Rethinking the US global fragility strategy

Rethinking the US global fragility strategy
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Through its ferocious assault on public health systems and livelihoods across the world, the COVID-19 crisis poses an unprecedented challenge to global stability. In fragile states that remain trapped in vicious cycles of armed conflict, this challenge is particularly severe due to limited state legitimacy and capacity to deliver services. From Burma to Mozambique, violent conflict — and the governance deficits that nurture it — are intensifying. Quarantined youth may be even more vulnerable to violent extremism due to an uptick in online messages on radicalization and a proliferation of intolerant rhetoric.

COVID-19 and its ramifications converge with a significant moment for the U.S. government policy on fragility and violent conflict, articulated in the Global Fragility Act (GFA). As part of the GFA, the U.S. government is now drafting its first ever global fragility strategy and country-specific plans. These plans must be adjusted to reflect the enormity of both the current and the post-pandemic context. They must focus on addressing the pandemic-conflict nexus and emphasize creative thinking about leveraging the strength of all actors within nation states to address the crisis. Here are three ways to do that.

First, the U.S. government Fragility Strategy must be based on an appreciation of the multifaceted nature of legitimacy. The conception of legitimacy is highly context-specific and largely determined by local communities. Existing approaches prioritize government and civil society as primary legitimate partners and beneficiaries. While these actors enjoy firsthand knowledge of local challenges, it is evident that, in many contexts, donors tend to engage individuals and institutions who speak their language, but who fail to adequately represent the interests and aspirations of their communities. As a result, governance and stabilization assistance falls short in maximizing impact and reaching local communities that deserve most support. Instead, public trust in locally legitimate actors, such as tribal, religious, youth or women leaders, as well as in grassroots organizations, must be leveraged to improve governance and strengthen collective action and service delivery that are responsive to people’s immediate needs. Partnership between state and non-state actors — which can be utilized as a response to COVID-19 — will also create new pathways for stabilization and governance assistance by credibly incorporating non-state institutions and actors in the process.


Second, the U.S. government should mainstream contingency planning and adaptation as part of the Global Fragility Strategy. If recent trends are any indication, the pandemic will only compound pre-existing conflict and governance challenges. This underscores the need for adaptability and responsiveness. In practice, this means building procedures that are grounded in principles of inclusion and trust between different levels of government — central, state, local — to anticipate, manage and mitigate the deleterious effects of COVID-19. Further, these issues — conflict, pandemics, governance, stabilization, and inclusion, among others — must no longer be addressed in silos. Instead, the U.S. Fragility Strategy must encourage multisectoral approaches that address the full spectrum of conflict and governance dynamics. This includes building societal resilience to a host of shocks through responsive and inclusive governance.

Third, the U.S. government needs to develop a strategy of not only incorporating traditional structures in a democratic state structure, but also enabling them to become inclusive and representative. As the U.S. government thinks about legitimacy more expansively and engages with traditional actors and institutions who are otherwise non-traditional partners in democracy strengthening, it is imperative for it to remain steadfastly committed to its democratic principles. Only by maintaining that commitment to democratic pluralism will the U.S. be able to encourage and incentivize the traditional institutions to become more inclusive and representative over time through greater engagement with communities. The U.S. should pursue this ambition by integrating traditional structures and institutions within existing state structures and by giving them real voice in policymaking while also holding them accountable to their constituents, without compromising the fundamental sources of their legitimacy.

The U.S. government has limited resources and high opportunity costs of engaging in contexts that merit prolonged commitments. The proposed recommendations — widening the definition of legitimacy, mainstreaming contingency planning, and enabling traditional institutions to become more inclusive — could be promising steps to achieve the objectives spelled out in the GFA. The U.S. will need to be more strategic in identifying its interests and in making enduring commitments, engage all relevant stakeholders to partner with legitimate actors, be aware of its responsibility to its allies, and remain pragmatic about the quality of change that it can champion, without repressing the boldness of its democratic aspirations.

Prakhar Sharma is a senior researcher at the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to advancing democracy and governance worldwide.

Lauren Mooney is a technical specialist on conflict prevention and stabilization at IRI.