How a $13.5M US project imploded in Burkina Faso

Displaced children push carts loaded with water containers at a school on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Photo by: Anne Mimault / REUTERS

Over the course of 2019, as the number of people in Burkina Faso displaced by violence swelled to 560,000, the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department spent nearly a year of staff time and resources on a $13.5 million conflict prevention demonstration project that never began programming and ultimately did nothing to deter further violence.

The failure to get the three-year pilot project off the ground during the conflict prevention window — a year in which some 1,300 people were killed and the amount of people displaced within their own country grew 500% — demonstrates ongoing challenges to interagency cooperation and agility in fragile states as the U.S. government moves to implement the Global Fragility Act.

Those involved said the project — which was canceled after many months of planning, research, and travel in 2019 and into 2020 but before any activities ever took place in Burkina Faso — routinely got bogged down in interagency disagreements and was marked by a lack of clear communication, delineation of responsibilities, and incorporation of all relevant parties in decision-making.

The bungled process led USAID to back away from involvement in the conflict prevention demonstration project’s second attempted implementation, in Sudan, over frustration that it would be another draw on agency resources in exchange for zero results — a foreboding sign for interagency success in the nascent GFA.

While those involved with the Burkina Faso project agree that it didn’t go according to plan, they disagree over why. Some say the lack of true interagency cooperation and collaboration torpedoed the project even as some prevention activity still could have been possible, while others argue that the planning process was so slow that they ultimately missed the opportunity for a prevention project to be effective in Burkina Faso as conflict worsened there.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was the final nail in the coffin, still others say, further strapping a chronically understaffed embassy in Ouagadougou that had no capacity to divert resources to an additional project as a health crisis descended.

“It illustrates, in one discrete effort, so many different worst practices of how the interagency does not work effectively together.”

— A person familiar with the conflict prevention demonstration project

Previously a sliver of stability in the Sahel region, Burkina Faso saw conflict from neighboring Mali start to spill over its borders in 2015, with militant Islamist groups carrying out attacks in the country’s North. The growing violence has been exacerbated by local and social dynamics and has led to the displacement of over 1 million people.

Large areas of the northern part of the country remain outside government control, and over 5,000 French troops are in the broader Sahel to battle militants. Government troops are also increasingly to blame for civilian casualties.

The demonstration project, which began in 2019, was the result of a congressionally mandated Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, driven by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, then head of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. The bipartisan task force was hosted at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and it examined the U.S. track record in countering violent extremism and past failures to effectively execute counterterrorism programming in fragile states and intervene before unrest devolved into outright conflict.

The USIP task force began work in 2018, led by the former chairs of the 9/11 Commission. Its final report, issued in February 2019, outlined a new approach that included a shift away from focusing on stopping specific terrorist attacks to preventing extremist groups from gaining a foothold in fragile states. It said the U.S. needed to be more effective at conflict prevention instead of just stabilization and called for better interagency coordination across the U.S. government in fragile contexts.

The USIP report also provided a foundation for the December 2019 Global Fragility Act, which too required putting better interagency coordination and more nimble, responsive project design at the center of a new Global Fragility Strategy aimed at overhauling U.S. work in fragile settings.

The GFA requires the U.S. administration to select at least five priority countries or regions where it will pilot a new prevention-based approach, seeking to head off conflict before it becomes so widespread that stabilization work is necessary. It outlines a “whole-of-government” approach that delineates responsibilities of USAID, the State Department, the Defense Department, and other relevant agencies, with the aim of streamlining the interagency process.

The failure of the demonstration project to get off the ground and effectively begin prevention activities in Burkina Faso, however, offers stark lessons about the challenges the U.S. government faces in implementing a truly transformative approach in fragile contexts, as mandated by the GFA.

“It illustrates, in one discrete effort, so many different worst practices of how the interagency does not work effectively together,” a person familiar with the project said.

A smart investment

As directed by the legislation ordering the task force report, USIP would pilot the approach with a $13.5 million demonstration project. The money was appropriated to USIP, but the State Department Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, or CSO, managed the funds.

Graham wanted the project to be in the Sahel, a region that has long captured his interest.

“This is one of the parts of the world you pay now or you pay later. And I’d rather pay smartly now,” Graham said at a Senate hearing on the Sahel last year.

Food security, troops in the spotlight at US Sahel policy hearing

“Food security is absolutely key to all our work in the region,” said then-USAID Administrator Mark Green at a Senate Appropriation subcommittee hearing.

Graham’s staff tracked interagency progress on the project. SFOPS staffer Paul Grove attended interagency meetings, visited Burkina Faso in 2019 and 2020, and was considered by those in the administration to be the key stakeholder representing congressional intent.

