After several years of efforts by a bipartisan group of members of Congress and outside groups, Congress last month took legislative aim at a threat behind many of the world’s most pressing problems: fragile states. On December 20, as part of an appropriations package, President Donald Trump signed into law the Global Fragility Act, marking a new—if largely unnoticed—U.S. approach to conflict-prone states that can be vectors of violent extremism, uncontrolled migration, and extreme poverty.

From left to right: PBS NewsHour’s Nick Schifrin, Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, NDI President Amb. Derek Mitchell and USIP President & CEO Nancy Lindborg at USIP.
From left to right: PBS NewsHour’s Nick Schifrin, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, NDI President Amb. Derek Mitchell and USIP President & CEO Nancy Lindborg at USIP.

The statute, which adopts recommendations issued by the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, convened by the U.S. Institute of Peace, calls for all parts of the U.S. government to coordinate strategies to prevent violence and extremism and to focus foreign assistance on averting conflict in fragile countries. The act also dedicates $1.15 billion over the next five years for conflict prevention and peacebuilding in at-risk nations and simultaneously seeks to leverage and coordinate public and private funds in that effort. 

“The Global Fragility Act is like a unicorn in this space,” said Raj Kumar, the president of Devex, the media platform for the global development community. “It is rare to see a great idea—in this case one birthed by USIP—turn into a thoughtful task force report commissioned by Congress, get passed as bipartisan legislation and turned into new policy,” Kumar said at USIP on January 7.  

Kumar made his remarks as he moderated a panel that was part of a half-day program entitled “A Governance Agenda for Preventing Violence in a Fragile World,” co-hosted by USIP, the National Democratic Institute and the George W. Bush Institute. In opening remarks, NDI President Derek Mitchell, stressing the importance of the Global Fragility Act, noted it is something of a self-described work in progress. “The act acknowledges the likelihood of mistakes and failures and the need to learn from experience,” he said. Lindsay Lloyd, the director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Institute, introduced the event’s keynote speaker, USAID Administrator Mark Green.

USAID Administrator Pledges Increased Support for Democracy

Green focused on promoting democracy—one of the goals of the GFA—its relationship to fragility and what his agency is seeking to do about it.

“History tells us that states with more democratic characteristics are usually more prosperous, stable and reliable partners,” Green said. “Conversely, authoritarian regimes are at best unreliable partners and, at worst, pose significant risks to peace and stability … That’s why at USAID, we are placing a new, even stronger emphasis on fostering democratic governance.”

USAID is undergoing a transformation process with respect to democracy, Green said. The agency is setting up a new Bureau for Development, Democracy and Innovation that, among other things, will elevate democracy and governance in all its programs. Democratic governance is getting stronger emphasis in “country metrics” used to guide priorities—measurements that include “freedom of expression, association and conscience, the rule of law, protection of civil liberties and government transparency.”

In its program offerings, USAID will increase its focus on free elections and electoral integrity by supporting electoral systems and observations teams that meet international standards; provide technical assistance to foster government transparency to counter corruption; support citizen responsiveness; and promote policies aimed at giving all groups, including women, a stake in the system’s success.

Finally, Green said, USAID will make youth a central concern. The world’s youth population exceeds 1.8 billion people, 90 percent of whom live in the developing world. Most don’t believe that their government cares about their views or listens to their ideas, he said.

“That disconnection cannot continue. It must be addressed if democracy is to succeed in the future,” he said.

Keeping Focused

While the event focused on how the quality of governance can fuel or head off violence and extremism, the discussions were also logical follows from the new law, which specifies improved governance in fragile states as a key objective of American aid policy.

“We have an unbelievable moment where a decade of lessons—data and research and experience—have been put into the Task Force report and made it into the Global Fragility Act,” said USIP president and CEO Nancy Lindborg, who appeared on a panel, moderated by PBS NewsHour correspondent Nick Schifrin, with former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, another Task Force member. “The act requires a 10-year coordinated government strategy for working along core, principal approaches, sustaining our timeline with local partners,” Lindborg said.

The USIP-convened Task Force, Lindborg recalled, grew out of the 9/11 report’s recommendation that the U.S. pay more attention to preventing the spread of violent extremism and recognize that military and kinetic means won’t solve the critical issues that often underlie it.

Even as U.S. national security strategy turns to great power competition, Washington will be at its peril if attention shifts too far from state fragility and its consequences of violent conflict, extremism, extreme poverty and significant migration, Lindborg said. America will need to keep working on marginalization, broken bonds with the state and lack of services—all dimensions of weak governance and a dearth of democracy, she said.

“To do all this will require the kind of resources and longevity that we are seeing enshrined in the GFA,” she said. While the law hopefully will create momentum for these ideas, changing the direction of bureaucracies across the government will remain a significant challenge, Lindborg and Albright agreed. Cultivating democracy will take time and perseverance, Albright said, adding, “Patience is not our best suit.”

View from the Field

The youth leaders on Kumar’s panel brought on-the-ground perspectives to the Washington conversation, detailing how they were trying to open democratic space or curb extremism in some of the world’s most difficult environments.

Jacob Bul Bior said the arts collective he founded in South Sudan serves as an end-run around politics.

“We don’t have politicians,” he said. “We have military generals running the country in a military way,” juggling shifting coalitions to keep themselves in power. Severe repression makes any foray into politics dangerous. Fostering the arts is a way to get young people to communicate and talk about the country they want to live in, he said.

Emna Jelaoui, president of the International Institute of Human Development in Tunisia, concentrates on creating counter-narratives to the successful pull of religious extremists. With YouTube videos, debates in high schools and teacher training, Jelaoui, an Islamic studies professor, challenges the authenticity of the Islam that radicals push to young people. “Unemployment and poverty don’t push people to be extremists,” she said. “The seed of radicalism is linked to religious schools.”

Samson Itodo, the founder of the Nigerian Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement, a group that promotes democratic governance and fights corruption, is also involved in trying to lower the minimum age for political office to replace what he called the failed leadership of the past 20 years.

Nigeria needs a new political mobilization strategy that does four things, he said: inspires active citizenship that puts people at the center of power; strengthens civil society to engage with the state and tackle the drivers of fragility; dislodge inequality and exclusion in “the world’s capital of poverty”; and promote fresh political leadership and transition.

“For me, this new political mobilization strategy is one that would deliver on some of the gains of the Global Fragility Act and recommendations of the Task Force,” he said.

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