Biden’s Initiative for Democratic Renewal: How to Account for Conflict and Fragility

“The urgent challenges of rising authoritarianism, rampant corruption, and human rights abuses prompted President Joe Biden at his Summit for Democracy to launch the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, which dedicates $424.4 million of new and repurposed funds to defend and strengthen democracy at home and abroad. Nowhere is this more pressing than in fragile settings, which are characterized by breakdowns in state legitimacy and public service delivery, from Haiti to Zimbabwe. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, violent conflict seems even more intractable across the globe — according to the OECD, 57 countries are characterized as fragile, and many of these are high priority countries for the United States.

“Although the new Presidential Initiative holds promise, there is a need to tailor its approach to fragile settings in order to ensure assistance helps rather than harms democracy and governance…

“First, policymakers and practitioners should carefully consider the interaction between state and non-state governance institutions—and which have legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Democracy and governance assistance often relies on Western models of political institutions and groups. Yet formal political institutions are often predatory or widely perceived as illegitimate in fragile settings…

“Second, the U.S. government should integrate anti-corruption practices across foreign assistance in fragile contexts. The U.S. government has rightly established anti-corruption as a national security priority. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration recently launched the first U.S. strategy on countering corruption. But in fragile contexts, anti-corruption efforts must be carefully tailored to avoid exacerbating instability.

“Because corruption is so deeply entrenched in many conflict-affected contexts, anticorruption and transparency policies and programming risk causing further instability in the short term; they may even unintentionally support corrupt practices. To avoid this outcome, programs must not only assess vulnerabilities to corruption and promote transparency, but also incorporate safeguards against corruption, identify trusted, sometimes nontraditional partners, and evaluate the footprint of an intervention to identify its impact on corruption—including whether it reinforces corrupt incentives.

“Similarly, efforts to promote social cohesion can easily backfire, especially if assistance is provided to one group and excludes another. If such initiatives are not implemented carefully, they can increase mistrust within communal groups, reinforce prejudice, and introduce new divisions. Some social cohesion efforts have attempted to promote integration between communities and increase the number of opportunities for community members to interact through platforms such as joint projects, sports, or cultural activities. However, merely increasing the number of interactions can be ineffective or counterproductive. Research in Niger showed that high quality engagement between groups, including efforts to create and implement initiatives toward a common goal, is more effective at reducing violence than solely increasing the number of interactions.

“The new Presidential Initiative presents an opportunity to address the core democratic deficits that lead to conflict. However, there is still more to be done to ensure that U.S. government efforts to reinvigorate democracy globally are meaningful, particularly in fragile settings.

“Addressing the governance drivers of conflict and strengthening political institutions require a strategic vision that often lies outside of short-term technical assistance. In order to ensure the new $424.4 million in funding does not go to waste, U.S. policies and programs must be sensitive to existing and brewing conflicts if they are to achieve their intended impact…”

Up ArrowTop