Those involved with the project say Grove made it clear to the State Department and USAID that if the demonstration project successfully piloted a prevention-based approach, Congress would approve more funds for similar projects. Grove did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding congressional oversight of the project.

Devex viewed internal emails and documents and spoke with people across the U.S. government and others who were involved in the demonstration project, some of whom requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the challenges it faced.

After the USIP task force presented its completed report in February 2019, congressional appropriators were eager to move forward with the demonstration project. Rob Jenkins, deputy assistant administrator at USAID’s new Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization, discussed the possibility of selecting Burkina Faso for the demonstration project in May 2019 with Christopher Miller, then National Security Council senior director for counterterrorism and transnational threats.

The pace of attacks by Islamist militants in Burkina Faso had risen in April, with the situation in the Sahelian province of Soum “deteriorating quickly.” Security forces had to evacuate a town that faced repeated threats because the population had no way to protect itself. Twelve of 18 attacks that month targeted civilians.

Talking after an event in Washington, Jenkins and Miller agreed that the situation in the country was declining but that if they acted with enough urgency, “there was maybe still a chance to keep things from getting too bad,” Jenkins said. The pair consulted with the rest of the National Security Council, the State Department, and USIP, kicking off the process that ultimately ended in the formal selection of Burkina Faso for the demonstration project.

On June 5, 2019, days after two separate attacks had killed at least seven people, the interagency group involved in the demonstration project held a meeting with Grove and got his blessing to implement it in Burkina Faso.

“We thought that Burkina was a good candidate because it had few resources and few people trying to get additional resources for it, and also bureaucratically because it was not a high-focus country,” Jenkins said. “We thought it might be a cleaner policy process because there weren’t a lot of players there focused on it.”

That did not turn out to be the case. At a July meeting, the momentum to get the project up and running screeched to a halt. CSO, which was leading project implementation for the State Department in consultation with USIP, insisted that the project selection be run through its internal process, including country desk analysis, before an official choice was to be made.

That meant a final decision wasn’t advanced until a meeting held at the State Department in August — two months after the initial agreement with Grove that Burkina Faso would be selected.

In Burkina Faso, the situation on the ground was rapidly escalating. By August, the country had already exceeded the total number of attacks it had experienced the previous year.

“I’m a big believer in bureaucratic momentum, and I think one of the things we need to do sometimes is try to move processes faster than processes want us to work them. … This kind of got bogged down in process. Once you lose that momentum, it’s very hard to regain it,” Jenkins said, adding that project design must involve “more than just hard-working, dedicated individuals in Washington having lots of meetings.”

“And that’s sadly where we got,” he said.

“Most of the lessons we learned were just validating what we already knew, [which] is that resources matter — not just amounts of money, but people.”

— Rob Jenkins, deputy assistant administrator, USAID’s Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization

A window closing

Staffing for project work in country was something of a Catch-22. According to people familiar with embassy thinking, those at the post resented having personnel sent from Washington, while at the same time recognizing it did not have sufficient staffing levels on its own to dedicate to implementation. USAID does not have a formal presence in the country.

After Burkina Faso was formally selected, CSO and USAID worked with USIP on project design. Without consulting USAID, CSO sent an official on temporary duty travel to the country to do research.

In October, USIP sent a delegation to Burkina Faso to meet embassy officials in Ouagadougou and conduct research for a project scope.

Sources familiar with embassy thinking said those at post bristled at the arrivals from Washington and disliked the delegation’s focus on engaging multilateral stakeholders such as the World Bank instead of the Burkinabe, whom they considered to be strong partners for conflict prevention work.

Even before escalating violence and the pandemic put pressures on the operating capacity of the embassy in Ouagadougou, the post was found to have faced “constant challenges” in filling positions, according to a report from the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General. The embassy in Burkina Faso has been categorized as “historically difficult to fill” since 2016, as have other embassies in the Sahel — likely to be a regional focus for GFA implementation.

The U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou declined a request for comment.

Just weeks after the USIP delegation left the country, the State Department raised the travel alert for Burkina Faso to “Level 4: Do Not Travel” due to deteriorating security conditions, following the deadliest attack of the year and the displacement of 500,000 people. Nonemergency U.S. government employees and their family members, among others, were ordered by the State Department to leave.

“I would point to that moment as the place where the window was really closing fast. We spent a lot of time after that happened in November trying to figure out what set of activities would make sense, given what was happening — and it was very, very difficult to figure it out. And by the time we got into the new year, I think most of us came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t possible,” said Joe Hewitt, vice president for policy, learning, and strategy at USIP, who led the demonstration project delegation.

