The Mentao refugee camp in Burkina Faso. Photo by: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The State Department on Friday released the Global Fragility Strategy, a document detailing how the U.S. administration intends to overhaul the country’s current approach to conflict prevention and stabilization in fragile contexts.

The administration was required to produce the document by the 2019 Global Fragility Act, legislation that grew out of a recognition that large-scale U.S. stabilization efforts after 9/11 have cost billions of dollars but failed to produce intended results.

“This is the very first time that the United States has had a strategy, an enduring — a 10-year strategy — to address conflict prevention and stabilization or to stabilize fragile states. We have not done so before. … It’s an issue that crossed political boundaries and looked at why we failed in the past and how we make sure that we don’t fail again, because we’re all committed to this,” said Denise Natali, assistant secretary for conflict and stabilization operations at the State Department, on a briefing call for reporters.

The U.S. government has spent $30 billion in 15 of the most fragile countries in the world in just five years, according Jim Richardson, director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance.

The strategy outlines how the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Defense Department, and other relevant agencies will meet four goals and objectives: prevention, stabilization, partnership, and management. It also details roles and responsibilities of relevant agencies, including how decisions will be made and outlining staffing and resource requirements; how the strategy will be integrated into existing U.S. development, diplomatic, and defense tools; and how success will be measured.

The original legislation required release of the GFS in September, but the agency released just a summary report. Natali told Devex in an interview in October that she expected the document to be ready that month. During the briefing call Friday, she said that the agency wanted to be sure it completed necessary consultations with stakeholders and that the delays were due to overcoming some “final hurdles.”

“When we spoke with our supporters on Capitol Hill and we did mention this, it was emphasized to us to make sure you get it right, this is going to be enduring,” Natali said. “So we are very pleased at where we are at with this and that we got it out today.”

The GFS does not identify the minimum five priority countries and regions where the strategy will be piloted — picks that were due to be unveiled this month. But the 24-page document says the selection will be made based on “assessed levels and risks of fragility, violent conflict and associated national resilience, political will and capacity for partnerships, opportunity for United States impact, other international commitments and resources, and United States national security and economic interests.”

Natali declined on Friday to say when those picks would be made public but said that the process was still underway and that options were being “carefully considered.”

“We are aiming to get this out within the next several weeks, but there’s still some final clearances. But I do want to emphasize, again, that there are place holders and there will be opportunities for others to look at it and to see if those changes — if they will stay,” Natali said. “But we’re confident that that should come out in the next few weeks. We’re finalizing.”

The strategy says that the countries and regions are subject to change over its 10-year life span, and the U.S. administration could decide to include new places if they meet the appropriate criteria. The strategy will employ a new model of “compact-style partnerships” that prompt mutual accountability with local governments and other national actors.

The GFS’s 10-year timeline will outlast any individual administration and is intended to allow longer-term engagement and investment that can become complicated by the usual three- or five-year project cycle. Natali said that while the current presidential administration did not share the full GFS with President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration before its Friday release, the department has met with members of the transition team.

“We did discuss with them the Global Fragility Strategy. They congratulated us on it,” Natali said. “They seemed to be very interested and asked us what we would need in terms of additional support to make sure that this moves forward.”

GFA watchers were encouraged by the strategy released this week but said the next administration’s dedication to its implementation will be key. Liz Hume, interim president of the Alliance for Peacebuilding and co-chair of the civil society Global Fragility Act Coalition, said the fact that prevention of conflict is the first strategic objective of the GFS is “incredibly significant.” But she said the document needed to mandate higher-level engagement from the administration and allocate appropriate staffing and resources.

“The GFA Coalition feels very strongly that this has to be elevated to the senior level, at least to the undersecretary level … a White House coordinator, or high level at the [National Security Council],” Hume said. “It was hard in the interagency process. Now it’s going to get a lot harder moving forward.”

“The challenge is to fully integrate foreign assistance efforts with the diplomatic and security components. That is our challenge, and we’re excited to take it up.”

— Robert Jenkins, deputy assistant administrator, USAID Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization

The GFS says the NSC will convene a senior-level GFA steering committee that will meet quarterly to conduct oversight and review implementation progress. The State Department, USAID, DOD, Treasury, and Office of Management and Budget, along with other relevant departments and agencies, will participate on the committee. A working-level secretariat will be chaired by the State Department to coordinate the execution of the GFS and will update the steering committee.

Corinne Graff, senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said she wanted to see more detail on how the administration would ensure embassy staffers in selected countries have appropriate tools and processes to implement the strategy.

“The strategy acknowledges that, at a country level, this needs to be led by our missions in the field, but what do they need to do this? What kinds of authorities, flexibility, resources?” Graff said. “That’s going to be handed off to the next administration.”

While no representatives from the Defense Department were on the press briefing call — which the attending bureau heads said was due to “scheduling” — Stephanie Hammond, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability and humanitarian affairs, outlined her agency’s role in strategy implementation in a virtual event video posted on the State Department’s website.

She said that DOD’s new authority, called “defense support to stabilization,” allows it to provide logistics support, supplies, and services to other federal agencies conducting stabilization activities.

“Defense support to stabilization ensures critical citizen expertise can get into hard-to-reach areas more quickly and with more effective resources, creating a unity of effort the interagency has lacked in the past,” Hammond said.

Robert Jenkins, deputy assistant administrator at the USAID Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization, said that as always, effective interagency coordination will be key to the success of the GFS.

“No matter how well it’s written, it will be worthless if we don’t implement it correctly. We need to change how we prioritized, how we resourced, and how we approached these problems collectively as an entire government. We rarely successfully implement whole-of-government solutions without a concerted, deliberate effort. This strategy is about doing it the right way,” Jenkins said.

“The challenge is to fully integrate foreign assistance efforts with the diplomatic and security components. That is our challenge, and we’re excited to take it up.”

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.