US State Department comes up short of a global fragility strategy

A scene from a neighborhood in western Mosul, Iraq. Photo by: ©EU / ECHO / Peter Biro / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — The State Department delivered a report on its implementation of the Global Fragility Act that fell short of statutory requirements but signaled the agency is working toward fulfilling its obligations under the 2019 law.

The report was submitted to Congress late Tuesday, which was the deadline for the Trump administration to complete a global fragility strategy. The strategy was to outline in detail how the GFA would be implemented and select the five countries or regions where the U.S. government would implement 10-year pilots of a new, prevention-based approach to fragile states.

Instead of being the global fragility strategy itself, the 6-page report is a summary of the work the administration has done so far on developing one. It outlines four goals and objectives; roles and responsibilities of involved U.S. government departments and agencies; partnerships and bilateral and multilateral engagement; authorities, staffing, and resources; and the process for selecting priority countries and regions.

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.

Liz Hume, co-chair of civil society’s Global Fragility Act Coalition, said the report submitted by the State Department did not meet the legal requirements outlined in the Global Fragility Act that Congress passed in December.

“The report says what, but not how … It’s very topline,” said Hume, who is also the vice president of the Alliance for Peacebuilding. “That conflict prevention and peacebuilding got into this report in the first goal is huge, and that should be commended and that’s what we have to build off of. But it just fell short because we do want to know the how.”

The report emphasizes how the global fragility strategy will differ from the failed past U.S. approach towards fragility and conflict that led to decades of protracted involvement in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. There will be a focus on locally driven political solutions and targeted responses to drivers of fragility, instead of fragmented efforts of externally driven nation-building. The U.S. will abandon open-ended intervention and engage selectively based on U.S. national interest, host-nation political progress, and defined metrics.

The State Department is the lead agency overseeing GFA implementation and is to work closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense on developing a whole-of-government approach that fundamentally changes the way the U.S. prevents fragility and stabilizes existing conflicts.

According to the report, the assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and the director of foreign assistance will be responsible for leading and overseeing progress on the GFA at the State Department. At USAID, the responsibility lies with the assistant to the administrator at the agency’s new Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization.

Vickie Ellis, a senior advisor at CSO, said the document sent to Congress is a substantive report that lays out the framework for the GFA strategy. She said the department believes the report is in line with congressional intent, and that the final strategy will be forthcoming.

“We understand that we are continuing to refine and didn’t want to submit a strategy that we didn't feel confident was as thorough and encompassing as Congress envisioned,” Ellis said. “Our intent is that what we set forth in the future strategy will … build on and remain consistent with what we have now.”

A congressional aide speaking on condition of anonymity said it was “inevitable” that a strategy would be delayed, but that the administration’s progress was encouraging.

“What we’re watching closely, I would say, is that making sure it is an interagency effort and all parts are involved and bought into this. It’s always challenging to get DOD engaged on some of these topics at a deep enough level,” the aide said. “But moving forward, when the legislation talks about resources and forward planning on programs, that needs to come from all three agencies and includes DOD.”

The report is missing a concrete description of an executive branch mechanism that will coordinate the interagency efforts to implement the GFA, a second congressional aide said.

“The jury’s still out on whether this law is going to be implemented in a way that has the transformative impact that — on a bipartisan basis — Congress envisioned, or if it’s going to be implemented in a way that just makes improvement around the margins in places where we are already working,” the second aide said.

“This wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve seen a report that says the right thing but doesn’t have the right level of action following up on it and actually getting done. And I think that’s really concerning, is that there is a pattern of getting the right words in documents and then no follow-through. So it’s really our hope that’s not the case here.”

It is unclear when country and regional selections will be made, but the GFA requires the administration to send Congress country-level strategies by December. Consultations with Congress and civil society will remain ongoing, Ellis said, as the administration works to complete a full strategy.

Susanna Campbell worked as a senior advisor to the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Task Force on Extremism, a project that examined failed U.S. attempts to curtail extremism and served as a precursor to the GFA. She said the success of its implementation will depend on striking the right balance of involvement between the different agencies, as well as between officials in Washington and those in the field.

“The devil is in the details in how you make this highly bureaucratic, fragmented organization — U.S. government — … develop and implement this integrated, coherent field-driven strategy. That’s the challenge,” Campbell said. “It’s not that the will isn’t there and all the right buzzwords are here. It’s really about whether or not the right people are in place and they’re given the authority to implement it.”

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.