The number of civilian deaths due to violent conflict more than tripled since 2007 — according to the World Bank and the United Nations’ Pathways for Peace study — and an estimated 65.6 million people have been displaced from their homes, largely due to conflict. The study also notes that the cost of responding to humanitarian crises has risen dramatically over the past 10 years, reaching $22.1 billion in 2016.
The economic impact of violence is astounding, with the estimated total being $14.76 trillion in 2017. Currently, 70 percent of the countries where United States government development assistance is provided are either fragile or conflict-affected. As more U.S. government agencies are called upon to “do” stabilization, we really need to understand what stabilization is, what it is not, and how to do it effectively.
What is stabilization?
Stabilization is an inherently political endeavor that requires aligning all government efforts — diplomatic engagement, foreign assistance, and defense — toward supporting locally legitimate authorities and systems to peaceably manage conflict and prevent violence.
This past June, the U.S. government released its stabilization assistance review, which provided an agreed-upon definition of stabilization. The review challenges the U.S. government and its implementing partners to think differently about stabilization and underscores the importance of shedding traditional operating norms in favor of efficiencies and innovation.
This move toward a common understanding of stabilization underpins the fact that it is not something that one agency can tackle alone. As defined by the stabilization assistance review, stabilization is inherently a political endeavor; U.S. government agencies decide when to engage based on political imperatives and in accordance with the U.S. government national security strategy.
From our experience working on stabilization programming, it has three defining characteristics: 1, it is a consistent, deliberate effort that requires flexibility and adaptability with layered and sequenced interventions; 2, it is a long-term endeavor, making it difficult to measure impact and demonstrate results; and 3, it requires the coordination and collaboration of multiple actors to be effective and sustainable.
However, when implementing stabilization programming, we must always go back to the “what” and the “why” understanding that is critical to determining the “how.”
Guided by politics and local needs
Like development, stabilization requires the understanding that one intervention is not sufficient to see measurable change. Interventions may look like an agriculture project — working with women’s cooperatives, a service delivery project — or delivering food assistance under the banner of a local municipal council, or even a governance project — holding town halls with community leaders and youth. And that is the point.
We have found that effective stabilization programming needs to be informed and guided by the politics and needs on the ground, with local stakeholders determining what is most useful and what defines results. For stabilization programming to be sustainable, we need to get out of our own way and let the host communities be in the lead — with us supporting from behind.
To mitigate risk, we need to define what the end state is and assess progress on a rolling basis. Are we still working toward building trust in a local authority? Is this still a political endeavor with reasonable and achievable objectives? Holding ourselves and our host government counterparts accountable and acknowledging when things are not working and a new strategy needs to be developed is critical, or we risk creating additional challenges and, potentially, perpetuating crises.
We argue there are four best practices that can help guide effective stabilization efforts:
1. Assess before acting
Then assess again. Before we do anything, it is our responsibility as development practitioners and foreign policymakers to take the time to understand what is causing instability and define clear program objectives to address these causes. Given the shifting nature of stabilization environments, we see iterative assessments as critical to ensuring that investments are not lost and that we are always operating with the latest information to make informed decisions on programming.
“We have found that effective stabilization programming needs to be informed and guided by the politics and needs on the ground, with local stakeholders determining what is most useful and what defines results.”—
2. Know when to exit
Defining the exit strategy should be part of the program design. Starting to implement without a clear idea of how to ensure sustainability, local ownership, and/or a proper handover is often how most activities fail. Likewise, if foreign policy priorities shift, we need to adjust our approach and operating assumptions since stabilization programming is never static.
3. Keep our eyes on the prize
At the end of the day, stabilizing a volatile environment through targeted interventions is an end goal. The means taken to reach that end can take many forms. Part of designing stabilization initiatives is understanding that in our current environment of ever-shifting foreign policy challenges, we need strategic patience. Knowing that small footholds can lead to substantial longer-term stability assists us in making consistent gains.
4. Layer and sequence
Stabilization must be an adaptive, sequenced effort by multiple partners. It can sometimes manifest itself across different technical areas because the drivers of instability are often grounded in issues of marginalization, lack of legitimacy, and ineffectiveness that can and should be addressed through programming in a variety of sectors.
To design and implement stabilization projects that get at the root causes of conflict, policymakers and implementing partners need to assess the “why” and “to what end” of each activity. What is the desired end state? How do we get there? Is this linked to a political imperative?
Recognizing that the U.S. government and its implementing partners will continue to be tested in responding to the overwhelming number of crises erupting across the globe, these are the questions we need to ask ourselves before launching into programming. This will aid us in undertaking smart and strategic stabilization programs that, if done right, can set countries on a path to long-term development.