Opinion: What the Global Fragility Act could mean for development investments

Delivery of rice in Nyampoka, a community of six villages in Mozambique, following Cyclone Idai. Photo by: Christian Jepsen / © European Union 2019 / CC BY-NC-ND

The Global Fragility Act requires the U.S. government, in collaboration with civil society, to develop a 10-year strategy to enhance stability and to reduce violence and fragility globally.

The GFA — recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and up for a full vote by the Senate — provides a unique opportunity to shift the way the international development community views and implements conflict prevention programming.

A significant triumph for the field of conflict prevention and stabilization, the bill delivers a strong bipartisan message. This message not only underscores the importance of addressing root causes of conflict as a means for advancing political and social interests globally but also recognizes prevention as the most cost-effective, sustainable way to build community resilience to conflict and achieve long-term stability.

“The GFA provides an opportunity now to act on a concept that has eluded development practitioners for far too long — convincing donors that funding conflict prevention is worth the investment.”

We should seize this moment in time, since there has never been so much attention and focus afforded to the importance of conflict prevention. The report of the bipartisan Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States — led by the U.S. Institute for Peace — and the World Bank’s and United Nation’s “Pathways for Peace” report make compelling arguments as to why we must invest in prevention.

The reports illuminate the cost-effectiveness of prevention: For every dollar invested, donors save between $2 and $7. This year, the Institute for Economics and Peace estimated the cost of containing violence to be at $14.1 trillion a year globally, equivalent to 11.2% of the world’s gross domestic product.

The GFA grants policy and donor communities, as well as implementing partners, the opportunity to act on this evidence by designing cost-effective programs with the explicit goal of getting ahead of the curve — investing in programs that build capacity and promote social cohesion efforts before conflict occurs.

As Congress develops the 10-year strategy mandated in the GFA, the voice of implementing partners must be brought to bear for the legislation to be connected to the realities on the ground.  

Recommendations for operationalizing the GFA

Policymakers, donors, and implementing partners will continue to respond to the overwhelming number of crises erupting across the globe, but we will also need to focus attention, investments, and our actions on prioritizing prevention.

Implementing partners, in conjunction with the local networks they have established, can identify windows of opportunity to interrupt cycles of violence and recognize early warning signs of potential conflict. As such, we argue that there are five best practices that will help guide effective conflict prevention efforts:

1. Move away from making decisions in a vacuum 

With the U.S. administration’s reorganization of the U.S. Agency for International Development — including the creation of the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization — it has placed conflict prevention alongside humanitarian assistance and food security in terms of significance.

Furthermore, the creation of the associate administrator role for relief, resilience, and response, known as R3, will ensure the elevation of prevention to senior agency level and help integrate it into other USAID bureaus’ workstreams.

To make the most of this reorganization, policies and programming funded by each bureau must align so that they are mutually reinforcing. Teams in Washington, D.C., and donors and implementing partners in the field will need to coordinate.

Through the 10-year strategy, the GFA positions USAID to play a leadership role in interagency discussions between USAID, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense, highlighting areas where donors can capitalize on prevention opportunities.

2. Treat implementing partners as equal partners by establishing a forum for government-civil society collaboration

Implementing partners typically have firsthand, hyper-localized knowledge of the conflict-affected and fragile environments in which they operate. This knowledge should be leveraged to ensure U.S. taxpayers’ investments are strategic and targeted. On the ground, implementing partners know when and how to design programs that target potential flashpoints for conflict. Further, their contextual knowledge should be utilized as a resource in selecting pilot countries for the 10-year strategy.

In Colombia, for example, Chemonics worked closely with the National Ombudsman’s Office to support its Early Warning System to identify, track, verify, and monitor risks, and early warning signs of human rights violations to better predict and protect against potential violence against social leaders, women, and other vulnerable groups. This data will play an important role in the implementation of the peace accord.

3. Leverage other sector-based programs for prevention

While not deliberately focused on conflict prevention, sector-specific programs can inform conflict prevention approaches. However, these programs often operate in silos at the donor level and at the implementer level.

