to confront fragility.

The CGD working group on the Future of US Government Development Assistance to Fragile States will focus on how the US government can more effectively deliver development assistance in fragile states, paying particular attention to the following themes:

  1. US government policy coherence, interagency “hydraulics,” and competing theories of change across agencies. The State Department, USAID, and DOD each tend to view the problems of a particular fragile state—and define a theory of change for how to address them—through their own individual lens. Each agency’s pursuit of its own objectives does not sum to a collective goal, however, and the actions of one can sometimes undermine those of another. How can the US government address limited policy coherence and reconcile competing objectives and theories of change, especially where security concerns can dominate?

  2. How the US government can support political resilience—moving from political settlements to inclusive political processes. Where there has been political conflict, crafting an elite bargain is often an important first step and can help temper risks from elite spoilers. Such arrangements are also exclusive, with attendant implications for building resilience. How can the US government support a shift from closed elite deals to more inclusive processes?

  3. Understanding the political will and incentives for national actors to confront fragility. Providers of development aid tend to operate with an assumption that host country governments share the goal of addressing fragility. In reality, leaders in fragile states may have strong incentives to keep institutions weak, which development tools cannot compete with. How can US government actors better evaluate the political will and incentive structures of government and non-government actors in fragile states?

  4. DOD’s role in supporting security—and the link between security and legitimacy. Security is a necessary but insufficient component of state legitimacy, and the bidirectional causal links between the two are not well understood. The US government’s military assistance attempts to build fragile states’ capacity to provide security, but with uneven emphasis on institution building as an important accompaniment to tactical efficiency. There is also little evidence about whether and under what conditions US security sector aid is effective in achieving its objectives. How can US security sector assistance better address fragility by supporting state legitimacy?

  5. How best to partner with local actors within fragile states. The international community has often approached efforts to build fragile state legitimacy by fragmenting authority across a range of donors and partner country elite. This has a poor track record of success. Efforts that focus on identifying and supporting specific local capacities to perform certain tasks of governance may have more potential. What do successful partnerships look like in fragile states?

  6. The mechanics of USG development assistance to fragile states. The US government’s development tools are not well-suited for addressing fragility. They are slow to deploy, lack flexibility, and are often insufficiently coordinated with humanitarian response. Siloed funding further restricts the degree to which the US can address particular constraints. What procurement, personnel, and policy changes could help the US government respond better to the development needs of fragile states?

The working group is chaired by CGD policy fellow Sarah Rose and CGD senior fellow Vijaya Ramachandran, under the US Development Policy Initiative directed by CGD senior fellow Scott Morris.


Judd Devermont, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Leanne Erdberg, US Institute for Peace
Alice Hunt Friend, Center for Strategic and International Studies
John Glenn, US Global Leadership Coalition
Corinne Graff, US Institute for Peace
Cindy Huang, Center for Global Development
Jeremy Konyndyk, Center for Global Development
Carla Koppell, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security
James Kunder, Kunder/Reali Associates
Louisa Lombard, Yale University
Gyude Moore, Center for Global Development
Matthew Page, Chatham House
Jonathan Papoulidis, World Vision
Michael Pisa, Center for Global Development
Vijaya Ramachandran, Center for Global Development
Sarah Rose, Center for Global Development
James Schear, Woodrow Wilson Center/RAND Corporation
Laura Seay, Colby College
Jon Temin, Freedom House
Maureen White, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies