Amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the Biden-Harris administration has quietly released a new policy that commits the United States to do more to “interrupt potential pathways to conflict” and reduce threats before they arrive on our shores. This new initiative comes at a difficult time for the United States and the world, given the full-blown crises that require the international community’s urgent attention, from COVID-19 to the climate crisis. Still, it represents an unprecedented and promising commitment at the highest levels of our government to apply the important lessons learned from decades of U.S. involvement in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

A man walks past the ruins left by years of conflict in the historic center of Benghazi, Libya, on Jan. 20, 2020. A new U.S. strategy aims to address the underlying drivers of conflict in countries like Libya.    (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
A man walks past the ruins left by years of conflict in the historic center of Benghazi, Libya, on Jan. 20, 2020. A new U.S. strategy aims to address the underlying drivers of conflict in countries like Libya. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

Realizing the policy’s ambitious vision for a more peaceful and stable world, however, will require not only the new investments in peace and stability provided by Congress for this initiative, but also innovative diplomatic and programmatic efforts on the ground in the affected countries.

The new policy advances the Global Fragility Act (GFA), an ambitious U.S. law that makes preventing conflicts and promoting stability in countries prone to widespread violence or conflict a U.S. foreign policy priority. The legislation outlines peacebuilding lessons learned that federal agencies should adhere to, including better aligning U.S. diplomatic, development and security efforts, deepening cooperation with our international allies and partners in fragile states and designing more nimble approaches that engage civil society. The law provides new funding for U.S. peace and reconciliation programs overseas, which have been woefully under-resourced. It also removes burdensome congressional requirements — like sector-specific earmarks — that have hamstrung U.S. diplomats and aid workers in the past, preventing them from effectively targeting the causes of conflict or operating in a conflict-sensitive way.

President Biden’s endorsement of the GFA approach last week and the administration’s announcement that the United States will partner with countries to advance peace and security under this new framework is an important milestone. Doing more to prevent the worst impacts of civil wars around the world is not only the right thing to do — it is imperative to fostering international peace and security. Armed conflict has devastating consequences, driving 80 percent of humanitarian needs, historic levels of forced displacement and an estimated $14 trillion per year in economic losses globally. Civil wars, even in distant places, risk embroiling the major powers in a hot war, and conflict zones provide safe haven to terrorist networks. 

What Comes Next?

Turning the GFA and new administration policy into concrete results on the ground will be challenging. What comes next will hinge, to a large extent, on the actions of U.S. ambassadors, USAID mission directors and their teams on the ground, who are required under the GFA to lay out a 10-year vision for supporting partner efforts to promote stability. This may sound straightforward now that a policy framework has been endorsed by the president and funded by Congress, but executing this mandate will require embassy officials to adjust the standard operating procedures that have often gotten in the way of achieving results on the ground.

What do we know about how field missions can effectively promote peace and security in vulnerable countries? Our own research and experience suggest that specific approaches and programs can increase the likelihood of success. One of us has conducted over 20 years of research across four conflict-affected countries on how the country teams of international aid organizations manage successful peacebuilding efforts, and the other has years of experience overseeing such efforts in Washington. Our findings and experience suggest that the following sets of actions can increase the odds of success. 

Think and Work Politically

First, how field missions design, implement and monitor aid programs is critical, not just what type of aid they allocate. Thinking and working politically requires that country plans, diplomatic efforts and programs be informed by an up-to-date political settlement analysis. When conducting this analysis, it is important to focus not only on the broad political settlement or political economy, but the manifestation of these political factors in the specific institutions and systems that it aims to work with. For example, if an effort involves working with the security sector, the analysis needs to focus on the political dynamics that are manifest in security institutions.

One-off conflict or political economy analyses are insufficient. Effective country teams go one step beyond conducting rigorous analysis — they use their analysis to inform program design across the entire field office’s development and security assistance portfolio. This analysis needs to be regularly updated and revisited in decision-making meetings that bring together key diplomatic and programmatic staff, arming them with updated data about the evolving context and the effectiveness of programs in this context. In other words, the best analysis and monitoring data are relatively ineffectual if they are not regularly assessed by key mission-level decision-makers, who can learn from them and decide how to take action.

Furthermore, external analysis is never sufficient. Effective organizations regularly consult different stakeholders in the recipient country and work with these stakeholders to update their analysis and understanding of the evolving context. These types of consultative partnerships are necessary for field missions to understand what they should do to prevent violent conflict, and how they should do it.

Create Local Accountability to Improve Impact on the Ground 

Once the baseline analysis, evidence-based decision-making structure and consultative partnerships have been put in place, successful missions often also establish local accountability mechanisms that give a representative group of stakeholders the responsibility to monitor the effectiveness of their programs and make recommendations as to how to improve them. Aggregate indicators that monitor an aid organization’s performance across countries, no matter how smart these indicators are, will not enable local accountability or, consequently, support improved conflict prevention or peacebuilding performance. Instead, local accountability helps to correct for the inherently top-down nature of all international aid, and provides staff with regular analysis about the success or failure of programs, as well as the country’s evolving institutional context. It can also boost the buy-in and trust of domestic actors and partners in the recipient country whose support is essential for achieving and sustaining the success of the program.

