As the United States and other international actors assess the wreckage reaped by the coronavirus pandemic around the world, estimates are that an unprecedented level of aid will be needed to mitigate its worst impacts in fragile states. Given the ballooning costs of COVID-response efforts, the U.S. will need to deepen its partnerships with other international donors and local actors to bolster accountable and inclusive institutions and prevent conflicts and violence from escalating. Equally important, but less discussed, these international efforts will need to focus on managing a more complex global risk landscape that is emerging from the pandemic.
The United States is making a publicly little-noted stride this month to strengthen its response to the violent crises worldwide that have uprooted 80 million people, the most ever recorded. Officials are overhauling America’s method for supporting the “fragile” states whose poor governance breeds most of the world’s violent conflict. Yet the proven new approach—helping these countries meet their people’s needs and thus prevent violence and extremism—will fall short if its implementation fails to include and support women in every step of that effort. Fortunately, an earlier reform to U.S. policy offers practical lessons for doing so.
As the humanitarian and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow, so does the risk that this crisis will fuel new conflicts around the world, while stymying prospects for resolving ongoing ones. The global health crisis is triggering devastating levels of food insecurity and unemployment, especially in the world’s most fragile states, where the social contract between citizens and the state is severed and societies are fragmented and vulnerable to violence. These trends will almost certainly lead to a future spike in instability across these countries, unless concerted international action is taken.
The U.S. government (USG) is preparing to unveil a new strategy over the coming months to tackle the underlying causes of fragility and conflict in vulnerable countries around the world. The strategy comes at an important time, just as the United States and other international donors seek to respond to rapidly increasing health, food, and other emergency needs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. It will be critical that in line with the new strategy, this aid does not inadvertently stoke new tensions.
In 2014, Islamic State militants committed genocide against religious and ethnic minorities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, across northern Iraq. Kidnapping, rape, and murder marked this campaign of terror; thousands fled their homes. Six years later, with ISIS defeated militarily and its leader, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, dead following a U.S. raid, many displaced Iraqis have yet to return to their homes. The obstacles they face range from bureaucracy to a fear for their lives amid signs of an ISIS resurgence to Turkish airstrikes against groups Ankara sees as threatening its national interest.
Since October 2019, Iraq has been rocked by multiple crises. Protesters hit the street last fall to demand an end to corruption and foreign interference, an overhaul of the political system, and economic justice, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in November. Several attempts to form a new government failed until Mustafa al-Kadhimi succeeded in May. At the beginning of 2020, the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani resulted in ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Tehran that largely played out on Iraqi soil. Then the coronavirus descended up Iraq.
The United States is committed to advancing the Global Fragility Act (GFA) as part of its global response to the coronavirus pandemic, senior State Department, USAID and Department of Defense officials said on Wednesday at a virtual gathering of development and peacebuilding organizations and experts convened by the U.S. Institute of Peace to facilitate discussions on how to implement the legislation.
The health and economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic threaten to reverse decades of development progress. While the international community has mobilized substantial sums of aid and financing to address the pandemic and its impacts, the scale of the crisis demands an even more ambitious response. With the virus’s peak still ahead for many countries, there remains an opportunity to rally support for international collaboration on preventive measures that could stave off the worst-case scenario while addressing underlying sources of fragility.
A “mixed” response from the international community is threatening a worst-case scenario for fragile states facing COVID-19. USIP’s Tyler Beckelman says countries need to recognize “the best strategy for defeating the virus is defeating it everywhere” and cooperate on aid in fragile contexts.
As the unprecedented humanitarian and economic impacts of COVID-19 begin to be felt across poor and conflict-affected states, there is a risk that policymakers will lose focus on longer-term priorities—like conflict prevention and economic development.