Some Washington-based officials working on the project said one of the reasons it was ultimately called off was a lack of sufficient buy-in from the embassy.

“We can’t understate the importance of having empowered teams in the field that can drive adaptive planning and management for these kinds of efforts. In many of these environments, our embassies face significant staffing challenges,” said Peter Quaranto, director at CSO’s Office of African Affairs.

“We need to focus on getting conflict experts to the field to work with our embassies and USAID missions to understand the environment. And we need to give our teams in the field flexible resources and authorities to make quick decisions to take advantage of opportunities. The new U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability places a strong emphasis on seeking necessary staffing, resources, and authorities.”

Some at the embassy believed it did not have capacity to take on the extra work required by the demonstration project, particularly after the staff drawdown in November. They were being asked to provide talking points and data to those working on the project from Washington — instead of focusing on work addressing the problem of escalating violence in Burkina Faso.

“Most of the lessons we learned were just validating what we already knew, [which] is that resources matter — not just amounts of money, but people. And one of the things behind the Global Fragility Act, which is great, is it challenges us and actually makes us come up with not just putting money and resources in, [but] it is: What is the management challenge?” Jenkins said. “We at AID kept trying to tell people we also have to focus on the diplomatic and on the security apparatus. It can’t just be about programming.”

Jenkins said ongoing USAID programming in Burkina Faso has been “drastically affected” by the deteriorating security situation, but the agency remains operational there.

“The clear lesson is being as rigorous as you possibly can about what your prevention window looks like. All of these kinds of estimates are risky and nobody’s got a crystal ball,” Hewitt said. “There is a lesson here about country selection and being very careful about figuring out where you really can do meaningful prevention work without violence erupting in the near term that could prevent that work from going forward.”

The ‘last straw’

Hewitt said that even after the embassy evacuations, the USIP team continued to explore options to find a way forward with the project. In January 2020, Grove visited Burkina Faso and discussed its progress. By the start of the year, an average of more than 4,000 people per day were fleeing attacks from extremists and local authorities. Readouts of his visit seen by Devex show increasing skepticism on Grove’s part that successful execution of a prevention project would still be possible there.

In February, then-U.S. Ambassador to Burkina Faso Andrew Young was in Washington and met with the interagency group and USIP to discuss the future of the project. Though they acknowledged the large challenges to executing a prevention project even after so many months of planning, the group decided to move forward with implementation in Burkina Faso.

“One of the takeaways from this process is the importance of adapting when something isn't working. … We need to maintain that kind of adaptive approach as we implement the [Global Fragility Act].”

— Peter Quaranto, director, CSO’s Office of African Affairs

But just a few weeks later, in early March — over a year after the USIP report was published — Young decided to cancel the project. He discussed the decision with then-USIP President Nancy Lindborg, but according to a source familiar with USAID thinking, he blindsided those at the agency who were under the impression from the February meeting that he had agreed to continue with the project.

Jenkins said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was the “last straw” leading to the decision to pull the plug on the project in Burkina Faso, because it would have been impossible to send additional people to the embassy to support its implementation.

Young was the first U.S. ambassador to be evacuated from a post after he contracted COVID-19 in March, and he never returned to the country. He was scheduled to rotate to a new post in the summer and is now deputy to the commander for civil-military engagement at U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Lessons learned?

After the cancellation of the attempt in Burkina Faso, USIP and CSO decided to implement the demonstration project in Sudan, which the U.S. recently removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. COVID-19 has delayed planning efforts around this second iteration, but the State Department hopes to capitalize on momentum there for a democratic transition and execute the project in close coordination with other development programming.

USAID has resisted becoming as involved in Sudan as it was with the Burkina Faso project, according to a person familiar with the agency’s thinking — wary of a similar interagency morass.

Both CSO and USAID say it is important that the agencies are able to admit the project did not work as intended and draw on those lessons for implementation of the Global Fragility Act.

“We’ve learned from this project that achieving prevention requires the U.S. government to look more upstream at places where there’s not yet persistent, widespread violence or instability but where we see warning signs or risks and have opportunities to engage. One of the goals with the Global Fragility Act and the new U.S. strategy is [to] put a much greater emphasis on prevention,” CSO’s Quaranto said.

“One of the takeaways from this process is the importance of adapting when something isn't working. I'm glad we were willing to make a change when it became clear the conditions were not ripe for the project in Burkina Faso. We need to maintain that kind of adaptive approach as we implement the GFA. We need to create space to continuously experiment, assess, learn, and adapt."

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She 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.