For example, a U.N.-supported dialogue program in Burundi created local accountability when it gave a diverse group of dialogue participants the authority to monitor the dialogue process and report on its success and failure. In another example, a risky security-sector reform program conditioned the disbursement of funding tranches on a positive evaluation by a highly respected local human rights organization. These examples demonstrate that field offices can be more effective when they work with government, civil society and community leaders to ensure that they receive regular feedback about what works via local accountability that gives these domestic actors the authority to hold field offices accountable for achieving their conflict prevention and peacebuilding aims.

Integrate Diplomacy and Assistance

Establishing conflict-sensitive decision-making processes and local accountability requires that aid agencies supersede internal bureaucratic silos and integrate any diplomacy and assistance capacities at the country level. The disaggregation of diplomacy and development teams in overseas missions is a relic of a time when development was thought to take place in relatively apolitical contexts. These contexts rarely exist, in general, and they certainly do not exist in the GFA focus countries.

The goal of closer integration is to enable the rest of the development and diplomatic capacity in the mission to operate in a more flexible and conflict-sensitive manner. While co-locating diplomacy and development units and creating cross-embassy working groups is helpful, it is unlikely to be enough. Susanna Campbell’s findings consistently show that the key to creating a “one post, one mission” mindset that prioritizes conflict-sensitivity is senior leadership. Under mission leadership that prioritizes and incentivizes an integrated approach, units can establish the type of evidence-based decision-making and local accountability structures that enable conflict-sensitive design, implementation and accountability.

Establish Flexible Contracts Based on Inclusive Partnerships

The nature of aid contracts is one of the greatest barriers to the conflict-sensitive approach outlined above. Many aid organizations operate on the basis of contracts, delegating the implementation to sub-contractors. Not only is this an obstacle to ensuring all programs across a mission’s portfolio are conflict-sensitive, but it undermines the prospect of partnerships with national and local stakeholders that the GFA calls for. When establishing contracts, it is difficult to outline exactly how the program will need to adapt to the changing dynamics in the recipient country, in part because those dynamics are not known. Instead, rigid contracts often prevent the program from adapting to changing dynamics or new information it receives from stakeholders participating in or observing the program. Sub-contracting organizations are wary of providing information about failures, inhibiting the funding organization from learning what works or adapting its programs in real time. In other words, it undermines the type of evidence-based, conflict-sensitive decision-making systems described above.

Reliance on sub-contractors also puts the knowledge, expertise and relationships in the hands of the sub-contractors. This prevents the funding agency from benefitting from the type of trust and buy-in created by local accountability systems, undermining the funder’s understanding of the evolving context and its ability to create the type of longer-term inclusive partnerships envisioned in the GFA.

For example, CARE Austria developed a more flexible approach in conflict-affected Burundi, where the organization worked directly with its partner, CARE Burundi, to establish the terms of the contract and hold regular debriefing sessions with the CARE Burundi team about what was working, what wasn’t working and what needed to be changed. CARE Burundi, in turn, established local accountability mechanisms with the communities that it worked with by ensuring its staff people regularly consulted with a range of beneficiaries, civil society actors and government officials with whom they worked and discussing these findings with key decision-makers in the organization and with CARE Austria. CARE Austria views itself as accompanying CARE Burundi in its work, rather than only ensuring that it complies with CARE Austria’s demands and pre-existing program plan.

Likewise, the Swiss Peace and Human Rights Division often carefully selects the local civil society organizations who they invest in and consult with over multiple years, at times several decades. They invest in the core funding of these organizations, enabling them to survive in an increasingly difficult funding environment, and engage with these civil society actors and a broad range of other stakeholders in regular political analyses of the evolving context and of the Swiss government’s effectiveness in these contexts. This is only possible via flexible contracting arrangements and accompaniment-focused, rather than compliance-focused, accountability.

An Opportunity to Innovate, Contingent on Adequate Staffing

The GFA is an opportunity for innovation — not just new program funding. In many places, U.S. embassies and USAID missions face a shortage of staff. The GFA’s biennial reporting requirement is an opportunity for U.S. federal agencies and their staff overseas to demonstrate why staffing shortages stand in the way of more effective U.S. policy in fragile states, putting the world — and American citizens — at increased risk from threats that spill over borders. Understanding local power and security dynamics, and developing appropriate approaches for engaging with them, is staff intensive. Ultimately, while the new policy is an important step, without the necessary staff needed to carry out the innovative work that the GFA calls for, we are unlikely to see a peace dividend from this effort.

Susanna Campbell is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service and the director of the Research on International Policy Implementation Lab. Her 2018 book “Global Governance and Local Peace: Accountability and Performance in International Peacebuilding” explains how and when international peacebuilding organizations succeed. Her forthcoming book “Aid in Conflict” (with Michael Findley) explains how international aid donors respond to war-to-peace transitions.

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