SSP Event: State Fragility, Violent Conflict, and the GFA

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Alex Hurtado and Gunnery Sgt. Damian Henry, a heavy equipment operator, and the engineer chief with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Southern Command, deployed in support of Joint Task Force Matthew, offload supplies for locals affected by Hurricane Matthew at Jeremie, Haiti, Oct. 9, 2016. The Marines delivered bags of rice, cooking oil, and other supplies supporting USAID humanitarian and disaster relief assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Ian Ferro)

On Tuesday, November 2, the Georgetown Center for Security Studies (CSS) invited Dr. Corinne Graff to give a talk to students entitled “State Fragility, Violent Conflict, and the Global Fragility Act (GFA).” This event highlighted how a policy that focuses on stabilization and conflict prevention, like the GFA, could help to address core issues in the world’s most vulnerable countries.

Dr. Graff is a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in the Conflict Prevention and Fragility Working Group where she has been working to inform the conversation surrounding the GFA through research, analysis, and communicating with policymakers and other relevant actors. 

To kick off the presentation, Dr. Graff outlined why the GFA, which was passed in 2019 under the Trump Administration, is so unique; it is the first bill of its kind dedicated solely to addressing stabilization and conflict prevention policy.

With armed conflict and violent extremism on the rise over the past two decades, and with little to no results to show for the U.S. efforts to combat these trends (think military engagement and nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan), it is no wonder that policymakers are looking to aid and development as possible tools to address instability in key regions. 

Dr. Graff pointed out that the rise in military engagements, which have not proven to be as effective as policymakers had hoped, has led to a bipartisan agreement over the GFA. Namely, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chris Coons were major players in pushing this bill through Congress, signaling bipartisan disillusionment for traditional efforts aimed at preventing and countering conflicts.

The GFA states that the executive branch must establish a global fragility strategy that is developed with civil society by picking at least five countries to focus on prevention and stabilization efforts. The act also establishes a budget from which the State Department, USAID, Department of Defense, and other relevant agencies can pull to research, analyze, and eventually implement this policy. 

Next, Dr. Graff noted some of the positive aspects of this act that give her some hope for its future. The act provides more high-level, coordinated oversight from the government since it requires biennial reports to be submitted for congressional review. In addition, the confidence the government has in this act, as shown through the flexible funds it has provided, signals the growing importance of development as a favorable and cost-effective tool for policymakers.

On the other hand, there are also challenges that it is important to be aware of. First, the sheer number of international crises to which the U.S. government must dedicate time, money, and effort is huge. This administration is focusing on domestic issues like the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as global issues like climate change. This begs the question of whether policymakers will have the political bandwidth to focus efforts on the GFA. Another issue is that the United States is not at the “forefront of political economy analysis,” as Dr. Graff put it. Other countries and organizations, like the United Nations and the World Bank, have more experience doing this type of work. This leads to the final challenge Dr. Graff proposes: that it will take time to see results from GFA policies.

The GFA also presents some further challenges that policymakers will have to overcome, Dr. Graff said. She discussed three pitfalls that could weaken the effectiveness of the act. First, choosing countries to focus on should be strategic. Obviously, choosing the most destabilized, conflict-ridden countries is of utmost importance; however, these countries are also the least likely to garner positive results. This dynamic is difficult because policymakers want to address the most pressing regions and countries, but the low likelihood of success might stagnate interest in using development as a tool in conflict prevention. Second, policymakers must ensure that they do not fall into the trap of using development the way they have historically. They need to be innovative, adaptive, and open-minded to new approaches in terms of development as a tool for stabilization. Finally, policymakers should not be too risk-averse. They need to be willing to increase their risk tolerance to adopt more innovative policies, Dr. Graff explained. 

Part of this need for a higher risk tolerance will be useful when policymakers are developing strategies for stabilizing a country or preventing conflict. Working with local actors, both good and bad, makes the prospects for success more likely. Policymakers may be hesitant to work with groups that have committed human rights abuses or are outright adversaries of the United States. However, Dr. Graff emphasized the importance of bringing these conflict actors into development talks and giving them a seat at the table because doing so facilitates the process and mitigates backlash from these actors in the future, further promoting long-term stability. 

The era of great power competition means that the United States can no longer spend exorbitant resources on every international conflict zone or fragile state. Policymakers are looking for low-cost methods for preventing and countering these threats. Using stabilization and conflict prevention policies could be a way to do this. The success of these types of policies depends heavily on the patience of the policymakers, their willingness to use innovative methods, and how strategic they will be in choosing where to focus their efforts.

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