Efforts to break down these silos and engage in cross-sectoral programming would enable us to share information and better detect the early warning signs of conflict.

We did this most recently on a livelihoods project in Sri Lanka that built economic resilience for war widows and those living with a disability as a result of war through cross-sectoral agricultural production projects. Recognizing economic alienation might exacerbate tensions within these marginalized groups, the program focused on building economic resilience through agriculture production, layering project activities with a secondary objective of inclusion and social cohesion.

4. Recognize that humanitarian actors can play an instrumental role

In many of the complex crises we witness today, the transition from delivering humanitarian assistance to development rarely follows a linear path. Humanitarian interventions exist alongside internationally supported efforts to promote stability, rebuild state institutions, and accelerate recovery.

Greater integration between development and humanitarian actors can enable urgent assistance that saves lives and set the stage for longer-term social and economic development. Most importantly, greater coordination provides an opportunity to deliberately engage in conflict prevention to break the cycles of violence that often cause humanitarian crises in the first place.

We have this opportunity now in Mozambique. Early warning signs of the potential for conflict are emerging in the north of the country, as we see the rise in violent attacks and increasing presence of violent extremist organizations, or VEOs.

The recent cyclone has only exacerbated the situation and destruction of resources and livelihoods has left many communities extremely vulnerable. The donor community should target programs to prevent conflict through humanitarian assistance to support vulnerable populations, mitigate the expansion of VEO presence, and thwart recruitment tactics.

5. Assess conflict dynamics early and often to inform stabilization programming.

To reduce the likelihood of conflict, we must assess the underlying grievances that drive communities to engage in violence. Without a firm understanding of conflict dynamics, donors and implementers struggle to design programs that effectively mitigate conflict.

On our community support program in Lebanon, we developed a two-tiered approach to effectively target at-risk communities. We used both quantitative and qualitative data to assess conflict vulnerability, number of conflict incidents, prevalence of tensions, levels of poverty, ratio of refugees to host population, and accessibility and willingness of municipal councils to proactively address grievances and reduce tensions.

Data collection is an iterative process that ensures we identify the most vulnerable communities first while also continuously monitoring tension dynamics across the country.

Secondly, we introduced systems-mapping of local conflict dynamics to inform participatory and inclusive program design. Taken together, these two steps ensure that activities achieve stabilization goals, are conflict-sensitive, and that success is effectively measured over the life of a project. This creates an evidence base that can be used to inform future programming across the country.

The GFA provides an opportunity now to act on a concept that has eluded development practitioners for far too long — convincing donors that funding conflict prevention is worth the investment.

We encourage senators to follow the lead of their colleagues in the House of Representatives and pass this innovative legislation.

Furthermore, implementing partners can and should play an important role to help realize the intent of the GFA and ensure the effectiveness of the 10-year strategy; they bring on-the-ground experience working directly with local partners and beneficiaries to resolve and mitigate the effects of violent conflict in some of the most challenging environments.

It would be remiss for decision-makers not to tap into this wealth of insight and expertise.

About the authors

  • Dallas elisabeth headshot2

    Elisabeth Dallas

    Currently the director of the Peace, Stability, and Transition practice, Elisabeth Dallas is a conflict prevention and resolution expert with over 15 years of experience designing and implementing programs that successfully mitigate conflict and support state-of-the art peacebuilding. Prior to joining Chemonics, Dallas served as a senior conflict and peacebuilding advisor in USAID's Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation. She has also served as a chief of party for the Public International Law & Policy Group and worked in more than 15 countries throughout South Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Her expertise is applying conflict sensitive approaches to development, violence prevention, mediation, and negotiation.
  • Patterson brittany%25201

    Brittany Patterson

    Brittany Patterson is a senior manager on Chemonics’ peace, stability, and transition practice where she provides technical support to business development teams and projects across the globe. With expertise in post-conflict reconciliation processes, political transitions, conflict sensitive approaches to development, youth engagement, and violence prevention, Patterson has worked in more than 12 countries throughout Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe supporting PST programs.