Coronavirus could stall US stabilization strategy in fragile states

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A Somali health officer marks a sign to advocate for social distancing as a measure to stem the growing spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, at a market in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo by: REUTERS / Feisal Omar

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic could impact the U.S. government’s ability to implement the Stabilization Assistance Review, a State Department official said Tuesday.

The 2-year-old SAR lays out a coordinated, interagency approach to stabilization that avoids large-scale reconstruction efforts and better utilizes expertise from the State Department, Defense Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development in fragile contexts. Conclusions reached in the document helped inform the Global Fragility Act, bipartisan legislation passed last year that outlines a prevention approach to conflict-affected states.

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Eythan Sontag, senior adviser at the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, said disruptions to U.S. mission activity because of the coronavirus may delay next steps on country-specific stabilization strategies that nearly a dozen embassies developed at the end of last year.

“To be completely frank, we’re also grappling with the impacts of COVID and what that means as far as the bandwidth at our posts, the ability to implement and oversee programs, et cetera,” Sontag said during an online Center for Strategic and International Studies event. “We think we just have to be realistic about the length of time that it’s going to take to be able to see the tangible impacts of these new modalities of work.”

The SAR was the first step to streamlining the U.S. government’s stabilization approaches, derived from lessons learned in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries where lengthy U.S. operations are widely considered to be failures. With more than one-third of U.S. foreign assistance in the past decade going to countries experiencing violent conflict, the SAR sets the typical timeline for a stabilization operation from one to five years and emphasizes the importance of locally driven solutions.

Embassies that were asked to develop strategies adapting principles from the SAR to their country context and stabilization challenges include those in Somalia, Niger, and the Central African Republic. Sontag said the purpose of the exercise was to create a more coherent strategy development process to determine whether U.S. government programs and the other tools, such as military-to-military assistance, were in fact aligned with political goals and stabilization objectives and “whether, in fact, those objectives were realistic and measurable.”

“We need to … begin thinking beyond the immediate health and humanitarian responses to COVID.”

— Eythan Sontag, senior adviser, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations

Stabilization advisers deployed by the State Department to work on this process had to return to Washington because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sontag said, but continue to work with embassies remotely. The stabilization strategies are only part of a broader plan that every embassy has with regard to its host country.

“They’re meant to be completely dynamic,” Sontag said, noting that because political coalitions and conflict dynamics can change so quickly in stabilization contexts, planning processes and strategies must “adapt and be nimble enough to conform with the new realities.”

Sontag said the State Department has seen some embassies change structures and business practices to better align with principles outlined in the SAR, which calls for all U.S. agencies engaged in stabilization efforts to adopt a standard definition of the practice to avoid ”repeated mistakes, inefficient spending, and poor accountability for results.”

An analysis of progress on SAR implementation and case studies, released last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, found that two years in, the U.S. government “is often failing to uphold its stabilization principles in practice.” The analysis said the government should have more agile and flexible authorities like USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, provide more support to the stabilization workforce in the field, and dismantle other bureaucratic obstacles.

Passage of the Global Fragility Act, which mandates the development of a 10-year strategy focused on conflict prevention, is a further chance to operationalize the principles laid out in the SAR to promote better cooperation between the State Department, USAID, and the Department of Defense, Sontag said.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to also apply many of the lessons — some of the mistakes, bumps in the road that we’ve experienced through the course of the SAR — that we’ll be able to apply that as we move forward with implementation of the GFA,” Sontag said.

The CSIS analysis also warned that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the necessity of conflict- and resilience-aware stabilization efforts and that the U.S. government and implementers must recognize the pandemic’s ability to either quell or exacerbate existing conflict drivers. The pandemic may restrict civilian and military mobility and readiness in conflict areas, and authorities, programming, and funding must be flexible to adapt to new realities and vulnerabilities, the analysis said.

Although the administration has until September to deliver its GFA implementation plan to Congress and select pilot countries, Sontag said the government must take the law’s principles into account during its global response to the pandemic.

“We need to, I think, begin thinking beyond the immediate health and humanitarian responses to COVID and think through, in a more coherent fashion, the second-order and third-order effects on economies, on social landscapes, and on peace and stability,” Sontag said.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.