F Bureau leader calls for smarter 'strategic prevention' in fragile states

James L. Richardson, director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance Resources. Photo by: U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON — U.S. humanitarian assistance needs an overhaul so it can more effectively respond to complex crises in fragile states, according to Jim Richardson, head of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance Resources, or F Bureau.

“Foreign assistance is just a tool. Depending on how, why, and when it is used, it can be effective and good, or it can be the opposite. What matters is how the assistance is structured, delivered, and monitored,” said Richardson, who spoke Monday at an event in Washington.

As a part of a U.S. government effort to rethink how the country works across agencies to prevent conflict, end ongoing conflict, and rebuild states once conflict is over, Richardson’s bureau produced a report called the “Strategic Prevention Project.” The F Bureau began the project, which examines the effectiveness of U.S. foreign assistance at preventing violent conflict in fragile states, in 2018 with support from the National Security Council and other bureaus in the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.

“The project rightfully found that more money does not equal more stability,” Richardson said.

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The days of doing development in stable countries are “radically fleeting,” Richardson said, with man-made crises now the main cause of conflict and displacement worldwide. Over $65 billion a year in U.S. foreign assistance goes toward fragile states — but only a “small fraction" is directly allocated for preventing violent conflict and instability, according to the State Department.

“Our humanitarian structures were built decades ago when natural disasters — meaning droughts, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes — were the main drivers of humanitarian needs,” said Richardson, who joined the F Bureau in July after leading the USAID’s reorganization.

But now, Richardson said, weak and poorly governed states have given rise to a host of new and increasingly common challenges: conflict, terrorism, crime, humanitarian crises, and pandemics.

The Strategic Prevention Project acknowledges a growing consensus in the U.S. government that responses to fragile states must be “more strategic and preventative.” It found that while money was already being spent in fragile contexts, its aim was targeted at other development or foreign policy challenges — not specifically at preventing violent conflict. This meant that promoting “inclusive and just” political systems, key to creating stable societies, were not central to efforts.

From 2007 to 2016, the largest portion of U.S. official development assistance — 31% — went toward health. Humanitarian assistance saw 20%, while 10% went toward democracy, human rights, and governance, and 7% went toward peace and security, according to the report.

The report identified three pillars of “strategic prevention”: promoting inclusive and just political systems and fostering social cohesion, increasing institutional resilience to shocks and threats, and strengthening pro-peace constituencies and mechanisms.

“It’s not a fire extinguisher or ax under glass that some alarm goes off, we break it and we go into action. It’s a framework and way of looking at countries and conflicts and regions and it’s about understanding all of the tools that are available — not just foreign assistance — and what are the objectives,” said Raphael Carland, managing director at the F Bureau. “What we want to do is mainstream conflict prevention.”

The Strategic Prevention Project’s recommendations are designed to dovetail with the Global Fragility Act, a bill that would solidify a U.S. government-wide strategy for stabilization and violence reduction. The legislation has passed the House but is awaiting a Senate vote, and the Trump administration has indicated support for it.

The recommendations include getting the State Department and USAID to align around a set of principles for strategic prevention; applying those across U.S. government-wide planning and design; better coordinating foreign assistance and diplomacy; better utilizing data to track success of prevention efforts; and working with Congress and other donors to execute the principles in priority countries.  

Rob Jenkins, deputy assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, noted that on the 18th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the new strategic prevention framework was a way to finally recognize lessons from past stabilization efforts.

“Those are lessons experienced, those are lessons admired, but we haven’t acted on those lessons,” Jenkins said. “It’s not about money, it’s not about more people and more boots on the ground, it’s [that] we can’t want it more than the people themselves. Those lessons are all there, we all knew them, but now we’re focusing on it.”

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.