Global Fragility Act passes as part of US budget deal

The Global Fragility Act will become law following its inclusion in the 2020 budget. Photo by: REUTERS / Tom Brenner

WASHINGTON — After being held up for months over one senator’s objection, the Global Fragility Act will become law after its inclusion in the overall fiscal year 2020 spending package that President Donald Trump is expected to sign on Friday.

The Global Fragility Act aims to change the way the U.S. government responds to fragility by promoting a whole-of-government approach to the prevention of violence and conflict that can become a breeding ground for terrorism. It was passed by the House in May and had passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but a procedural hold by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky prevented it from passing.

“For too long, we’ve treated the symptoms of violence and not the causes … This legislation is extremely helpful in terms of pivoting the U.S. approach to conflict prevention.”

— Richmond Blake, director of policy and advocacy, Mercy Corps

The bill authorizes $200 million a year over five years for a Prevention and Stabilization Fund, and $30 million a year over five years for a Complex Crisis Fund to “prevent or respond to emerging or unforeseen foreign challenges and complex crises.

The bill mandates the creation of a 10-year Global Fragility Strategy that will “contribute to the stabilization of conflict-affected areas, address global fragility, and strengthen the capacity of the United States to be an effective leader of international efforts to prevent extremism and violent conflict.” The strategy must be “coherent” and long-term, and include multisectoral approaches to reducing fragility. It should promote good governance, the strengthening of ties with civilian populations, and build resilience against violent extremism.

The Department of State is responsible for drafting and leading implementation of the strategy. The U.S. Agency for International Development is responsible for prevention programs, and is the lead implementing agency for development and humanitarian programs. Any Department of Defense involvement in the Global Fragility Strategy must be approved by the secretary of state.

“We are entirely supportive of the Global Fragility Act, not least of all because it would provide that legislative imprimatur to the kinds of things that we are already trying to advocate via policy,” said Eythan Sontag, a senior advisor at the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the State Department. Those include having more deliberate approaches to prevention and stabilization — particularly in places where the U.S. government is spending significant amounts of funding — and having a strategy that brings “coherence,” he said.

Sontag said the bill will help the State Department operationalize the U.S. government’s Stabilization Assistance Review, a policy document released last year that outlined how the State Department, the Defense Department, and USAID can more effectively work together in stabilization contexts. That document said the U.S. government will no longer engage in large-scale reconstruction efforts, and must be more strategic about its approach to fragile states.

“We really see the GFA as giving additional structure, giving additional legislative weight, and of course the resources I think will be welcome,” Sontag said. “I think CSO is poised very much to play a leading role in terms of the implementation.”

Despite the hold from Sen. Paul, the Global Fragility Act had bipartisan cosponsorship in both chambers of Congress, a recognition that the traditional U.S. approach to fragile countries was not working.

“The United States has spent nearly $5.9 trillion in the 18 years since 9/11 to combat extremism and terrorism around the world, and it’s clear we need a new strategy to do that more effectively,” Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware and cosponsor of the Global Fragility Act, said in a statement.

“This legislation is a genuinely bipartisan effort to prevent terrorism from taking hold in the first place, and, by doing that, save American lives and taxpayer dollars. This bipartisan legislation will promote the stabilization of fragile environments where terrorists thrive, build peace, and maximize the impact of U.S. foreign assistance.”

Within 270 days, the administration must submit the Global Fragility Strategy to Congress, laying out the responsibilities of each agency and staffing required to implement it. It must also identify priority regions and countries and why the administration has selected them, including spelling out “the likelihood that United States assistance under the Global Fragility Strategy would measurably help to reduce fragility, prevent the spread of extremism and violence, and stabilize conflict-affected areas.”

At least five countries must be selected, with two of those being prevention countries — locations without ongoing violent conflict but where there is a risk of conflict. Congress will be able to provide input as the State Department, USAID, and Department of Defense are considering country selection. Within a year, the administration must present a 10-year plan for implementation in each country.

“Another really key area [in the legislation] is around the monitoring and evaluation and actually holding ourselves — both implementers and the U.S. government — to account for this work.”

— Liz Hume, vice president, Alliance for Peacebuilding

The original House and Senate bills differed slightly, but advocates say they are pleased with the provisions included in the version that was passed along with the appropriations package.

“For too long, we’ve treated the symptoms of violence and not the causes,” said Richmond Blake, director of policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps, who co-led an NGO coalition supporting the bill. “It requires the U.S. government to select both stabilization and prevention countries, so this legislation is extremely helpful in terms of pivoting the U.S. approach to conflict prevention and really truly investing in prevention.”

In addition to improving coordination on fragility issues within the U.S. government, the Global Fragility Act is also intended to improve global and regional coordination of multilateral and donor organizations. The Global Fragility Strategy must help improve coordination with organizations including the World Bank and United Nations, and increase leveraging of private sector resources, the bill says. The secretary of state can do so by establishing a Multi-Donor Global Fragility Fund to better coordinate donor activity in fragile states.

The Global Fragility Strategy will be developed in consultation with stakeholders including civil society, international development organizations, and multilateral organizations.

“Another really key area [in the legislation] is around the monitoring and evaluation and actually holding ourselves — both implementers and the U.S. government — to account for this work,” said Liz Hume, vice president at the Alliance for Peacebuilding. “Both understanding what works and what doesn’t work, and being transparent about it.”

Update 12/20/19: This article has been updated to clarify Senate procedure.

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.