Congress understands the urgency of fragility

By George Ingram

State fragility is the existential challenge to development, and a disrupter to peace and prosperity.

The developing world is bifurcating. At a time of historic progress in development, the many countries now counted as middle-income prosper alongside a starkly different set of countries that are afflicted by or threatened with conflict, poverty, and a breakdown of the social contract between government and society. Conditions in this latter group stymie economic progress and serve as the breeding ground for extremism, violence, and terrorism. This endangers the security and livelihoods of people living there. It also threatens neighboring countries and undermines global peace and prosperity.

The administration’s Stabilization Assistance Review and National Security Strategy both address the challenge of conflict and fragility. Congress has taken on fragility through several legislative actions. The recently enacted BUILD Act  gives special priority to working in fragile states. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) inserted in an appropriations bill a charge to the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) to bring together the best minds on the topic to design an initiative to deal with extreme violence and fragility.

The Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act of 2018, introduced in the House (and reported favorably by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs) as H.R. 5273 by Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) and as S.3368 by Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), both with bipartisan cosponsors, directs the administration to map out an approach for addressing conflict and fragility.

The bills require a whole-of-government approach. Hard lessons have demonstrated that instability and violence are not just a security, development, political, or social phenomenon. They are all of this and more, and can only be tackled through an integrated frame that involves a range of government agencies and capabilities.

The bills envision the creation of a comprehensive 10-year initiative to help stabilize countries that fall into two closely related categories—those with a high level of violence and fragility and those in danger of becoming so. The House bill proposes 10 pilot countries and the Senate bill six.

The bills are notable in incorporating lessons on how to make assistance effective. Local actors are to be involved from the design phase through to implementation and evaluation. Both the policy statement and the implementation criteria contained in the legislation highlight the functions of monitoring, evaluation, adaptation, and research and development. The bills suggest no specific intervention, sector, or program as a panacea. Rather, they focus on evidenced-based decisionmaking by setting requirements to establish clear goals, objectives, and benchmarks.

The emphasis is on adapting and learning—an acknowledgement that among the many possible solutions, we do not know what will work in a particular context, which makes iteration essential.

While nearly identical, the bills are distinct in several important, and potentially controversial ways. One involves the ability to adapt, to adjust to circumstances and dynamics on the ground; the other revolves around the leadership of the initiative.

Critical to the ability to adapt to find the right intervention and as circumstances change, and constantly test and learn, is flexibility in funding. The House bill, introduced first, includes a “Sense of Congress” (suggestive, not mandatory) that the executive branch should work with Congress to support a Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Fund. Such a fund would allow for “adaptive program planning and implementation” and “exemptions from specific and minimum funding levels”—i.e., exemptions from earmarks.

The Senate bill, takes this one step further, specifically authorizing an exemption from earmarks. It provides a “notwithstanding any other provision of law” that waives minimum funding requirements.

The Senate provision is stronger in actually providing the funding flexibility that will be essential to permit solutions to be adapted to specific contexts and changing circumstances.

There is precedence for Congress eschewing earmarks and directives. In the 1980s, with growing concern over conditions in Africa, Congress authorized the Fund for Africa, a single account with the administration determining which programs would be funded at what level. A decade later, given the uncertainty over how the transformation of the former Soviet Union would unfold and how assistance could play a role, the FREEDOM Support Act provided an illustrative list of program interventions and for many years Congress avoided country earmarks. More recently, enthusiastic about the new model offered by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Congress appropriated, and has continued to do so annually, a single pot of money to be used to meet priorities of recipient countries.

A simple way to identify the money for this fund is to put all the resources for the pilot counties for the current fiscal year, or planned for next year, into the Fund. Once designated, those funds could be distributed to whatever program and to whichever pilot countries befits the needs and offers the best opportunities. The following year, the discussion can expand as to the proper size of the fund—how much can usefully be deployed to those countries.

The tradeoff for Congress granting this adaptability is for the administration to take Congress on as a real partner, through frank and frequent consultation and through greater transparency in what and why relevant policy and programming decisions are made. Further, the administration should include in programs congressional priorities that are deemed effective and fit the specific context.

A second critical question is “who’s in charge”? The House bill, as introduced, would have placed the leadership squarely in the hands of the USAID administrator. It provided that the administrator, in coordination with the secretaries of state and defense (and for some functions also the heads of other relevant federal agencies), would create the initiative, submit it to Congress for review, identify the pilot countries, and brief Congress. This was reversed in the version reported by the House Committee to place the secretary of state in the lead role.

The Senate bill gives the administrator and the secretary of state co-equal status in constructing the initiative, in coordination with the secretary of defense and heads of other relevant government agencies. It identifies the specific leadership role in the initiative of each agency:

  • State – foreign policy and diplomatic and political efforts
  • USAID – implementation of non-security programs
  • Department of Defense – support for State and USAID, including by providing requisite security
  • Other federal agencies – support for State and USAID

Identifying the interagency lead on specific international issues is a perennial issue for which often there is no perfect solution. The Senate bill designation of the responsibility of each agency is spot on. As to overall leadership, that is the conundrum. There are various factors to be considered.

Normally, on a broad issue affecting U.S. foreign policy, the Department of State would be the logical lead. However, this arena involves not just foreign policy, but also development and security. Even with such a broad array of engaged actors, State normally would be the agency one would first think to lead an interagency effort. Yet agendas at State tend to be shaped by country—for example China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—and a fragility lens is not the typical overlay.

Further, this initiative is primarily about assistance. Yes, it is also about diplomacy and security, and therefore requires key roles for State and Defense, but the heart of the initiative is planning and managing assistance, and that places the principal responsibility on USAID. Shouldn’t the agency with the expertise and accountability for implementation have principal responsibility for the design?

Assuming the proposed internal reorganization of USAID currently under review by Congress is approved, the consolidation of humanitarian and resilience functions into a new bureau under a new associate administrator (equivalent to an undersecretary of state) should bolster the agency’s ability to tackle fragility.

Finally, while giving two agencies co-equal roles in leading the initiative, as in the Senate bill, looks like a reasonable compromise, it is a solution that has seldom worked in practice—who is accountable, who has the incentive to move aggressively to implement the initiative, who has the authority to make the hard decisions?

A recent example of joint control is the Complex Crisis Fund, created by Section 1207 of the Fiscal Year 2006 National Defense Authorization Act. It authorized shifting defense funds to State to deal with crisis situations and was funded for five years. This proved unworkable because of too many sign-offs and inadequate State capability to manage the funds. The FY 2010 foreign operations bill recreated the authority with USAID in the lead.

The right formula could be drawn from both bills. Assign USAID, the agency with the expertise and the incentive, principal responsibility for developing the initiative, in close collaboration with State, Department of Defense, and other agencies. Specify that diplomacy is a critical part of the effort, at times the essential player in bring parties to the table to reach agreement. The interagency decision process for selecting the pilot countries could be chaired by State, as that involves the intersection of U.S. foreign policy priorities with the assessment of where assistance is needed most and can be effective.

Combining forces of the sponsors of the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act with the work of the USIP Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, along with those in the administration and civil society working on fragility, should create critical momentum in the drive to reform the United States’ approach to addressing state fragility.

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