Global fragility strategy to come this month, US State Department says

Denise Natali, assistant secretary at the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. Photo by: U.S. Institute of Peace / CC BY

WASHINGTON — After missing last month’s deadline, the Trump administration expects to release a full global fragility strategy before the end of October, Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Denise Natali told Devex in an interview.

Natali’s department, along with the State Department Office of Foreign Assistance, is leading the implementation of the Global Fragility Act, which passed Congress in December. The legislation mandates a full-scale overhaul of the way the U.S. government engages in fragile and conflict-affected contexts by better coordinating the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and Department of Defense to avoid years-long reconstruction efforts and prevent future conflict. The new approach will be piloted in five countries or regions over 10 years.

The legislation passed last year stipulated that the Trump Administration unveil a full strategy by Sept. 15. Instead, it released a report that fell short of the requirements, outlining the department’s progress but failing to include congressionally mandated details of how the new approach would be implemented.

Natali said the report was released to show how committed the State Department and interagency are to fulfilling requirements mandated by the GFA.

“We’re aligning our policy and resources so that we don’t just keep going on if something doesn’t go right, we have to have a way of measuring ‘are we actually achieving what we’re supposed to achieve?’”

— Denise Natali, assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilization, State Department

“We don’t want it rushed. We want to make sure we get it right because this is going to be an enduring 10-year strategy,” Natali said. “This is a different approach. This is not old wine in new bottles, and we’re serious about this. We have taken lessons learned from our previous engagements, whether that be Afghanistan, Iraq, or other places.”

The GFA mandates selection of five country or regional priorities where the interagency feels the bill’s principles can stabilize current conflicts or help prevent the outbreak of new ones. At least two countries are to be places where the U.S. government feels it has a strong chance of being able to prevent future conflict, while three will be stabilization contexts. These selections are expected to be finalized in November, and will not be included in the global fragility strategy released in October.

The department is required to release specific strategies for each country and region selected by December, a deadline Natali said she expects to meet.

Global Fragility Act strategy won't include pilot country picks, sources say

The Global Fragility Act strategy is supposed to detail at least five countries or regions where the new approach to fragile states will be implemented.

She declined to give any preview of countries or regions under consideration for the 10-year-approach. One region mentioned often by congressional supporters of the GFA is the Sahel, while others also mention the Northern Triangle in Central America, which has not traditionally been treated as a conflict-affected region by the U.S. government the way some parts of Africa and the Middle East have.

Country and regional selection decisions must be data driven to ensure the highest chance of success, Natali said. The bureau is using both qualitative and quantitative indicators — both consultations and data — in its selection methodology, and factors such as levels of fragility and violence conflict, political causes of fragility, partner commitment, and impact potential must all be taken into consideration, she said.

“We have to make sure that we have data to support the kinds of trends we’re seeing. Because doing things based on our gut, which has been done in many cases in the past — and I understand we’re all human — has not necessarily led us to the outcomes that we want to see,” Natali said.

“We’re aligning our policy and resources so that we don’t just keep going on if something doesn’t go right, we have to have a way of measuring ‘are we actually achieving what we’re supposed to achieve?’ We will have to modify and even cut programs at some points that aren’t working. We have to be able to take a minimal level of risk in the beginning.”

It will be important for the U.S. government to have a baseline for each country and region before implementation begins, Natali said, so that true progress over the 10-year pilot period can actually be measured. Selections must be contingent on political will from host country governments, Natali said, if any real progress is to be made.

CSO is leading the interagency coordination on GFA implementation with USAID and the Department of Defense, a process Natali said has “clear lines” of effort for each department, which have shown “tremendous” cooperation with one another.

But there has been criticism from people familiar with U.S. government global fragility strategy deliberations that the Department of Defense — which provides necessary security guarantees for personnel of other departments in fragile contexts — has not been as engaged in the process as would be needed for true reform of how the departments interact.

There has also been doubt that CSO has been able to spur interest from a diversity of State Department regional bureaus — which historically had tension with functional bureaus like CSO — as it seeks to identify the countries and regions for the pilot project.

Just as host government buy-in will be required for success, so will investment from country desks and field missions. Natali said her bureau wants to see “as representative a sample across regions as possible” selected as GFA pilots and there has been sufficient support from other bureaus.

“I’m very aware that there are challenges,” Natali said, while emphasizing how well the relevant parties are working together.

“If there’s some countries or regions that don’t want to be part of the prioritization or country list, it’s important that we work this out now … I don’t see this as a bad thing. This is not that we have a lack of countries that we can be addressing … I think it’s a very good thing that we are taking the time to be careful and say ‘not only can I show you that these risk indicators of country X put it at the top of the list,’ but if you don’t have the political will or the support or the resources or the capability, all of your wonderful efforts won’t work.”

Natali said that in consultations, field missions have expressed concern that they are not appropriately trained to implement an overhaul of U.S. policy like the GFA requires. Providing this training and equipping missions with adequate tools for success is being taken very seriously by CSO, she said.

CSO has had no issues working with USAID on the global fragility strategy, Natali said. The bureau in that agency tasked with the matter, the new USAID Bureau for Conflict Prevention & Stabilization, has been rocked by staff complaints about its head, Peter Marocco, a political appointee. Marocco announced last week he was taking a leave from the agency into November.

“We have been in sync — or trying to be in sync to the extent that we can up to this point — and I don’t see that not being an issue moving forward,” Natali said. “I haven’t had any issues to date in not being able to collaborate with AID.”

The progress report CSO delivered to Congress last month in lieu of a full global fragility strategy was criticized by both NGO and congressional watchers as lacking clear descriptions of how the department plans to carry out its new approach. This information will be included in the full strategy, Natali said, after there are additional consultations with civil society, multilateral organizations, and Congress.

“It really is a different way of going about doing things. Not in my time have I seen a strategy or anybody engage at this level,” Natali said. “Get it right on the front end, put in more time now … We want to be able to say ‘this is why we’re doing something.’ And then, if it’s not working, we can also adjust and be agile in making our decisions.”

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.