Strengthening Democracy With the Global Fragility Act: Getting Political Transformation Right

“Planning teams from across the U.S. government are racing to begin implementing the long-awaited Global Fragility Act (GFA), after the White House earlier this month announced the four countries (Haiti, Libya, Mozambique, and Papua New Guinea) and one region (Littoral West Africa) that will be the priority areas of focus based on the administration’s updated strategy. The new law, which Congress passed more than two years ago, and the U.S. strategy to carry it out were eight years in the making, and aim to prevent the kind of armed conflict that has engulfed 32 countries around the world and driven more than 80 million people from their homes worldwide, even before the 11 million seeking shelter from Russia’s war on Ukraine that escalated in February.

The GFA thus can become an integral part of the Biden administration’s strategy for global democratic renewal. The on-going ‘democracy’ recession is not just a crisis for democracy. It is a critical national security threat for the United States, which relies on the community of democracies for strategic alliances, for its geo-political and economic position, and to preserve the international rules-based order.

“The April 1 White House announcement updating the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability rightfully makes ‘elevat(ing) democracy, human rights, and governance’ a guiding principle. The United States will ‘work with partner governments and communities to foster legitimate, inclusive, transparent, and accountable political systems that reduce fragility.’

“Recent research and experience on the ground with programs our respective organizations have carried out to support democracy abroad points to several lessons the U.S. government should apply to strengthen governance in a way that will be sustainable. Four lessons in particular stand out.

“The United States must identify and support these kinds of natural leaders and systems that deliver for citizens, rather than always focusing resources on strengthening central government institutions that would seek to supplant informal systems long before they are ready, if they ever are. In countries in Africa’s Sahel region, for instance, the U.S. supports the training of local parajuristes (paralegals) to advise citizens on how to pursue justice within both customary and state systems. In most cases, it is unwise to bypass the central government entirely because doing so would risk creating parallel ‘states’ as well as undercutting, or further weakening, overall state legitimacy. Therefore, giving citizens choice and agency in how they access justice and exercise their rights reinforces the principle of citizen-responsive governance, and reminds local justice authorities where they get their legitimacy – the citizens.

Finally, embrace political transformation as a prerequisite to achieving long-term peace and stability, but plan for the risks such change can pose. It would be easy for the U.S. government to work on the margins of governance deficits affecting GFA priority countries and not try to disrupt the political power systems at the core of power disparities and fragility. To rollout the same shop-worn playbook, however, would be to miss an opportunity to support local democracy advocates’ efforts to transform their political system in a way that lays a foundation for long-term stability.

“The Global Fragility Act is an opportunity to make critical improvements to the way the United States promotes democracy in fragile states. For too long, the U.S. government has approached democracy support in conflict-affected countries the same as it would in a peaceful middle-income nation. If the Biden administration is truly committed to increasing the impact of the still meager U.S. budget for democracy assistance – at $3.2 billion, it pales in comparison to the $773 billion defense budget and is the equivalent of one-fourth the cost of a single aircraft carrier – it would move away from a preconceived U.S. perspective on what democracy and governance should look like. Instead, U.S. assistance must respond to the unique political challenges of state fragility: exclusionary, informal elite political power systems; “unique” governance capacities; and the political marginalization and alienation of significant parts of the population – youth, women, and ethnic and religious groups.

“The International Monetary Fund’s conditioned disbursements in Ukraine in the years before the war escalated in February provided a promising model. Ukraine’s civil society identified anti-corruption measures that were imperative, and the IMF required the government to implement them. Once civil society verified compliance, the IMF would release its funds. The arrangement empowered civil society and established its all-important role in monitoring government, including in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s first years in office. Because Ukraine’s elites needed the IMF funding to keep the economy stable and thus maintain power, it was influential leverage for systems and behavior change. Diplomacy must go beyond the standard playbook of sanctions and statements, and include new carrots and sticks that will change elite behavior and strengthen the alternative points of political power that will deliver citizen-responsive governance.

Governance Resilience: Because governance structures and systems in fragile states don’t look the same as formal state structures in Western countries, it is often difficult to identify their strengths. This includes identifying and reinforcing their points of resilience – those elements that make local or national systems better able to absorb shocks and address grievances – which may lie in customary systems, cultural traditions, or highly local political balancing systems. The GFA must adopt partner-led democracy-support approaches to harness and disseminate local innovation and success. To do so means taking the time to identify governance resilience and participatory processes in all forms, elevating good-governance champions within both formal and informal systems; and finding innovative ways for governance and civil society actors to diffuse and integrate locally legitimate and inclusive governance approaches.

… “The U.S. Congress developed the Global Fragility Act to ensure success in preventing and ending violent conflict in other countries. But if successful, it also can be integral to the U.S. goal of democratic renewal — to support citizens’ demands globally for more and better democracy.”

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